Libertarians Let Fat-shaming Statists Off the Hook While the Collectivists Win


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.

  • William

    Cathy, this is an excellent essay and I think you hit the nail on the head. To play devil’s advocate for a bit, consider a point you made in the third paragraph of the last section, regarding government attempts to limit the discussion of healthy food choices. There is a current movement to require food makers to label foods that use GMOs as such. If our goal is to enhance access to information regarding the healthiness of food, is this a policy that libertarians ought to/can support (regardless of the particular facts about GMOs)?

    I’m curious to see what you think about this. As for myself, I think such a policy is at worst immoral due to the violation of property rights it entails, and at best, a) possibly helpful but probably unnecessary, as some food manufacturers would likely do it voluntarily, and b) dangerous because any time there is a regulation, there is the risk of cronyism. Besides, I think having the government determine what is healthy and what is not is not only often faulty (the FDA doesn’t exactly have a good history doing that), but dangerous insofar it helps establish the idea that it is legitimate for the government to regulate the food choices available to consumers.

    • I do think GMO labeling laws are a violation of property rights, an opportunity for cronyism and totally unnecessary.

  • I would think that the health care costs associated with obesity would be be a strong incentive to lose weight in and of itself. Hiding that cost from those people by spreading it onto society as a whole could be seen as subsidizing obesity, making it more affordable for people to be obese (assuming that their obesity is directly adding to health care costs, which as you point out isn’t always the case).

  • I like the way you write without throwing around slander and vitriol in the form of “They are out to get us.” Your characterization of shaming is also spot on. Thank you for that! I challenge a few of your notions. The idea that the cost of someone’s decisions can be made their sole responsibility can’t always be assured. Nor can you at the same time suggest it’s their burden while suggesting that their burden is partly caused by another party (the food industry). While you do suggest we should limit their influence, that also suggests a collective effort will be required since it can’t be done alone. McDonalds doesn’t pay for their own employees health care so they’re not going to pay for the health care of those their food has damaged unless by judiciary action. There are a lot of costs that we endure as part of a forced collectivism. We certainly don’t offload the cost of terrorism onto the terrorists. We bear that cost as a collective (and not by choice) as do we when a resource of the commons is involved (we all bear the cost of air pollution and collectively have to work to remedy the problem). When I read “Second, the forced collectivism of Obamacare is the problem here” I see an avoidance of the issue where obesity and the food industry issues preceded Obamacare. Thus, forced collectivism, while it is far from the ideal solution, was brought about because of the issue rather than causing the actual problem. Though it may become a problem as most generic solutions do.

    In short, I’d like you to address why libertarians support the forced collectivism of national security but not the forced collectivism of national health care. I acknowledge the Constitutional foundation for the military, and I also acknowledge that the Constitution can always be amended to include national health care.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I didn’t think you were going to attack the forced collectivism of national security, but I will go ahead and pull out my AnCap card and say that I do not support the forced collectivism of national security, or of anything. Statist libertarians will have to answer that one for you 🙂

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    “Fat isn’t a behavior. It’s not a habit. It’s a state of being with varied causes and varied consequences.”

    No. fat is the RESULT of habits and behaviors. Again, the idea that
    there was a massive mutation of genes that somehow took a population
    with very few fat people just two generations ago and created a population with 40% OBESE people,
    is laughable. There was a mutation of our lifestyles and lifestyles are
    made up of, amongst other things, habits and behaviors. Look through old photo albums, and you will be hard pressed to find fat people. You certainly will not find any obese people. The behaviors that ARE under our control are to blame and behaviors require people to carry them out. People are fat because they make poor choices, but there is no secret here to what the good choices are. Certainly, it is probably clear as day as to what POOR choices are.

    As Libertarians we believe in personal responsibility. And while I am ready to cut some slack to kids with horrible parents, I am not ready to extend that slack to adults who simply put, do not give a crap. If they cared, they wouldn’t be fat.