Nanny state watch: Scottish edition

I generally take a dim view of laws and regulations intended to protect people from themselves. I believe that responsibility for a person’s health and well-being ultimately resides with that person; a person who engages in risky or dangerous behavior must accept the consequences of his actions. Society should not take that responsibility and allow the misdoer to derive advantage without concomitant disadvantage. That way lies moral hazard, a phenomenon with which all discerning members of society should be familiar (and of which they should be justifiably wary) through the economic news and events of the last year or so.

In that vein I direct your attention to the latest attempt to extend the nanny state: a Scottish tax on chocolate in a proposal defeated by only two votes in a meeting of the British Medical Association. Dr. David Walker, its chief proponent, says:

“Chocolate has lost its status as a special treat and I think that if we charged a tax on it then, over a number of years, we could restore that status.”

He had earlier told the BBC news website that obesity was a “mushrooming” problem, and Scotland risked heading the same way as the United States.

He added: “There is an explosion of obesity and the related medical conditions, like type 2 diabetes. I see chocolate as a major player in this, and I think a tax on products containing chocolate could make a real difference.”

There is much that is wrong with this from economic and personal freedom standpoints. However, in the interests of concision and minimal scope, I will limit myself to taking issue with these later lines in the story, also from Dr. Walker:

“After eating a bag of chocolate sweets you would have to walk continuously for three hours to burn off the calories consumed.

“It is simply not enough to say people should get more exercise.

The regular reader will know that last year I completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Backpacking requires a tremendous amount of energy (moreso for a trip of that length and duration), and I fueled myself using a variety of methods: gorp, granola bars, beef jerky, and candy, among others. For roughly the last 1300 miles of my hike, my primary fuel between meals was the large or king-size candy bar — usually Snickers for its high calorie-to-weight ratio but often Milky Way or 3 Musketeers for an attempt at variety. A large Snickers bar contains 280 calories, while a king-size bar contains 510 calories; Milky Way clocks in at 260 and 460 calories respectively.

Each day while thru-hiking I typically would eat the equivalent of five, six, or more large-size bars (ten is the maximum count I can remember, although I probably exceeded this when completing the Four State Challenge) while hiking twenty to thirty miles daily. (NB: my chocolate bar rate of intake effectively dropped to zero when I finished the hike.) Dr. Walker would likely agree that this rate of intake in this exceedingly unusual situation is much less likely to be harmful than it would be for an average person and situation, but if he did not, I could assure him with absolute certainty that while I was hiking this prodigious consumption of chocolate was in no way calorically harmful. Further, in the four months since I completed the thru-hike I have noticed no other lasting ill effects. Indeed, it was necessary to travel those distances without courting malnourishment and unhealthy weight loss; I have heard of thru-hikers who could not carry enough food to avoid losing weight in the final stages of their thru-hikes (at which point all discretionary weight would have long since disappeared). Would Dr. Walker punish me for what it was necessary for me to consume while hiking? A chocolate tax across the few hundred bars I likely consumed would have summed to a meaningful value — perhaps a couple handfuls more candy bars or a small meal in a town I passed through.

Dr. Walker may be right that for most people more exercise cannot adequately combat excessive chocolate intake. However, that his assertion is only usually right means that sometimes it is wrong; it is a clear example of the folly of not recognizing personal responsibility to avoid harmful choices. If this tax were real, the people who consume chocolate in moderation with respect to their situations (I include myself in this group) would only be harmed, while the ones who consume to excess, perversely, have an incentive to consume even more as they can take advantage of the newly-funded programs “used by the NHS to deal with the health problems caused by obesity” without paying the full costs to use them.

If Dr. Walker wishes to see more healthy intakes of chocolate, he would do better from a personal freedom standpoint to improve educational efforts that warn of the dangers of excessive sweets, which would neither inhibit individual responsibility nor tax the responsible chocolate lovers to pay for care for the gluttonous ones.


  1. This was a bit too tangential to note in the post itself, but I added up my calorie intake in candy bars and snacks eaten while hiking the day I walked out the south end of Shenandoah National Park (which for that day also included a breakfast and lunch, because I was on my last day’s food before a resupply and had to hike 27 miles out to meet family). I don’t remember the exact figure, but it was around 3500 calories of Pop-Tarts, Clif bars, Snickers bars, and the like.

    Comment by Jeff — 13.03.09 @ 21:30

  2. Jeff,

    I saw this on some Firefox blog aggregation page or other and had to comment.

    I understand your resistance to the government attempting to solve problems that individuals would be better off solving individually. However, I had a number of thoughts as I read your posting.

    (1) Arguments based on anecdotal stories are weak, especially if the anecdote isn’t fairly representative. Your case is an extreme outlier. That you might have been inconvenienced $10 or $20 while you ate a hundred chocolate bars while performing an intense, extended holiday activity is in no way illustrative of the real issues. Your example represents less than 1% of 1% of the population, even if it has visceral resonance for you.

    [Fair enough; outside thru-hiking, however, I probably consume a candy bar or two a month or so, which is certainly representative of typical intake for the average healthy person. I suffer less at that level, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still have problems with the proposition.]

    (2) “Society should not take that responsibility and allow the misdoer to derive advantage without concomitant disadvantage”

    What to do about it and where to draw the line?

    You complain here about a small attempt to discourage excessive eating, but it pales in comparison to the societal costs of the staggering levels of obesity that are sweeping the country (and globe). I’d happily pay $1 in food tax if it saves me $5 in taxes paying for someone else’s health care costs, paying extra for every airplane ticket, every movie theater ticket, and every bus token because the average citizen’s ass is 30% wider than it should be. I once took a ferry and there was an informational poster about the history of the ferry, including the fact it was commissioned to hold 300 people, but it was currently rated at 220 (or whatever) because people are that much wider now than 70 years ago.

    [How far down does the rabbit hole go? An earlier draft of my post delved into a potentially rational economic argument for such a tax on the basis that Scotland’s NHS, which provides publicly funded health care to Scotland, might see reduced costs from this; I eventually cut down to focus on the single concern that caused me to actually write an extended post about a fairly small law. The problem with this is that publicly funded health care itself has the same problem: a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of health care costs being high. When do you stop patching the patch?]

    The chocolate tax is hypothetical, but we are running the experiment right now of unfettered consumption and the results are in — it stinks, and we are all paying for it in myriad ways. Everyone agrees the best solution is for individuals to make the right choices themselves, but many don’t (empirical proof abounds).

    [I wish I saw an answer. Fundamentally I believe the only way to make a serious impact is to inculcate a sense of personal responsibility and awareness of and respect for personal health, which almost necessarily must start in childhood and thus likely derive from the parents, but they’re absconding too. I would be in favor of policies which made real efforts to get parents involved in their children’s lives, particularly because the parent’s lack of involvement constitutes a huge negative externality on the child; this chocolate tax seems to fight symptoms more than disease in my opinion.]

    (3a) “However, that his assertion is only usually right means that sometimes it is wrong; …”

    Any decision which is 100% right or 100% wrong would be classified as a trivial decision to make. Any real world decision is going to be right in some cases and wrong in other cases. The trick is in having the wisdom to weigh these two to maximize benefit. Complaining that a decision is wrong some of the time isn’t a strong argument in and of itself.

    [No, but I had fun making it, which was about half the point of responding to the proposal. 😉 ]

    (3b) “However, that his assertion is only usually right means that sometimes it is wrong; it is a clear example of the folly of not recognizing personal responsibility to avoid harmful choices.”

    Folly? Government is always balancing the rights of individuals against the rights of society. Have you not noticed that smoking is not allowed on airplanes anymore? Yes, an individual’s “right” to smoke where ever and whenever he pleases has been curtailed, and everyone else is healthier for it. Score one for the nanny state.

    [Smoking, particularly on planes, has significant negative externalities which legitimize to an extent Pigovian taxes (although it seems to me that cigarette taxes in America have become more confiscatory punishments than Pigovian taxes) or in rare instances (planes, given their limited air circulation systems) outright prohibitions. Outside of the health care cost, there are far fewer negative externalities associated with chocolate overindulgence, and health care likely dominates them in practice (although, of course, I have no data to back that up, this not being a thorough and serious attempt at analysis).]

    (4) “… the ones who consume to excess, perversely, have an incentive to consume even more as they can take advantage of the newly-funded programs …”

    If you think John Q Public decides to eat or not eat more chocolate based on an imagined future government health care service, you must be a Martian disguised as a human. People buy it because it tastes great and they can afford it. Raising the price of a luxury item has a first-order effect in decreasing the consumption as people consider the price at the point of making the purchase decision.

    Nobody I know would think they might later get sick due to their excessive eating and that the government will subsidize a portion of their health care costs, therefore eat more chocolate.

    [Suppose the NHS were to announce that they would no longer pay for treatment for obesity-related health problems. I would be highly surprised if this had no effect on consumption of chocolate or candy in general. The marginal effect of not using chocolate taxes to pay for NHS health programs would be quite small, to be sure, but I’m not ready to believe there is no effect at all. Also, of course, the people you know or the people I know do not constitute a useful random sample for the purposes of conducting such a measurement, but I’m sure you knew that anyway. 🙂 ]

    This isn’t to say I’d support such a tax, I just think your arguments against it could be much more convincing, and I was in the mood to pontificate. 🙂

    [So was I, clearly. I don’t live in Scotland and don’t ever expect to do so, and in any case the proposal failed, so this is about the furthest a public policy could be from affecting me. It was a fun mental exercise, and I specifically wanted to explore some of the arguments you rightly note are weak. 🙂 ]

    Comment by Jim Battle — 13.03.09 @ 23:19

  3. Well, I agree that extra tax on chocolate is overdoing it.

    But I must say that in a country that provides you with free healthcare (which is the humane way of doing things IYAM), I think it’s no more than fair that they can either ban cigarettes and alcohol completely, or tax them heavily.

    If people want to kill themselves smoking and drinking I can’t see why I should have to pay their hospital bills.

    [That argument can be made, and I even explored it in an earlier iteration of this, before deciding to cut to just the fun argument I really wanted to make. I still question that this bit of nannying is legitimized by the other, but that’s waaay more than I wanted to talk about here. Steve Yegge may enjoy writing magnum opuses that cover everything under the sun every time he posts, but I prefer to keep it a little more concise (not to mention that such a post would take vastly longer to write and likely wouldn’t ever get around to being posted).]

    Comment by David Naylor — 13.03.09 @ 23:57

  4. It isn’t possible to effectively regulate against idiocy and neither should society be expected to carry the burden. So let’s simply have a “Fat tax”, levied by GP’s against every fatty without a valid medical excuse.

    Oh silly me. That simply wouldn’t do for governments seeking the least effective and most authoritarian solution to every problem. Obviously we need id cards and medical records accessible from every cash register in the country in order to defeat these evil chocolate eating terrorists.

    Comment by nobody — 14.03.09 @ 07:54

  5. I don’t think this is the nanny state. The nanny state would have banned chocolates or introduced some law to restrict its use. Passing a tax is entirely different, it’s a market-based approach. It changes the incentive. You could certainly argue against it on the grounds that it’s too arbitrary (why pick on chocolate? what about double cream etc) or that it makes the tax system even more complex. But neither of those have anything to do with nannying.

    [It’s nannying because it’s the government deciding that it knows what is right for its citizens better than the citizens themselves do, when the consequences for such actions primarily fall upon the citizens who make them. It’s a much milder form than a prohibition would have been, but it’s nannying nonetheless.]

    Comment by Chris — 14.03.09 @ 11:58

  6. One important thing to note is that the people voting on this are just doctors; they have no actual lawmaking power. I think if the vote had passed it would simply have meant that it would become their policy that such a tax should exist, not law. But I could be wrong.

    [That’s how I understand it, although I think the way the article was written is somewhat misleading on that count and might cause some to think otherwise.]

    Anyway, the fact that these are doctors suggests that they do have a better grasp of what is right for the health of citizens as a whole than the citizens themselves do (there may, of course, be exceptional circumstances). It doesn’t means that they know the right solution of course (I tend to think a tax on chocolate would have to be very significant indeed if it were to have any noticeable effect, for example).

    [I remain leery of trusting experts to make individual decisions for me, regardless how much they might know about a topic in aggregate across society. Individuals are each members of society, but they are not identical to that average of all society members.]

    The alternative you suggest, education, is often put forward as a cure to all problems of this sort but I’m not sure it can really be that effective. I’m pretty sure psychology has taught us that, given the choice between a smaller but definite good thing now and a larger but more abstract good thing some distant time in the future, people will choose the smaller but immediate thing. So people’s tendency to act against their own best interest may be a fundamental part of their nature even when they are perfectly aware of what their own best interest is. A related example is smoking; almost no-one believes that smoking is anything other than addictive and bad for you, but huge numbers of teenagers are able to rationalise away those problems in favour of the short term cool value it offers.

    [Is it really against what they believe to be their best interests if they still do it? If you’re not one of these people there aren’t really upsides, and it seems fundamentally stupid. If you are, and you keep doing it anyway, isn’t that your own problem? We should still attempt to convince them otherwise, but we cannot use coercion without individual consent (e.g. the addict who goes to the clinic and says I want to get better but then claims a change of heart during the worst of withdrawal)

    I wish there were a more effective way to do this than education that still respected personal choice, but if more incorrect decisions are the risk we run for greater freedom (but note that it is by no means guaranteed that we can’t foster freedom while reducing the number of people who make self-destructive decisions), isn’t that a price worth paying? At least sometimes, when the consequences of the choice apply to the chooser, I think it is.]

    Comment by jgraham — 15.03.09 @ 01:36

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