Wednesday 12 August 2009

And more on the new paternalism

Robin Hanson links to Megan McArdle's interview with Paul Campos on the war against obesity.

Short version of the interview: there's really not much that can be done to permanently make fat people thin; most current campaigns are fueled by moral panics about the need to do something about associated health care costs and by disdain for folks who become obese. Being thin is a marker of high status, and anti-obesity campaigns do a lot to reinforce that kind of social hierarchy while being utterly ineffective in improving health outcomes.
Megan: An economist recently pointed out that we don't encourage people to move to the country, even though rural people live more than three years longer than urban people, and the diffefence in their healthy life expectancy is even more outsized. Nor do we encourage people to find Jesus or get married. We target "unhealthy" behaviors that are already stigmatized.

Paul: Right, as Mary Douglas the anthropologist has pointed out, we focus on risks not on the basis of "rational" cost-benefit analysis, but because of the symbolic work focusing on those risks does -- most particularly signalling disapproval of certain groups and behaviors.In this culture fatness is a metaphor for poverty, lack of self-control, and other stuff that freaks out the new Puritans all across the ideological spectrum, which is why the war on fat is so ferocious -- it appeals very strongly to both the right and the left, for related if different reasons.

1 comment:

  1. Of course fatness used to be a metaphor for wealth back when poor people couldn't afford to be fat. Campos is right about some things but correctly pricing food (based on health, and environmental externalities) would not lower the obesity rate and make some "fat people thin"? I do not concur...