Let Them Eat Fruit Kebabs

Commentary, Role of Government, Roger Kerr

No one would have been surprised to read recently of the high school tuck
shop operator who threw in the towel because she couldn’t make a profit
under the government’s new healthy eating regime.

No surprise either to learn that a group of students fundraising for a trip to
Japan cashed in on the tuck shop-free interlude to run a week-long daily
sausage sizzle and baking stall. The local dairy also helped fill the gap in
the market, turning a brisk trade in pies, chippies and fizzy drinks.

More evidence of the law of natural consequences in action and the follies
of social engineering.

The ministry of health’s new food and beverage classification system which
kicked in on 1 June this year bans tuck shops from selling such food which
it classifies, quaintly, as ‘occasional’ items, meaning “provision should be
limited to about one occasion per term” (presumably one sausage or pie
per pupil per term). Are these people real?

Various government departments and agencies, including the sportsfunding
body SPARC on its super-priced new website Mission On, have put
forward a range of healthy fundraising options for parents and pupils, such
as selling sunscreen, vegetables, unbuttered popcorn and fruit kebabs.

Fruit kebabs? Those of us who have done time manning a sausage sizzle
on the sidelines of a polar wind-swept soccer field can imagine what a hit
they would be. Not to mention the health and safety issues that would arise
in putting them together.

Like moves to limit the number of ‘undesirable’ businesses such as liquor or
takeaway outlets, killing off tuck shops is just one more in a long line of
government interferences in our personal lives, designed to ‘denormalise’
certain behaviours and relieve us of having to make moral choices and
judgments, especially those of us who may be deemed more ‘at risk’ of
making bad choices.

Rather than assuming people are generally fit to make their own decisions
and allowing them to bear or enjoy the consequences, good and bad, the
paternalist state focuses on diminishing their access or temptation, treating
them as weak, impressionable victims, prey to advertisers and retailers,
who need to be protected from their own foolishness.

As British Conservative leader David Cameron said in a brave speech in
Glasgow last week, “We talk about people being “at risk of obesity” instead
of talking about people who eat too much or take too little exercise … it’s as
if these things – obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction – are purely external
events, like a plague or bad weather. Of course, circumstances – where
you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your
parents make – have a huge impact. But social problems are often the
consequence of the choices that people make. There is a danger of
becoming quite literally a de-moralised society…”

Cameron raises a fundamental question about the role of government and
the limits of its right to control individuals or enforce certain behaviours,
whether through physical, legal or moral coercion.

The relevant principle embraced by most free democracies was famously
set out by John Stuart Mill in 1859 in On Liberty, a rational defence of the
freedom of individuals and their rights against the state. His argument was
that: “… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any
member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to
others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.
He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better
for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions
of others, to do so would be wise or even right. These are good reasons for
remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or
entreating him, but not for compelling him or visiting him with any evil in
case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to
deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else.… In the part
which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.”

Limiting the availability of fattening foods, like moves to ban the advertising
of unhealthy products, restrict ‘undesirable’ businesses or determining what
lightbulbs people may buy, flies in the face of the very basis of a free
society. As David Cameron argued, they are incremental steps towards a
society where individuals are ‘infantilised’, no longer capable of self
determination, and where normal behaviour is that defined and condoned
by the state.

Such steps should be resisted. Decisions about what food our children
should eat are the responsibility of their families, just as it is to teach them
right from wrong, good from bad, and the law of natural consequences.

This article was first published in the Otago Daily Times on 18 July 2008.