Peter Franklin is Associate Editor at UnHerd.com.
You’ll have seen the shock headlines – the number of young people in England and Wales being treated for Type 2 Diabetes is up by over 40 per cent in just three years. It should be said that the numbers involved are small – hundreds rather than thousands. Nevertheless, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is worried. Professor Russell Viner, the College’s president, said that “A rise in Type 2 diabetes of this magnitude is alarming and shows that the childhood obesity epidemic is starting to bite.”
The political reaction to this kind of story always plays out in the same way: The Government claims to be on the case, pointing, for instance, to the sugar tax that came into force this year. Health campaigners, celebrity cooks and left-wing commentators insist that ministers need to go further, faster – and spend more money. And certain right-wing pundits, especially those associated with free market think tanks, defend the right of every freeborn Englishman to drink themselves stupid on a cocktail of Tizer and Jamie Oliver’s blood.
But why is the free market right so vehemently opposed to any government attempts to curb our sugar intake?
Well, that in itself, is a divisive issue. The most common retort to the libertarian assault on the sugar tax isn’t a counter-argument, but a question: ‘Who funds you?
From what I can gather, the answer is two-fold: ‘Firstly, none of your business’; and, secondly, ‘the funding we get follows the beliefs that we have, not the other way round’. The Left needs to accept this at face value. Doctrinaire socialists are not the only ideologues in the village; free market fundamentalists are allowed to play, too. If your whole political outlook revolves around maximising individual freedom, then of course you’re going to be against government attempts to interfere in personal choices.
Conservatives don’t have to be on the hard right of the party to be believe this. For instance, this is what Ruth Davidson said in 2015 when asked about calls for a sugar tax: “I was watching Jamie Oliver and thinking ‘You rocket-munching millionaire, telling people they’re not allowed a bloody Curly Wurly! The libertarian in me was like, ‘Actually, sod off, just sod off. If folk want a Twirl, let them have a Twirl!'”
Poor Jamie Oliver! He just can’t catch a break these days. Having earned the ire of the right for wanting children to have healthy food; he’s now also a hate figure on the left for his ‘cultural appropriation‘ of, er, Caribbean seasoning. I, however, have come to the deeply controversial conclusion that Oliver is not in fact history’s greatest monster.
We need to take a more objective view of the issues too. For a start, the state is not about to ban the Twirl – or any other form of a sugary snack. Also, there’s no such thing as a ‘health fascist’. If you’re comparing public health policy in a democratic country to the dictates of a totalitarian state then perhaps you’ve had too much orange squash. Indiscriminately accusing people of fascism is an activity befitting the toddler left, not grown-up conservatives.
Of course, there’s no denying that a sugar tax imposes a cost on those who end up paying it. Furthermore, it’s a cost – just like any other non-progressive tax – that falls hardest on the poor. But then obesity is a cost that falls hardest on the poor – as do the costs of smoking, excessive drinking, problem gambling and other social pathologies. And it’s not just those who choose to indulge who pay the price, but their dependents too.
All sin taxes take a bigger bite out of lower incomes than higher ones. However, they’re easier to avoid than general consumption taxes like VAT that also hit the poor hardest. If those opposing sin taxes on the grounds of social justice were that concerned about the poor, then they ought to be arguing for a general shift in the burden of taxation from consumption to income.
So let’s get to the heart of the libertarian argument – the principle of personal responsibility.
To have a grown-up debate about public health policy, there’s couple of things we all need to accept. For a start, no one is being banned from eating sugar (see above) but, equally, no one is being forced to eat it either.
Some people argue that healthy food is more expensive and less available than unhealthy food. But that all depends on what comparisons you choose to make. To take just one example: you can buy a two litre bottle of fizzy water for 25p (try Sainsbury’s). A fresh lemon or lime to flavour it might cost another 25p. Two litres of Coke, even without the sugar levy, will be a multiple of that.
The fact is that almost everyone in this country has affordable access to healthy options. So is that where we should leave the matter – with the freely-made choices of the individual?
No, because this is a drama played out at many levels – not solely that of the individual.
The industries who supply us with our food – from field to plate – aren’t primarily concerned about the decisions made by any one person. What they care about are the aggregate outcomes of all those choices. Furthermore, they know how to influence these outcomes. When a supermarket fills an entire aisle with bottles of sugared water, they’re reasonably certain about how much of it they’re going to shift, how fast and at what price. After all, it’s literally their business, and if they weren’t good at it then they’d soon go bust.
This is more than a matter of meekly responding to consumer demand. Manufacturers and retailers have ways of making us want things – it’s called marketing and the reason why they spend so much money on it is because it works.
Sometimes, individual choice doesn’t come into it at all. For instance, it wasn’t consumers who insisted that palm oil be used in so many products. And no one ever went the shops in the hope of getting more high fructose corn syrup into their lives. These are producer decisions taken in the producer interest.
It suits that interest to locate all responsibility for public health in the individual – and to portray the market as some kind of impersonal force of nature, with no more moral accountability than the wind or the rain.
The reality, however, is one of high level decision-making with high-level consequences.
The flow of sugar that the food industry sets up from the corn fields of Iowa, or the beet fields of Belgium, to supermarket shelves in every town and city does not stop at the check out: it continues into the guts and arteries and fat cells of the nation – into overweight, unhappy children; into overstretched public health services; and eventually into mortuaries and graveyards.
Again, it’s not that a single consumer has been robbed of free will in the process – in theory, we could, every one of us, decide to stop drinking sugary water tomorrow. In all likelihood, however, we won’t. Push a particular kind of product to the public and, overall, there’ll be a certain take-up – the manufacturers and retailers are banking on it. In fact, they’re doing everything in their power to manipulate the aggregate outcomes in their favour.
The libertarian narrative around non-interference in personal choice has a lot of missing ingredients. It ignores corporate agency, overall effect and public interest. But the fact is that commercial companies are making decisions that have a significant impact on the health of the nation, which is something which impacts upon us all regardless of what we each personally choose to eat.
On a micro-level, the sugar libertarians are arguing for non-interference in personal decisions. However, at the macro-level this amounts to a policy of uncontested corporate agency – a monopoly position for short-term commercial interests whose concerns extend no further than the cash register. Government, as a representative of long-term public interests, is to be left powerless, both hands tied behind its back.
This is not so much a pro-market position as an anti-democratic one. There is more to politics than market versus state. There is also the nation – and faced with long-term threats to public health we have the right and responsibility to take back control.