There is a bill on the floor of the house in Mississippi to “prohibit certain food establishments from serving food to any person who is obese, based on criteria proscribed by the state department of health.”
This nonsense makes the work of Mayor Bloomberg seem harmless. What should I rail on here? Should it be the destruction of the rights of individuals to eat where they please, and to deal with the consequences of their own behavior? No, that’s too easy. Should it be the destruction of the rights of companies to serve the customers they wish to serve? No, that too would be too easy. Should it be the hubris of some politicians who hold what Thomas Sowell calls the “unconstrained vision” of man – returning politics to the era of the 1960s and 1930s? No, that is too easy too. Or perhaps I should wonder about my skepticism about what special interests had a hand in crafting this piece of legislation? Nope – too easy too.
I prefer to take an economic approach this time, as opposed to a pure moral approach. All else equal, what unintended consequences might result from banning obese people from being served in any (or some) restaurants? Let’s suppose the ban is only from “unhealthy” fast food restaurants like McDonalds. Now, obese people have an option of eating at more expensive healthy restaurants, or increasing how much they eat at home. If obese people still value eating out, they will spend more at healthy restaurants, but that will leave them with less disposable income for their food at home. What types of food tend to be the least expensive? Surely not the fat-free, low-carb bagels, organic produce and lean buffalo meat. So it becomes an empirical question about how their weight would be affected. Or perhaps obese people will find less expensive substitutes for eating out (maybe getting more popcorn at the movies, with extra butter and salt).
What if obese people do not value eating out much, or if the ban is applied to all restaurants? Then they will almost surely be eating more at home, and have more disposable income to do so. Again, the result is an empirical question – will they use this extra income to buy more of the special foods they like (and can no longer get at restaurants) and “waste” this fat and calorie dividend from the law? Or will they use their disposable income to make “wiser” food choices? I have my suspicions, but for the sake of science I will maintain that a priori the impact is unclear.
I am sure there are major unforeseen effects that I am overlooking right now (hence, they are unforeseen) – anyone care to chime in on what some of them might be?
And what kind of institutional arrangement do politicos intend to put in place if (when?) obese people and the people wishing to serve them do not wish to abide by such rules? Or figure out ways beyond those rules? The reductio ad absurdum is that obese people will need to be enslaved or threatened at gunpoint to obey these pieces of legislation. So while politicians claim it is in the interest of public health to enact these regulations, and the legislation is written to be as uncontroversial as possible, the violence underlying every such piece of legislation is apparent.