Big Mac and Big Brother

Posted: Nov 11, 2003 12:00 AM

If, as matters stand already, the House and the Senate can't come together on Medicare drug policy, wait until the federal government pronounces obesity a disease. We'll be able to burn up a few thousand calories a day just flapping our jaws over the varied implications of such a novel take on an immemorial plight.

Don't bet against it. Avoirdupois, as we used delicately to call the overweight state, and the social implications arising from it constitute a political topic of considerable heft. And not just with regard to the American Obesity Association's call for declaring obesity a disease, treatable under health insurance.

"This year," relates The New York Times, "150 bills have been introduced in state legislatures, more than double the number the previous year -- and 10 in the last six weeks alone ... " Bills to do what? Why, of course, to Address the Problem in the political manner, with laws, regulations, demands, subsidies, you name it.

Political warriors ride to the sound of the guns. The guns, so to speak, are going off all around. The percentage of Americans at least 100 pounds overweight quadrupled between 1986 and 2000. Entrepreneurs understand what is going on: The Amplestuff Co. offers a line of products for the amply stuffed: seat belt extenders and scales that register personal weights of up to 1,000 pounds. Casket companies nowadays find significant demand for boxes 44 inches wide vs. the long-standard 24. And so on.

It is malicious to make fun of any disability. A point, nonetheless, requiring more thought is that it is malicious to give the government work for which it isn't even qualified, such as keeping watch and ward over how Americans eat and exercise.

Weight legislation is the latest form of Big Brother welfarism, or will be once this stuff -- for instance, required nutrition information on restaurant menus -- starts to pass, as it very well might. A decade or so ago, the idea of generally imposed bans on cigarette smoking was from Mars -- distant and scary. Then, Mars moved into alignment with Earth's political trends. Try finding these days a restaurant or business office in which to light up.

A comparison of this sort could hearten the American Obesity Association, which invites the politicians to think of obesity, like lung cancer, as a condition requiring medical care. That might be fine except for: 1) the documentable fact that many if not most people of girth just plain eat too much while exercising too little and 2) the cost of their medical care would come out of the hides, as it were, of those who don't eat too much and do take occasional brisk walks.

Moral choice isn't really in vogue as a modern concept. Modern thought teaches us that only a few things (e.g., supporting George W. Bush) are truly culpable. Other afflictions, to speak broadly, are due to our genes or to the way our fathers/mothers/classmates/teachers treated us when we were young and vulnerable.

The villains of the food fight are fast-food companies like McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Allegedly, because they sell all this stuff that ruins people's lives, they should be reined in.

Horsefeathers! To live is to choose. To choose a Big Mac with a 24-ounce Coke in preference to water and green salad is to live. Not, perhaps, to live as well or as long, but, then, the life of freedom is more than a series of boxes to be checked off on orders, or overbearing hints, from the government.

What the government's would-be enforcers propose is approximately what that quaint old institution, the family, used to provide: oversight, supervision, instruction in the particulars of life. It would be unfair to blame the obesity "epidemic" solely on the family's ongoing decline as arbiter of culture and standards. It is worth remembering anyway that, where and when the universe is properly ordered, Big Daddy outranks Big Brother.