NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

America's Obesity Problem

November 1, 2011

Though its prevalence in the headlines has been somewhat obscured by numerous economic concerns, the American obesity problem has at many times in the past few years reached the forefront of controversial policymaking.  In his new book, "Heavy! The Surprising Reasons America Is the Home of the Free -- and Land of the Fat," Richard McKenzie, the Walter B. Gerken Professor of Enterprise and Society in the Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine, seeks to explain the primary causes behind the physical growth of American obesity.  His findings point to a number of culprits that often avoid blame in national discussion of the problem:

  • The growth in world trade freedom.
  • The downfall of communism.
  • The spread of free market economics.
  • The rise of women's liberation.
  • The long-term fall in real minimum wage.
  • The rise of competitive markets on a global scale.

Additionally, McKenzie continues his investigation of the obesity problem by exploring the numerous consequences that it will have for American policymaking.  Among them, he identifies greater fuel consumption and emissions of greenhouse gases, reduced fuel efficiency of cars and planes, growth in health insurance costs and fewer insured Americans, and reductions in the wages of heavy people.

Finally, McKenzie takes his evaluation one step further by looking into the implications of these causes in identifying potential solutions.  In doing so, he finds that government intervention to make people healthier, though well-intentioned, threatens to create a "fat war" that pits the healthy against the obese.  He offers an alternative, free market solution that avoids policies such as "fat taxes" and "fat bans." 

For Americans to retain their cherished economic freedoms of choice, heavy people must be held fully responsible for their weight-related costs and not be allowed to shift blame for their weight to others.  By internalizing the costs of poor health, the public problem of obesity can be made a private one, and individuals will be more incentivized to address their personal health issues.

Source: Joan Robinson, "Press Release: Heavy! The Surprising Reasons America Is the Home of the Free -- and Land of the Fat?" Springer Publications, October 2011.

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