Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal had a fascinating article on a new book entitled, XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame, by Neil Seeman and Patrick Luciani. These Canadian scholars have managed to devise a solution for obesity based on the free market philosophies of Friedrich Hayek and his Austrian cohorts:
Perhaps the answer to obesity is to spend money not on the producers (of gyms, diets, surgery, vegetables) but on the consumers. Drawing a direct analogy with the effect of vouchers in the education system, Messrs. Seeman and Luciani suggest "healthy-living vouchers" that could be redeemed from different (certified) places—gyms, diet classes, vegetable sellers and more. Education vouchers, they point out, are generally disliked by rich whites as being bad for poor blacks—and generally liked by poor blacks. A bottom-up solution empowers people better than top-down government fiat.
So instead of spending large sums on ads to shame us into better eating habits, spend the money on vouchers handed out to the overweight and let them find whatever provider of goods or services best meets their particular dieting needs. After all, the root causes of obesity are multifarious and new ones are being added all the time—such as diet sodas, gut bacteria, genes, sleep apnea, leptin levels, medication, depression, poverty and peer pressure. So the solutions need to be multipronged, too. What works for you may not work for me.
Now, it's true that this idea may not work any better than the fixes Americans have been desperately trying for years--we are, after all, currently in the middle of Biggest Loser Season 11! But maybe it's worth a shot. Economist Tyler Cowen, however, is skeptical of Seeman and Luciani's proposal.