Fat Chance: An Analysis of Anti-Obesity Efforts

This working paper analyzes the methods and outcomes of government efforts to control obesity rates.

There’s no question that America is packing on the pounds. But the public continues to debate what should be done about this problem that costs more than $168 billion in health spending. If the market fails to provide the right circumstances for change, some argue that it’s the government’s job to step in and enforce what is in the best interest of the individual, even if they are fully able to make good health choices on their own.  

Paternalistic policymakers aim to fix individual failure by introducing interventions devised by what they see as better-informed, benevolent policymakers. The federal government has tried to serve this role throughout the history of the United States, with bans on alcohol, drugs, smoking, and immoral material. Over time, however, advocates have abandoned these policies, which have not only failed to eliminate vice but, in many cases, fostered black markets and criminal violence.  

Today’s paternalists attempt to use behavioral economics to say that cognitive biases and bounded self-control prevent individuals from maximizing their own welfare. Therefore, the government should impose policies that help people overcome their biases to achieve their personal wellbeing. 

This paper observes the use of behavioral economics to justify government intervention with regard to obesity. This research finds that on obesity, government intervention is ineffective in remedying the shortcomings of individuals. 

To fight obesity, paternalistic policymakers have borrowed the regulatory approaches traditionally used to deal with market failures. However, the evidence shows that government policies designed to remedy market failures are ineffective at mitigating the consequences of individual failures.

Six Ways Paternalists Fail to Solve the Obesity Problem

  • They assume policymakers can act rationally in deciding the wellbeing of individuals while individuals cannot 
  • Paternalists often possess insufficient information required for effective policymaking
  • Regulation requires policymakers to pick market winners and losers, even when evidence is ambiguous
  • Their policies could lead to unintended consequences, which may hurt the people the policy is designed to help
  • Paternalistic policies open up a new era of private activity to special interest and lobbying influences within the legislative context 
  • Stringent regulation can actually reduce private sector innovation rather than increase problem-solving

Bottom line: Obese Americans do not lack knowledge, rationale, or motivation to improve their health. Therefore, government intervention when it comes to health risks will not provide incentives for change. For those who are ready to address their obesity problem, markets respond with a wide array of innovative products and services they can choose from to help along the way: “Individuals experience reduced wellbeing when government intervention crowds out innovation in private markets.”