David Hoppe

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:: Free to be stupid

Our most basic right

By David Hoppe

A couple of Harvard researchers have come up with the dim and desperate idea that the only way to help a growing number of obese kids may be to take them away from their parents.

Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist, and Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and researcher, both of whom have affiliations with Harvard University, recently published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggesting that, in some cases, over- weight kids would be better off if the government put them in temporary foster care. This, Dr. Ludwig told the Associated Press, would be ethically preferable to obesity surgery, supporting, "not just the child but the whole family, with the goal of reuniting child and family as soon as possible." Dr. Ludwig added that some form of parenting education might be required.

Ludwig and Murtagh's proposal is dim because it flies in the face of the American idea of freedom. We Americans, for example, refuse to let the government control our guns. Every family can, if it chooses, become its own micro-militia. If we won't let Uncle Sam take away our semi-automatic guns, can Ludwig and Murtagh really think the day will come when we let him take away our plus-sized kids?

It is, of course, intriguing to imagine what America would be like if it were, in fact, the kind of place where a proposal like this could be implemented. An entire anti-obesity bureaucracy would have to be set up. The kids who were plucked from their homes might be sent to junior fat farms where they would not only be subjected to a diet of tofu, whole grains and heirloom tomatoes, but required to walk, run and play with one another for hours at a time without the support of electronic media or gadgets of any kind.

Parents would undergo a re-education regime: Good-bye to Big Gulps, pizza buffets and all-you-can-eat orders of baby back ribs. Forced marches would be conducted through local farmers markets and Quality Time Police (QTP) would show up, unannounced, to make sure that every household took the time to have dinner together most nights of the week.

Absurd as these notions are, they do nothing to diminish the hope many of us share that government might somehow intervene to make seemingly intractable situations better. This is the desperate strain in Ludwig and Murtagh's proposal.

At the root of the American idea of freedom is the rationalist belief that people can be trusted to act with enlightened self-interest. In his book Democracy in America , written in the 1830's, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans, " are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist each other, and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state."

But what happens if peoples' "regard for themselves" gets a little warped and they start doing things that not only seem counter-productive, but downright self-destructive?

We want the government to intervene. This is why we have schools - and why we're so frustrated with their performance. If all we wanted from our schools were to teach kids the essentials of reading, writing and arithmetic, there'd be no problem. But we require more than that. We want schools to act as surrogate parents for kids whose actual parents are either unwilling or unable to impart the sense of enlightened self-interest necessary for someone to become a contributing member of society.

School is viewed as the last chance that so-called civil society has of reaching an increasing number of kids who are otherwise at risk of being alienated and disenfranchised. Indeed, many kids count on school not just for learning but their daily bread, eating not one, but two meals there a day. Unfortunately, much of what's in those meals also contributes to -- you guessed it -- obesity.

It's desperate to think that government can instill values in people without a larger cultural context to reinforce them. But how else are you going to stem a tide of obesity in a society where bigger is better, more is good and impatience is a virtue?

If this kind of social engineering could actually work, it might be worth considering. The trouble is, things rarely turn out they way bureaucrats want them to. History is nothing if not a trail of unintended consequences. So while we fret over our population's billowing waistline and what it costs us in healthcare, lost productivity, and depressed self esteem, we go on doing whatever we damn well please - because we feel like it.

It's easy to dismiss a proposal like Ludwig and Murtagh's. You can call it meddlesome or, worse, plain stupid. But this is America, after all, where the freedom to be stupid is the most basic freedom of them all.