The current obesity “crisis” represents a significant triumph for private enterprise and freedom. For the first time in human history, people in most of the world are more worried about the risks of gaining weight than about the risks of starving. But this triumph is being discussed as a crisis which demands government to take action, and that action invariably involves more government restrictions over private enterprise and our freedoms. Unfortunately, the obesity “crisis” is but one of many examples of the successes of our economic system—a system based primarily on private property and voluntary exchange—being treated as failures. Such “failures” are then used to justify government actions that reduce both our prosperity and our freedom.
This is not to suggest that obesity and other concerns that arise in market economies are never problems, but when they are, they are the problems of increasing prosperity that inevitably result from overcoming the far worse problems of poverty. Without recognizing this, we face the risk of solving the former problems by reducing our ability to solve the latter. I first consider the obesity “crisis” in some detail and then discuss other examples of the successes of private enterprise and freedom being presented as failures.
Overcoming Starvation Becomes a Problem
Until well into the twentieth century, being overweight was a sign of affluence and good health. Starvation may have never been a serious concern in the United States, but until the recent move toward private markets in China and India lifted hundreds of millions out of wretched poverty, starvation was a genuine threat for much of Asia’s population. And the threat of starvation in the poorest countries of the world, though often serious, is less than it would be without the transfers of food to these countries from those societies that rely primarily on private enterprise.
Even in the United States, getting sufficient calories, not to mention a balanced diet, was a struggle over much of our history. This struggle is reflected in the research of Robert Fogel and his associates, who have examined the height, weight, and longevity of surviving Union soldiers from the Civil War. Young American men in the early 1860s were shorter, lighter, had more illnesses, and lived much shorter lives than their counterparts in the Baby Boom generation. Poor nutrition, particularly during infancy and childhood, is seen as a contributing factor. As late as the twentieth century, a beached whale would have attracted a crowd on American shores, but a crowd with long knives more anxious to get more fat in their diets (a real problem for many) than with getting the whale back into its natural habitat. Long hours of hard physical work, both outside and inside the home, ensured that few of the working class were overweight. As late at the 1940s, the claim that the poor would soon be more likely to be overweight than the rich would have been considered preposterous. Yet this is exactly what has happened.
Ironically, one reason for the problem of obesity is that most agricultural jobs have been eliminated in response to market incentives. Private-sector entrepreneurs and firms have found profit in developing ways to grow more food at less cost by substituting capital and chemicals for farm labor. The result is more food grown on less land by fewer workers. Tens of millions of agricultural workers have been released to innovate new products, improve old products, and expand the production of both in jobs that are far more interesting, safe, and productive than the ones they replaced. Increasing agricultural productivity, along with the general increase in wealth, clearly allowed people to purchase more calories in fresher, more nutritious, and tastier foods for steadily decreasing amounts of labor.
Given that people evolved to avoid starvation, not obesity, it is difficult for many of us to avoid gaining weight when surrounded by an abundance of convenient, low-cost, and tasty food. Our natural response when food is available is to store as many calories in our fat cells as possible to sustain us until the next successful hunt. Of course, the next successful “hunt” almost always occurs three times a day, not to mention those trips to a vending machine. Couple this with the sedentary jobs that economic progress has allowed us to substitute for physically demanding ones, and it is hardly surprising that a large percentage of the population has become overweight or obese.
Until quite recently, being significantly overweight was considered a personal problem, if a problem at all. An overweight adult was assumed competent to evaluate the personal costs and benefits of eating more than was consistent with his recommended weight, and he could alter (or not alter) caloric intake accordingly. I remember a talk in the 1970s at the University of Colorado by Israel Kirzner in which he pointed out that the market is often criticized for giving people what they want. Kirzner defended the market against this criticism by saying it is analogous to blaming the waiter for obesity. I was impressed at the time with how effective this argument was. I fear it would be less effective today.
Increasingly it is not those who are overweight who are seen as responsible for their condition. They are more likely to be considered the victims of “waiters” in the form of those who are responding to consumer demand by making more and tastier food conveniently available at ever-lower real prices. Instead of seeing this as a significant victory in the battle against poverty and hunger, we hear from trial lawyers, health officials, and other politically influential activists that it is a national crisis requiring immediate government action.
The success of market incentives and freedom in effectively eliminating the threat of starvation has, in the minds of the public, been converted into a failure that is being used to justify further undermining the power of markets and freedom to continue replacing the problems of poverty with the problems of prosperity.
This excerpt comes from Dwight R. Lee's article "Nothing Fails Like the Success of Private Enterprise and Freedom," originally published in the Spring 2009 print issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Dwight R. Lee is a professor of global markets and freedom at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.