Acton Commentary

Too Much Government Makes Us Sick


While Congress is busy working on health care reform, policy-makers are reluctant to admit that many of our nation’s health problems are linked to practices subsidized by taxpayers. An American diet heavily dependent on corn and corn-derivatives is linked to obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, Type II-Diabetes, constipation, joint pain, and other ailments. The tragic irony is that government subsidizes the low-cost production of the corn-based, unhealthy foods that make many people sick. Now the Obama administration wants to give these same policy-makers responsibility for our health care.

According to the Environmental Workers Group, corn subsidies in the United States totaled $56.2 billion from 1995-2006. This government intervention has encouraged the widespread use of corn syrup as a sweetener in many manufactured foods. Yet many of the unhealthiest foods are those with the highest levels of high-fructose corn syrup. In effect, government subsidies have made unhealthy foods extremely cheap to produce. Corn syrup is now found in an unbelievable number of products ranging from salad dressing to hot dogs.

Government policy-makers regularly prove themselves to be unwise decision-makers by continuing to introduce arbitrary agricultural price distortions that create incentives for producing unhealthy food through farm subsidies. Perhaps the most effective national health care initiative moving forward would be allowing markets to function so that people can make better food choices.

We cannot be good stewards of our bodies or nature if we do not have accurate information. Prices help to convey that information. For example, what would happen if the market determined actual corn prices? Not subsidizing corn would cause a needed price correction. Perhaps our hamburger value-meals would adjust in price creating disincentives to eat fast-food. Without corn and other agricultural subsidies, maybe the price of meat would adjust to a point encouraging different choices benefiting us all in the long-run. Maybe, for example, eating a 72-once steak at the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, Texas would be too expensive to consider.

While individuals are ultimately responsible to exercise good stewardship in choosing what and how much to eat, incentives can be distorted by government meddling in the market. Dr. Barry Sears, author of Toxic Fat: When Good Fat Turns Bad, argues, “The problem lies with America’s continually subsidizing of corn and soybean production.” Government subsidies generate “an oversupply of cheap refined carbohydrates and cheap vegetable oils that when combined give rise to increased diet-induced inflammation.” This inflammation in turn “activates the genes in people who are genetically predisposed to gain weight with relative ease,” giving rise to all the health problems connected to excessive weight. Medical spending for obesity is estimated to have reached $147 billion in 2008, an 87 percent increase in the past decade.

The August 31, 2009 issue of Time Magazine similarly noticed the corn subsidy link to America’s diet and health-care problems. The story explains why a burger, fries, and soft-drink can be cheaply purchased in most fast-food places for around $5 — “a bargain, given that the meal contains nearly 1,200 calories, more than half the daily recommended requirement for adults,” writes Bryan Walsh. Notably, the $100-billion fast food industry and the $23 billion snack food industry are built on corn subsidized by tax-payers. Is it any wonder that these foods tend to saturate lower-income neighborhoods?

Thanks in part to government policy-makers, unhealthy food is cheap and the cost of treating diet-related medical problems is exploding. There is general consensus that a healthier American diet would lead to better overall health and reduce healthcare costs.

The bottom line is this: if we want a healthier America, government should no longer subsidize farmers one penny, leaving the market free to give us the information we need to make good decisions. The Obama administration and Congress would do the country an enormous favor if it stopped asking us to assist the production of food that contributes to poor nutrition. This would be real progress toward better stewardship of our bodies, and better health.