Is eating healthy a choice?
Or can the poor simply not afford nutritious meals?
A few weeks ago I explored whether we should subsidize healthy habits and tax unhealthy ones. In the post, I quoted Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, who questions if we should “trust” the government to act as our “guardian.”
To what extent should we use the power of the state to protect us from ourselves? If we go down that route, where do we stop?
Mankiw frames the issue as whether we need the government making choices for us, but in a recent blog post at The Atlantic professor Ellen Ruppell Shell questions this idea.
It's time we push back on the assumption that individuals have the “right” to make unhealthy “choices” when in fact their real choice is to buy what they can afford–and defer the true cost of the ill health that results on the nation as a whole.
Shell’s assertion that unhealthy eating habits impose external monetary costs on society is not definitive. People w
ho smoke contribute to higher health care costs, but several studies indicate that these costs might be outweighed by the savings accrued from those who die from smoking related illnesses before they can collect government benefits.
Nevertheless, Shell’s main point is a valid one. If the poor can’t afford to eat healthily than subsidizing good eating habits is “not simply protecting people from themselves.”
Others have made similar arguments against capitalism, claiming that the notion of economic freedom is a charade since the poor simply end up being subjugated by the more powerful. Likewise, opponents of legalizing drugs often claim that defining the use of highly addictive substances as a “free choice” is misleading.
Putting aside abstract theory, it would be interesting to see some data on whether the high cost of healthy food is really major catalyst for unhealthy eating habits. If not, are subsidized organic tomatoes still a smart policy choice?
And what about the other advantages that the rich have over the poor when it comes to being healthy, such as the ability to afford expensive gym memberships or having the free time to exercise? How much should the government do to assist those who cannot afford these benefits?