The Curious Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Conservertarian

Ampersand’s post about the ineffectiveness of diets has generated a lot of discussion. Another responder is Jane Galt, who in addition to some sensible points about the non-immutability of weight gain makes this very strange (although common) argument:

But it may not be a bad strategy for the group. If being more than a few pounds overweight is bad for you (as I believe the evidence does show, particularly with nasty chronic diseases like diabetes), then the social pressure that produces dieting is the same social pressure that keeps people from getting fat in the first place . . . assuming that rich people aren’t genetically thinner, but merely responding to their environment. Fat acceptance, on the other hand, may be good for fat people, but bad for the future people who will become fat if the cultural stigma on high-calorie eating is removed.

The “diseases like diabetes” line is pretty misleading, suggesting a much broader array of effects when diabetes is pretty much it; for the most part, although some of the behaviors that lead to being fat are demonstrably unhealthy, the effect of weight as an independent variable is quite small. In addition to this, however, there are some pretty obvious problems with preserving the stigma on cost-benefit grounds:

  • The biggest problem is that her cost-benefit analysis ignores most of the costs. Even if we accept Galt’s (rather contestable, although I realize I’m swimming upstream here) assumption that it’s a useful tradeoff to inflict significant suffering on one group of people so that another group of people will have a marginally reduced risk of getting diabetes, there are a lot of additional effects that she ignores. The stigma against being overweight creates all kinds of additional health problems, especially in young women, even for people who don’t get permanently fat: yo-yo dieting, eating disorders, and psychological traumas being the most important. Perhaps Galt thinks it’s worth creating a lot of Terri Schiavos in order to reduce the incidence of diabetes; I can’t imagine any non-perverse ordering of values in which the benefits of the fat stigma come close to outweighing the costs. But any rate, any useful discussion of its effects has to take these things into account. Utilitarian arguments that ignore significant costs are of no value.
  • In addition, it must be noted that the stigma against being fat is a highly inefficient way of achieving public health goals. Not only because some people are overweight but healthy, but because (as Galt acknowledges) many people, especially when they’re young can be sedentary and eat unhealthily but remain thin. The social emphasis on obesity in and of itself is doesn’t make any sense; it makes much more sense to emphasize the importance of exercise and eating a balanced diet.

But, of course, my own cost-benefit analysis is misleading, because it leaves out what’s really driving the discussion: aesthetics. Galt’s post reminds me of the even more transparently spurious invocation of public health concerns by conservertarians attempting to justify their comrades’ stigmatizing of Teh Gay. The public health justifications for the fat stigma are indefensible, but this isn’t surprising because is pretty obvious that they’re primarily an ex post facto justification for what is at bottom an aesthetic reaction. But while the fact that gay people are second-class citizens in many areas of the law makes such a project particularly odious, the thing is that thinking fat people are icky doesn’t require any justification; it’s no more or less arbitrary than any other aesthetic preference. Trying to pretend that these aesthetic judgments are an effective public health “strategy,” however, is both utterly unconvincing as an apologia and completely counterproductive on its own terms.

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