RALEIGH – In the collected wisdom of human experience, some matters defy easy generalization.
One sage urges us to look before we leap so we don’t stumble into a trap or chasm. But another sage warns that he who hesitates is lost, since the perils of indecision can be as dire as the perils of precipitous action.
When you are making decisions for yourself and your family, you can adopt whatever strategy you think best fits your situation, talents, and needs. You can leap or lope. But when public officials seek to make sound decisions on behalf of others – by taxing, spending, or regulating – there is little doubt about which strategy is the proper one.
That is, look before you “lead”. The consequences of wrong action are usually much greater than the consequences of inaction.
This presumption is built into the very architecture of any constitutional government that seeks to protect human liberty against the abuse of state power. The separation and balance of powers, for example, makes it hard for any one branch of government – legislative, executive, or judicial – to impose its will on the population without seeking a broader consensus. And in courts, prosecutors must satisfy a burden of proof before government can impose fines or other punishments.
The inherent bias against government action is immensely frustrating to some government actors. They see leaping as praiseworthy and loping as irresponsible, even effete. They are convinced they know better than us what to do and how to do it. Aren’t they the experts? Don’t they intend only the best for us? Why shouldn’t they be allowed to lead us to where we want, or at least should want, to go?
You can see this mindset at play on the issue of obesity. Ranging from local school officials to state legislators to the First Lady of the United States, the leaders of a new anti-obesity movement seek to use public education, government programs, tax policy, and regulations to promote healthier lifestyles.
Urging us to eat better and exercise more is fine. But when they go beyond persuasion to indoctrination and legislation, they are guilty of the charge of leaping into a thorny thicket – and dragging us along for the scratchy ride.
Many things that government busybodies think they know about obesity are either false, misleading, or misunderstood. They assume, for example, that taxing fatty foods or soft drinks and regulating the location of fast-food machines and restaurants would reduce obesity.
Probably not, according to research published in a recent edition of Regulation magazine. One article looked at soft-drink taxes. The link between drink consumption and obesity is tenuous at best, say Cal State economists Michael Marlow and Alden Shiers, and the most likely consequence of new or higher beverage taxes would be to shift the cost of government to lower-income households, not improve public health.
Regarding dining out, Michael Anderson of the University of California at Berkeley and David Matsa of Northwestern University show that there is no significant relationship between restaurant location and obesity, and more importantly that there isn’t even a consistent relationship between restaurant patronage and obesity. Yes, people tend to consume more calories of food when they eat out rather than eat in, but the data suggest that people tend to compensate for that by consuming less during subsequent meals at home. Their total caloric intake is unaffected.
In short, access to restaurants isn’t the problem. Some people tend to eat too much and exercise too little. Punishing the entire universe of consumers, through tax and regulatory policy, is the wrong response to the problem.
If politicians learned to look more before they “led,” perhaps we would be more inclined to see them as leaders worth following.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.