The Battleground Between Personal Choice and Regulations

Americans love their freedom, and often say they want the choice to fail or succeed on their own without regulations getting in the way. In a thoughtful column, AP National Politics Editor Liz Sidoti reflects on the tension between personal choice and regulation, and how it applies to the obesity epidemic. The ultimate goal is balancing government’s duty to protect its people with an individual’s right to choose. Related to obesity, when two-thirds of adults have excess weight or obesity, she asks how far should government go to restrict bad foods or regulate to reduce future escalation of health costs?

When a person’s choice negatively affects society, how far is too far before controls are appropriate? Some Americans reject any restrictions on personal choices, but it is clear that drunk-driving laws and seat belts are two examples of regulations that have saved lives. The tension between choice and regulation is at the center of the discussion of the obesity epidemic. On one side is an individual’s freedom to select any food or drink without restriction; on the other is recognition of the public cost of unrestricted choices. Clearly, the skyrocketing price of obesity-related healthcare stresses our healthcare system.

How does our nation determine to what extent laws or restrictions should supersede limitless choice? In her column, Sidoti summarizes a recent poll by the AP – NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and noted that 88% of those completing the survey said individuals bear the most responsibility. It appears from this poll that most people surveyed favor government intervention or policies, if any, to be in the form of recommendations. Eight in 10, for example, favor government policies that make it easier for individuals to make healthier choices, such as providing nutrition and exercise guidelines. Not a novel idea, and of course we already have these guidelines. From this poll and in general, it is evident that Americans prefer a nudge to a shove, and want the benefits of government help but not restrictions.

Government does not always get it right in efforts to shape personal behavior. Prohibition was a bust, but speed limits, seat belt laws, and public smoking restrictions have made significant improvements in our nation’s health. While government doesn’t always succeed in fostering healthy behavior, the unrelenting severity of the obesity epidemic signals that something must change in our approach to obesity. Obesity is a disease which causes other chronic diseases. Chronic disease destroys lives and creates crisis in our healthcare system and the broader economy. State actions within schools to decrease soda and other poor nutritional food products for students have been beneficial. Perhaps even the large sugary beverage restrictions in New York City will prove helpful. Sidoti concludes that smart government can at times provide positive solutions or the impetus to change. Government needs to provide individuals with what they need to make their own choices while finding some tipping points in legislation that will save lives, improve health, and decrease public costs.

Click here to read Sidoti’s column in U.S. News & World Report.

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