William Saletan has an interesting column up today on the anti-fat litigation and regulatory movement newly afoot. The Surgeon General apparently said the fight against obesity would “dwarf 9-11.” Saletan previews the stages of the coming battle: (1) activists will define the harmed class as a particularly susceptible one (kids); (2) experts will show how that the food industry and its audience (the obese) are externalizing costs on the rest of society; and (3) regulators will redefine junk-food as non-food.
This stages-of-battle could probably be generalized to most consumer protection/muckracking crusades. But why do we need all of this work to justify paternalistic interventions?
There are a few reasons, I think, but the most significant is that libertarians have been, relative to their number in American society, remarkably successful norm entrepreneurs. Over time, they have encouraged folks to think of consumption as an (a) individualized; (b) expression of freedom; that (c) is the product of free choice. And why not? The alternative, that folks’ tastes are created and managed by industry, that choice is limited, and that bad decisions abound, leads to increasingly large regulatory interventions that almost always turn sour.
The idea that we’re about to see a real resurgence of federal regulation seems farfetched, and I have to think that if obesity lawsuits ever got purchase (which they have not, to date) we’d see a rush to congress for immunity/preemption. That’s because, as Saletan alludes to, but my co-blogger Dan Filler has nailed, obesity is an example of a “risk society panic,” with no clear moral victims, but more importantly, no folk devils to focus society’s ire. Thus, whatever strategy activists come up with in the battle against fat, to justify uprooting the libertarian background rule, we’ll need a villain.