First, do no harm

Posted: Aug 29, 2004 12:00 AM

What do fat people, and the Swift Boat Vets for Truth have in common? They are also the products of "iatrogenic government."

In medicine an iatrogenic condition or ailment is one that is caused by the physician, either deliberately or by accident. Give too much medicine, or the wrong kind, and the negative consequences are iatrogenic.

The late Sen. Pat Moynihan coined the phrase "iatrogenic government" to describe problems that were created by the intent to cure. What he had in mind was the tendency of the drug war to create more problems than it solves. But the same thing goes on all the time.

Take fat people. As you've no doubt heard, obesity is on the rise in the United States - its prevalence among adults has grown by 74 percent since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Obesity (and sedentary lifestyles) may soon outpace cigarette smoking as the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths in America. And that's the ironic part. The War on Tobacco has helped to create the need for a War on Fat.

A host of studies have recently shown that a significant part of the obesity "epidemic" is a result of the decline in smoking. Cigarettes, we all know, are an appetite suppressant. They're also a good substitute for a Krispy Kreme doughnut if you're looking to kill time. A recent survey of the research literature in The Public Interest found that "each 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes produces a 2 percent increase in the number of obese people." In other words, every new cigarette tax and regulatory burden placed on the tobacco companies creates more fat people.

Of course there are other factors. One of the amusing ones is feminism. The entry of millions of women into the workforce has left less time for mothers to cook nutritious meals at home. Instead, these harried super-moms pop Hot Pockets (mmm, Hot Pockets) into the microwave - or they just go out to McDonald's (mmm, Mickey Ds). One study finds that an increase in the hours worked by mothers can result in up to "one-third of the growth in obesity among children in certain families."

In other words, laws that make it easier for women to enter the workforce also make it easier for kids to balloon-up like Violet Beauregard, the girl who ate the experimental gum in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Of course, capitalism's a big culprit, too, so we'll just call it even.

But the point is that when social engineers attempt to make things better, they're just as likely to make things worse or create new problems. This is more than the law of unintended consequences, because "iatrogenic government" implies that our political physicians can't stop meddling with the patient, even when their meddling is causing the problems.

Take these allegedly pernicious 527s - the independent political organizations which offend liberals when they criticize Kerry's war record (but please them when they call Bush a Nazi). These 527s are the direct result of "reformers" trying to muzzle political speech. The basic story goes like this. Free people (and the groups they form) say unpleasant things about a popular politician or cause. Journalists and politicians don't like this, for many reasons, but mostly because they don't like free agents messing things up. So the political establishment decides to regulate who can speak in politics, to create a barrier to entry for the competitors who aren't already elected or who don't already have a voice through a newspaper, movie studio or TV show. It's a way to make politics tidier.

The problem is that each "reform" creates more problems. Political Action Committees, which are now vilified, were a major accomplishment of previous reformers. Then the PACs became too powerful. The limits on so-called "hard money" created the perfidious currency known as "soft-money." The effort to get rid of soft money created these new 527s.

Every time these "problems" appear the social physicians think the answer is to keep upping the dosage of their medicine, when the truth is the reverse. Already President Bush - who has been captured by the politics of campaign finance "reform" - wants to ban 527s. Well, that wouldn't be necessary if he hadn't signed the law creating them.

My solution is the oldest medicine - fresh air and sunlight. Let Americans participate in politics as they see fit. If they want to give money to politicians, they should do it in the bright sunlight of full disclosure. We have a right to know where a politicians' money and support is coming from. But beyond that, we don't have the right to muzzle his supporters.

In fact, fresh air and sunlight sounds like just what the doctor order for the fat folks, too.