Too many Americans are not behaving correctly, according to their masters. They do not get enough exercise. They eat the wrong foods. They eat too much.
Especially the children. A greater percentage of them is obese than ever before. Obviously the nation’s parents have lost control of the situation, so it’s time for the Big Parent to step in with a solution. The U.S. Senate now has a bill before it that has the purpose of making Americans slimmer. Especially the children.
What does Frédéric Bastiat have to say about all this?
Not anything directly because he died more than a century and a half ago. But this French political philosopher was such a shrewd student of human nature that his observations are as on-target today as in his own lifetime. Bastiat still speaks to the current headlines. And he would say Congress should scrap this imperial legislation—known as the Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act—and stop poking its nose into an arena in which it does not belong.
Bastiat’s argument would be that the very existence of the bill indicates a malignant concept of the relationship between the individual and the state. He believed the legitimate function of government is to protect life, liberty and property. To move beyond that limited scope—even with the solicitous goal of helping citizens shed pounds—is to pervert justice.
Well, Bastiat must have been a colossal spoilsport. After all, doesn’t government have a right to be compassionate? Overweight kids run the risk of developing chronic diseases. Overweight adults potentially shorten their lifespans. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman, stated in an Associated Press dispatch that “obesity is our nation’s fastest-rising public-health problem.” Another co-sponsor, Tennessee Republican Bill Frist, is a medical doctor who believes obesity is preventable, so shouldn’t government try to prevent it?
Bastiat would not see the “good” intentions behind the bill but rather another example of the historic obsession of an anointed ruling class to regiment the citizens and mold them to its own purposes—and, you understand, the molding is for their own good.
As Bastiat noted in his slim book entitled "The Law," these “great” ruling elites—“legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on”—“place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it.” To these elites, “mankind is merely inert matter, receiving life, organization, morality, and prosperity from the power of the state.” The rulers maintain that “society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to its inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are so perverse.”
You have trouble keeping your weight down? Of course you do. You are naturally prone to personal mismanagement. So “the legislators must make plans for the people in order to save them from themselves.”
Bastiat traced this ruling mentality back to early history. The powerful Egyptian dynasties were so regimented that “no one was permitted to be useless to the state.” The Greeks, despite a brief dabbling in democratic government for selected social classes, were actually “docile,” allowing themselves to “be formed by the law for the public good.”
French theorist Jean Jacques Rousseau, supposedly an advocate of democracy, had a vision of rule by an elite. Bastiat quoted Rousseau: “He who would dare to undertake the political creation of a people ought to believe that he can, in a manner of speaking, transform human nature.”
The American Revolution, which led to a successful and stable nation, elicited no such grandiose schemes for human transformation. The polity that it produced left people alone to seek the best interests of themselves and their fellow citizens with minimal interference by government. Obesity, then, was a private matter to be addressed by the individual affected, who was free to seek help from others who might or might not voluntarily offer their services. But it was none of government’s business.
By contrast the French Revolution, which quickly deteriorated into anarchy and chaos, was driven by republicans who fashioned a unique calling for themselves to become a new kind of royalty. Bastiat quoted the words of Louis Antoine Léon de Saint-Just, a leader of the revolution (italics in text): “The legislator commands the future. It is for him to will the good of mankind. It is for him to make men what he wills them to be.” Saint-Just was a principal collaborator in the Reign of Terror until the tables turned and he was summarily executed.
Some U.S. Senators are in the process of willing people to lose weight. Bastiat’s words apply: “They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep.”
The Improved Nutrition and Physical Activity Act, which is seeing life under the improbable acronym IMPACT, has plenty of support. The ruling classes always are surrounded by sycophants and opportunists. IMPACT proposes more than $200 million a year to be ladled out into programs and projects aimed at bringing shrinkage to the sheep. Bastiat would call this funding plunder, a perversion of justice. The $200 million represents property transferred from owners against their consent and apportioned into the pockets of the privileged—“the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few.”
Ah, but the cause is noble and the sheep so helpless. Yes, “passive mankind” is awaiting “the power of the law being used by a great man to propel the people.”
The roots of IMPACT and much other legislation out of Congress are deep. They bypass the American Revolution and reach all the way to the Pharaohs of Egypt.