For those of you who have been living under a thin-but-not-too-thin rock, there’s a debate raging in the news and blogosphere about thin-privilege, fat-acceptance and public health. One of the latest installments is the Atlantic’s A Case for Shaming Obese People, Tastefully.
The article quotes a “bioethicist” named Daniel Callahan who justifies fat shaming on the grounds that it’s good for them. He claims, with zero evidence, that creating more stigma around being fat can help encourage the overweight to make better food and exercise choices. He then cites shared health care costs as justification for shaming people with costly fat-related illnesses like diabetes, blaming them for being drains on the system.
There are three main reasons why everyone, libertarians in particular, should stand up to this line of thinking. First, fat shaming doesn’t work. Second, the forced collectivism of Obamacare is the problem here, not fat people. Third, fat shaming is at best thinly-veiled victim blaming, and libertarians already have a bad rap on that front.
The burden of proof is always on the person making the recommendation, so I challenge the Callahans of the world to provide any evidence whatsoever that fat shaming and stigma are even loosely associated with weight loss. While I wait, I’ll list a few reasons they may have a hard time doing so.
Fat shaming doesn’t lower health costs
The Callahans of the world argue that if we shame enough people for being fat, then those fatties will finally realize the error of their ways and hop on the treadmill. When they finally stop being so darn fat, we’ll all get to pay less in healthcare costs. Score!
I hate to burst their bubbles, but it is by now a well-established fact that obesity has many causes beyond simple diet and exercise habits. Factors influencing body weight include genetics, poverty, education level and illness.
In addition, if the goal is a healthier populace, fat shamers need to recognize that there’s a lot more to health than weight. Newsflash! There are many fat people who are actually healthier than many skinny people.
Finally, not only is there no evidence that shaming leads to weight loss, but even if it did, having fewer obese people in the population wouldn’t even save on health care costs. The evidence actually shows the opposite: Because obese people tend to die sooner, they actually cost less over the course of their lives than so-called healthy-weight people.
Collectivism is the real perpetrator
Libertarianism at its core emphasizes individual liberty and rejects the centralized control of collectivism. We reject collectivism because we know the results of everyone paying for everyone else. Collectivism leads to justification for all sorts of interventions into what should be individual choices with individual consequences.
Fat is no exception. If we don’t like paying for other people’s choices (and we shouldn’t), the solution is to reject being on the hook for the choices in the first place, not forcing people to make choices that we think are right. Coming out against fat shaming is a wonderful opportunity for libertarians to point out the negative consequences of collectivist action. It’s also a great opportunity to stand up for the fat people, and the skinny people, victimized by collectivism.
Mean people suck
The difference between guilt and shame has to do with who you are versus what you do. Making someone feel guilty for wrongdoing can be helpful. But making someone feel ashamed of who they are is cruel and heartbreaking. Fat isn’t a behavior. It’s not a habit. It’s a state of being with varied causes and varied consequences. As libertarians, we should focus on individual liberty and human flourishing. As such, we have no place telling other people that what they are is essentially shameful.
What does work
So fat shaming is ineffective, takes attention away from the real problem (collectivism), and is essentially cruel and counter-productive to human flourishing. So what should libertarians who are concerned about the so-called “obesity epidemic” do to help?
First, we can attack, and vigorously defend those who are already attacking, government contributions to obesity.
For example, we should work to thwart government’s attempts to limit citizens’ access to information on healthy eating like the Institute for Justice is doing in North Carolina. IJ is defending a food blogger from government attempts to censor his blog based on the fact that he is not licensed to dispense healthy eating advice.
We should also seek to limit the influence that food manufacturers have on US government healthy eating recommendations. When kids are taught how to eat based on what’s best for big agriculture and not sound science, obesity results. Even worse than that, government has put in place tariffs and subsidies that incentivize food manufacturers to actually make food less healthy.
Collectivists would have libertarians just accept collectivism and leave us to counter-productively fight over who is taking more than their “fair share” of health care dollars. But there are plenty of ways to help people make better food choices which also support individual liberty, help fight coercion and corporatism and encourage people to treat each other with the respect and kindness we all deserve.