Add “free markets” to aerosolized hair for balding men, sequels starring Sylvester Stallone, and cold fusion to the list of tried-and-not-so-true. The best things in life may be free, but so-called free markets aren’t among them. This isn’t an indictment of laissez-faire, which has much to recommend it. Rather, the false advocacy of free markets by those surreptitiously seeking its opposite—government carve-outs and undeserved assistance—has severely discredited the notion of unfettered commerce.
Consider a weighty matter: weight. Nearly two out of every three Americans, including one-third of all children, are overweight or obese. If current trends continue, half of all Americans will be obese by 2030. The cost of the epidemic is staggering, both in terms of lives lost and money spent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that obesity-linked maladies like Type 2 diabetes are responsible for 112,000 annual deaths in America, while 21 percent of all medical spending goes to obesity-related conditions.
At least part of the obesity epidemic is explained by our grossly distorted agricultural policy, which parcels out to “farmers,” mostly big agribusiness concerns and the wealthy proprietors of mega-farms, between $10 and $30 billion in cash subsidies a year (the amount depends on multiple factors, such as market prices for crops). Amongst other negative impacts, the handouts yield massive over-cultivation of foodstuff, driving down commodity prices, including for key inputs for high-calorie processed foods that companies like Monsanto help produce. (Monsanto also benefits mightily from ethanol subsidies).
Carson Chow, a mathematician from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, tells The New York Times: “People think that the [obesity] epidemic has to be caused by genetics or that physical activity has gone down. Yet levels of physical activity have not really changed in the past 30 years. As for the genetic argument, yes, there are people who are genetically disposed to obesity, but if they live in societies where there isn’t a lot of food, they don’t get obese…it’s [overproduction of food] that’s the issue.”
J. Justin Wilson of the Center for Consumer Freedom, which recently sponsored full-page ads in the Times calling New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg a “Nanny” for seeking to ban the sale of 16 ounce soft drinks, has a far different take. He thinks that obesity is best seen as a function of personal responsibility or, more precisely, the lack thereof. As such, he characterizes proposals to tax high-calorie foods and sugary drinks as “paternalistic” or worse, a threat to freedom. Wilson told NPR’s Diane Rehm, “The proper role of government is to maximize people’s ability to make good choices for themselves, rather than using strategies to make those choices for them.”
That Wilson’s argument sounds suspiciously like what tobacco companies offered up when trying to forestall government regulation is no coincidence. The Center for Consumer Freedom was founded with a grant from Philip Morris to fight smoking curbs in restaurants. The outfit’s other donors include Coca-Cola, Wendy’s and—what do you know!—that corporate welfare queen, Monsanto.
So there you have it: The same taxpayer subsidized business behemoths that fatten waistlines while fattening their profits have their shills wax lyrical about “free markets” and personal responsibility. Call it robbing Peter to engorge Paul. Of course, there’s really nothing novel about such rank hypocrisy. Many industries do the same, from flag-waving defense contractors that lobby Congress to purchase exorbitant weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want or need to Wall Street kingpins that shrilly warn of Obama’s creeping socialism after their firms enjoyed the fruits of corporatized socialism in the form of taxpayer bailouts. It’s de rigueur.
Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explains that such “rent seeking,” or rights and privileges granted by the government to powerful companies and individuals, doesn’t enhance productivity or broaden the economic pie. Rather, the widespread practice “distorts resource allocations and makes the economy weaker.” And it exacerbates inequality, as wealth is transferred from the less- to the well-connected. “Much of the top-most wealth…comes because of successful ‘rent seeking,’” Stiglitz says. The practice also makes us fatter.
But then an obese and misled population is less likely to rise up in opposition to their bamboozlement by powerful interests spouting paeans to free enterprise while shamelessly practicing crony capitalism. And we wouldn’t want that. No, the message to Americans from the Center for Consumer Freedom and its oligarchic patrons is clear: Fatties, keep your eyes fixed on Fox News and your mouths full of sugary super-gulp sodas. You’re freedom-loving Americans. Eat up and shut up!