By Chris | October 22, 2007
Children in England and Wales have been routinely weighed at school for the last two years. Now, parents of children as young as 5 will receive notification if their child is obese, reports the Times. When I was 6 years old, a routine eye screening caught my lazy eye while there was still time to correct it with an eye patch. Of course, the patch made it much more difficult to kick a soccer ball and it had a tendency of “falling off” during recess.
The government definitely has a role screening children to identify ailments that otherwise might go untreated. But does obesity fall in this category? If a child’s parents haven’t noticed that their child is 30 pounds overweight I highly doubt a letter from the school district will cause them to spring into action.
When I learned that my eye sight was not perfect, I was devastated. Not because it drastically reduced the likelihood I’d ever play professional baseball, but because I knew that glasses invited ridicule. It is only a matter of time before a child’s peers find out that he is so fat that his parents have been notified. Secrets have a tendency of spreading in elementary school.
But, what does this have to do with economics? The collective nature of medicine in the United Kingdom and elsewhere results in “externalities” that didn’t exist before. Regulators are focusing on obese children because they grow up into obese adults, and obese adults have more health problems. Weighing children is one method of addressing this externality, but isn’t a Pigou tax also appropriate? In the best blog post I’ve read all month, Free Exchange (The Economist’s blog) argues against “fat taxes.” Here’s my favorite quote, but I recommend reading the entire post:
“A prior choice to socialise previously private costs does not throw us ineluctably into a game of restricting liberties to minimise the externalities our choice of system has caused.”