THE BLOG
12/07/2010 11:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Does It Take a Village to Overcome Obesity?

Sarah Palin's shot at Let's Move!, First Lady Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign, during a recent talk radio appearance came off as another example of the Alaskan's instinct for the controversial. She's against discouraging kids from over-indulging in unhealthy foods and vegetating in front of the screen? What's up with that?

Palin's attack on government for encouraging kids to eat and live more healthily is not about whether junior should polish off another sack of fries. It is about whether Mrs. Obama, in Palin's words, "...cannot trust parents to make decisions for their own children." Palin tells the First Lady to "leave us alone, get off our back, and allow us as individuals to exercise our own God-given rights to make our own decisions...."

Palin is a governmental minimalist: government should allow everyone to make their own decisions about what to put in their bodies. If we choose self-destruction, well, that is our call. Thus Let's Move!, the White House's campaign to get parents, food companies, schools and communities to provide a healthier dietary and exercise environment for our kids, intrudes into family and individual decisions. (SS+K, the agency I co-founded, worked with the White House on the Let's Move! campaign). Palin also knocks the First Lady for deeming most of us "incapable" of deciding what is best for our children.

Government "intrusions" always come under severe scrutiny when budgets do not balance, and Mrs. Palin is hardly unique in her desire to limit government's role. Utah's next Senator, Mike Lee, argues that the Department of Education has no place within our constitutional system. The dean of elected libertarians, Congressman Ron Paul, would abolish the IRS along with the income taxes its collects. Palin attracts more attention with her comments, but her anti-government beliefs reflect a powerful populist trend. Her dismissal of "Let's Move!" raises interesting questions about future health policy in light of the Tea Party's ascent.

In the 1980s, many on the left dismissed Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign, but who would criticize her efforts now? Would the liberals who found the campaign silly and shallow? What about libertarians who, like Mrs. Palin, think First Ladies have no place telling us free spirits what to swallow? Mrs. Reagan made 110 "Just Say No" public appearances in 1984, to raise awareness about the dangers of narcotics. By 1988, "Just Say No" clubs surpassed 12,000 and cocaine use among high-school seniors dropped by one-third. Despite the skepticism it evoked, "Just Say No" helped the cause.

Like obesity, smoking is a public health disaster, destroying lives while inflating health care costs. Was the Truth campaign that reduced smoking rates an intrusion or a godsend? It all depends on your view of the proper role of government in our personal decision making. Do the FDA and the EPA do more harm than good? That depends on what you fear more -- a loss of choice and freedom, or salmonella and toxic waste dumps.

We may not want the government telling us when we can chat on our cell phones, but laws prohibiting cell phone use while driving save lives. Distracted drivers killed 5,500 people and injured another 500,000 last year. Should government stop telling us what to do in our own cars -- on our own phones, for God's sake! -- or should states enforce safe driving laws against blabbering road killers?

The libertarian aversion to government intervening in our personal decisions carries a steep price because many Americans make lousy personal decisions that produce catastrophic social consequences. Yes, food companies that popularize dishes with 23 grams of fat are culpable, but what about parents who permit or even encourage their children to bulk up on fatty food? They too are responsible for this awful fact: over 30% of American kids are dangerously overweight and prime candidates for serious disease. The economic and national security consequences of Palin's vision are catastrophic: ERs overwhelmed by the reoccurring and expensive complications of diabetes, teenagers suffering from the cardiac problems of 60-year-olds, and young people unfit for military duty.

Libertarians often have the most potent slogans. No one wants government dictating our personal choices. But Mrs. Palin and others who object to the First Lady's campaign to encourage American families to adopt healthier lifestyles offer no strategy for a healthier America beyond "let them eat cake." What to eat is a personal decision, but overeating is a national crisis. That's why we should all support "Let's Move!"