Last spring the Arkansas legislature passed a law requiring schools to compute each student’s body mass (using the Body Mass Index, BMI) and record it on report cards. The BMI generates a number based on a person’s height and weight, and is supposed to indicate something about one’s health. However, it’s been criticized for not distinguishing between fat and muscle. A few years ago the government revised the index, and 30 million people woke up overweight. According to the Center for Consumer Freedom (www.consumerfreedom.com/game_fatchart.cfm), the new BMI has these people as overweight or obese: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Michael Jordan, and me (5 feet, 7 inches, and 158 pounds).
For Ideas on Liberty the issue, of course, is not the questionable validity of the BMI; it’s the propriety of a law requiring agents of the state, government teachers, to keep track of the body mass of students who are compelled to attend school.
At FEE it’s our policy not to tell the government how to run its schools. We just think no one should be forced to attend or pay for them. Nevertheless, the Arkansas law is instructive. Education historians have long known that government did not get into education because the private sector couldn’t handle it. The education market was vibrant and accessible to rich and poor in the days before “public education.” Government got itself involved because it was the obvious way to conduct grand social engineering. The American architects of the Prussian-inspired “common school” promised to create a new and improved society—to eradicate crime and sin—by replacing the influence of vicious, slothful parents with that of enlightened state-trained educators. Physical fitness was part of the program, along with a curriculum of social studies that portrays expanding government power as benign and the voluntary sphere as ever threatening.
This matter confirms another warning of those (notably Thomas Szasz) who see danger in the union of health and state. “We are facing a crisis in this country and in Arkansas with obesity,” State Senator Sue Madison said. “I realize this is seeming like a huge invasion of privacy but there is a concern because of the health crisis and to some extent that crisis will be [borne] by the taxpayers in the future.”
Everyone who believes that government can pay for medical care without serious consequences for liberty can now take stock. All kinds of restrictions on our freedom and privacy—and all impositions on our children—can be defended as ways to save the taxpayers money. Fiscal responsibility has been enlisted in the cause of statism and collectivism. That was the rationalization for the states’ suits against the tobacco industry. It will be used to justify suits against fast-food restaurants and who knows what else?
The moral: there is no innocuous use of aggressive force.
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