Predictably, New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to curb the obesity epidemic by limiting sizes of soft drinks has people screaming that the government has no business dictating the amount of sugar we pour down our gullets. And health care reform bill opponents argue that the government cannot force people to buy health insurance. Of course, motorcycle riders fight laws to force them to protect their craniums with helmets.
Obviously, government should not restrict the freedom of its citizens without justifiable cause, but does government have a legitimate interest in citizen’s health? Historically, our government has justified laws impacting health for issues of national defense. When the draft was inaugurated at the beginning of World War II, many young men were physically ineligible to serve due to poor nutrition. This caused the federal government to mandate that all white flour be enriched with the vitamins and minerals lost in milling. Fortunately, no one at that time claimed a constitutional right to eat nutrition-free food, and millions of American children escaped rickets and other diseases of malnutrition because of that law.
Governments also have an economic interest in the health of citizens. Sick people are a drag on the economy. Life-saving medical interventions are available in modern America, but they are not free of cost. Our social conscience prevents us from denying emergency care to those who refused to buy health insurance when they were still healthy. People with obesity-related illnesses and helmet-free motorcycle riders with head injuries cost insurance companies, employers, and public health services money.
Where do we draw the line? Does the fact that my poor health impacts others give government the right to insist that I buy health insurance, limit my soft drink consumption, and protect my brain when engaging in hazardous activities?
For that matter, should my neighbors be free to burn their garbage in their backyard and stink up the neighborhood rather than pay the garbage-hauling fee? And what if said neighbors want to dig an outhouse in their yard rather than pay the city sewage fee?
Living together in a complex society provides many advantages—but close proximity to neighbors means nearly everything we do impacts those around us—and potentially needs regulation.