Commenting on recent figures showing that America is the fattest OECD country in the world (and Louisiana and Mississippi are the fattest states in the fattest country in the world), The Economist makes an interesting observation:
I very much doubt America is going to do anything, as a matter of public health policy, that has any appreciable effect on obesity rates in the next couple of decades. It’s not that it’s impossible for governments to hold down obesity; France, which had rapidly rising childhood obesity early this century, instituted an aggressive set of public-health interventions including school-based food and exercise shifts, nurse assessments of overweight kids, visits to families where overweight kids were identified, and so forth. Their childhood obesity rates stabilised at a fraction of America’s. The problem isn’t that it’s not possible; rather, it’s that America is incapable of doing it.
America’s national governing ideology is based almost entirely on the assertion of negative rights, with a few exceptions for positive rights and public goods such as universal elementary education, national defence and highways. But it’s become increasingly clear over the past decade that the country simply doesn’t have the political vocabulary that would allow it to institute effective national programmes to improve eating and exercise habits or culture. A country that can’t think of a vision of public life beyond freedom of individual choice, including the individual choice to watch TV and eat a Big Mac, is not going to be able to craft public policies that encourage people to exercise and eat right. We’re the fattest country on earth because that’s what our political philosophy leads to. We ought to incorporate that into the way we see ourselves; it’s certainly the way other countries see us.
Isn’t that the case beyond just our food consumption habits? I mean, don’t we lack a cultural as well as a political, vocabulary for these things? And by saying “vocabulary,” what we really mean is a conceptual framework. We don’t really believe in a telos, in public goods, as anything much more than the sum of private desires. I’m as implicated in this as anybody else.