Asked by TV personality Al Roker whether a Danish-style fat tax would be good for the United States, Michelle Obama sensibly replied that Americans don’t need government telling them what to eat, they just need better information about nutrition. Unfortunately, the Danes instead have channeled New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who told the United Nations that state control of our diets is “ultimately the government’s highest duty.”
The Danish law, in the planning stage for two years, taxes a broad array of fatty foods using a tax threshold of 2.3 percent saturated-fat content. The tax is one of many egregious recent examples of state interference in personal decisions that extend well beyond our food.
The Danish tax, like Mr. Bloom- berg’s mantra, assumes citizen-consumers are infants incapable of making choices. Even worse, it typically relies on pseudoscientific “findings” and gross simplifications. Saturated fat being worse than unsaturated or fat being necessarily bad may sound right, but it isn’t. Nutritionists deem non-complex carbohydrates the real drivers of obesity, and Ward Willets of Harvard’s Public Health School warns that obsession with fats ignores more important issues: which fats have the most nutritional value, and how carbs and sugars are used to make low-fat foods tasty.
Nutritional research constantly points in new directions, and it is at once foolish, destructive to health and neo-totalitarian to limit our menu options. People will still eat cake if they crave it, but the poor will get lower-quality cake. Legislators see bags of “evil” chips and supposedly too-stupid-to-care-for-themselves consumers before their eyes but also throw butter, olive oil and chicken to the dogs. (Wait - is dog food covered?)
Should we be grateful that the more obviously idiotic ideas, such as making healthy fish and whole milk more expensive, have been avoided by having them explicitly exempted from the Danish tax? Probably yes, if only to expose the tax as a junk idea, faddish and arbitrary. Politicos - always in the name of doing good - ban, tax or promote with state power their personal biases. Even the exclusions are absurd. Sure, omega-3 fatty acids are trendy, meaning a thumbs-up for salmon, tuna (endangered), sardines and mackerel. But carp, not to malign that fish, hardly qualifies for an exception on nutritional grounds.
It isn’t, in any case, less fat or making fats more expensive that makes for a good diet: Balance, proportion and common sense are the key ingredients. Healthy eating is a matter of education, habit and good parenting. Try as a cradle-to-grave nanny state like Denmark might, these traits cannot be instilled best by the state through taxation. State action to steer people this way removes personal incentive and responsibility to exercise sound dietary judgment. Much preferable would be a public inclined to be wary and aware, not distracted by government propaganda.
There is a reason why the state cannot and should not be trusted to everyday personal decisions. In the 21st century, however, government promises to be ever more busy telling everybody what they can and cannot do in the kitchen, the bathroom, the sickroom and the local pub. Taken on their own, bans on Edison light bulbs and ineffective detergents like surfactants might seem innocuous. The Netherlands is banning kosher and halal butchering on animal-protection grounds, which, given advances in slaughterhouse operations, scores on ignorance, hypocrisy and xenophobia. While malicious, these are less so than government morality that forced sterilization of “imbeciles” or the Tuskegee syphilis “experiments” that infected poor blacks. Always the justification is the greatest good for the greatest number.
Resistance is afoot, however: Danish margarine producers are asking the European Union to strike down the fat tax because it infringes on commercial freedom under the EU’s competitiveness laws. Other Danish food producers may argue improper discrimination: The tax favors importers, who pay tax only at the distributor level. The entire industry will watch closely - salt, sugar and meat will be under attack next.
But perhaps this is more cynical than sinister. Politicians purposefully latch onto policy fads like a fat tax because they simply want to raise taxes. Danes will not miss the fact that the revenues from their fat tax are not offset elsewhere but merely bulk up state coffers. There are no incentives for “good nutrition behavior” or rewards for the money politicians claim they might save their welfare state. As with tobacco, alcohol, carbon and flight-fuel taxes, deterring politically and socially incorrect behavior is the raison du jour to justify higher taxes because it’s a tax raise that “means well” and won’t likely rouse much opposition. This points to the Danish law not really being about steering people as much as milking them.
Jens F. Laurson is editor-at-large of the International Affairs Forum. George A. Pieler is former tax counsel to the Senate Finance Committee.