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My latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street Journal is about trying to evolve, rather than ordain, solution to obesity

Sometimes we find it easy to identify a problem and impossible to think of a solution. Obesity is a good example. Almost everybody agrees that it is a growing burden on health systems and that it requires urgent attention from policy makers. But almost everybody also agrees that no policy for reducing obesity is working.

Some 32% of adult American men and 35% of women are clinically obese. The proportion hasn’t swelled in recent years, but it hasn’t shrunk either, a study of 2008 data suggests. School posters, virally marketed videos, healthy-eating classes, mandatory swimming lessons, minimum school-recess times, celebrity chefs in charge of school-meal recipes, bicycle lanes, junk-food ad bans, calorie-content labels, hectoring physicians, birthday-cake bans, monetary rewards for weight loss-they’ve all been tried, and they’ve all largely failed.

Maybe we need to stop trying to devise top-down answers and instead encourage bottom-up ones to evolve through individual choice. Or so argue two Canadian academics, Neil Seeman and Patrick Luciani, in a new book called “XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame.” After all, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out, the true genius of markets is that they discover things. Perhaps the answer to obesity is to spend money not on the producers (of gyms, diets, surgery, vegetables) but on the consumers.

Drawing a direct analogy with the effect of vouchers in the education system, Messrs. Seeman and Luciani suggest “healthy-living vouchers” that could be redeemed from different (certified) places-gyms, diet classes, vegetable sellers and more. Education vouchers, they point out, are generally disliked by rich whites as being bad for poor blacks-and generally liked by poor blacks. A bottom-up solution empowers people better than top-down government fiat.

So instead of spending large sums on ads to shame us into better eating habits, spend the money on vouchers handed out to the overweight and let them find whatever provider of goods or services best meets their particular dieting needs. After all, the root causes of obesity are multifarious and new ones are being added all the time-such as diet sodas, gut bacteria, genes, sleep apnea, leptin levels, medication, depression, poverty and peer pressure. So the solutions need to be multipronged, too. What works for you may not work for me.

Messrs. Seeman and Luciani’s suggestions will annoy both the left and the right. Market forces are anathema to the top-down thinking of many on the left, and handing money to the “undeserving” is anathema to many on the right. But the very fact that their idea defies conventional wisdom suggests that it is a good one.

As an evangelist for rational optimism, I am sometimes accused of overlooking the things that are getting worse, and obesity, I acknowledge, is one such dismal trend. So is traffic congestion-and they are both the products of plenty.

But they are exceptions that neatly prove my rule. In a recent television discussion about world hunger, we found ourselves talking about obesity, and I reflected on what a remarkable human achievement it is to have nearly seven billion people on the planet and more of them overweight than malnourished.

In due course, the obesity problem will be solved, I suspect. The ultra-rich have already solved it. Most of them are very thin these days, quite unlike in ancient times. That’s because they can afford the solutions that work for them, from low-carb diets to personal trainers.

If economic growth continues to spread, as it has over the past two centuries, most people will be ultra-rich by today’s standards within two generations, and slim figures will also spread. Still, it would be nice to find a way for people to lose weight without having to wait for them to get rich first.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  wall-street-journal