I was impressed by the title of a NZ Herald article today “Fat is normal“. I was like, yes it is perfectly rational for an individual to put on weight, contrary to what we are often told. I began to think that if policy wonks would treat the idea of putting on weight sensibly we could avoid weird “anti-fat” policies.
However, then inside the article I saw it was written by a nutritionist – the worst of the prescriptive disciplines in my opinion. Furthermore, they decided to take an entirely holistic approach to weight gain, removing any individual responsibility and blame the environment. Namely:
Professor James said that in countries such as Britain and New Zealand, the reason for many people’s obesity was a genetic predisposition in an environment which allowed it to happen with an “out-of-control” food industry and the constant use of cars
What is this.
Like all individual choices, weight gain has several elements:
- There are individual preferences, which are determined by genetics, history, and society.
- There is the choice set/constraints, which is determined by society and natural endowment.
- There is the nature of individual choice – which is determined by the person choosing.
Ultimately, the third element ensures that weight gain IS someones choice. However, given that it is their choice we know that it is fine – as long as the individual has access to information.
The nutritionist is blaming society as he believes that people are being “forced” to consume by the very nature of the choice set they are being given. Ok, this is a value judgment – and one I strongly disagree with. Why? People still choose to consume, they could physically eat less, exercise more, or change the makeup of their diet – but they don’t. This implies that people prefer to have a higher weight than incurring the cost to have a lower weight.
Now we have to remember that there is NO social cost from people putting on weight (unless it comes from other policy distortions), and there is no “co-ordination problem” in society involving weight so there is no market failure for us to correct. Being fat is not a crime, it is not a bad – and trying to “reduced obesity” misses the point of what policy should be doing.
Note: You will notice I assumed no co-ordination problem. I would like to hear people try and build up possible co-ordination problems if they have some in mind. Implicitly, the nutritionists argument relies on a sufficiently strong co-ordination problem to function.