Jacob Sullum

Likewise, John Banzhaf told the Obesity Policy Report, "I don't think the government can order (people) to exercise." Why not? Which is more likely to make Americans thinner: suing McDonald's, or mandatory calisthenics in the public square every morning?

If you assume that slimming us down is a proper goal of government, it's hard to see the objection to policies that show promise of actually working, as opposed to enriching lawyers or making a statement. But perhaps there is something wrong with the assumption.

The main argument for government intervention in this area is that all of us pick up the tab for obesity-related disease when treatment is covered by taxpayer-funded health care programs. A recent study in the journal Health Affairs put the total medical cost at $93 billion a year, about half of it covered by Medicaid and Medicare.

But since overweight people tend to die earlier than slim people, they may not use as much health care in old age or draw on Social Security as much. Hence the net financial result could be a wash or, as in the case of smokers, taxpayer savings.

More important, the argument based on taxpayer-funded medical treatment proves too much. This rationale could be used to justify almost any interference in our personal lives, since nearly everything we do carries some risk of injury or disease. As University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein pointed out at the AEI conference, the public policy problem is the subsidy, not the behavior.

One of Epstein's colleagues at the University of Chicago, economist Tomas Philipson, put weight trends in perspective by showing that Americans have been getting fatter for at least a century because of technological changes that have made food cheaper and work less strenuous. Those changes come with a cost, but on balance they have been tremendously beneficial. "We are better off being fatter and richer," Philipson said. "I would not want to go back."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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