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Is Democracy the Cause of Obesity?

Res Publica

August 2013

by Erin Sutter

As a Frenchman, born of aristocratic blood in the early 1800s, who was open to democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville was uniquely positioned to both extol the virtues of democracy and criticize its flaws. He believed that governments shape the men and women who live under them. In his work, Democracy in America,Tocqueville presented perceptive and wide-ranging insight, not only into democracy but into the democratic mind itself, as he sought to delineate democracy’s good and bad effects on men.

I first became acquainted with Tocqueville during my freshman year of college. Despite the fact that his writing style seemed very dense to my freshmen mind, I was fascinated by his insights. I continued to encounter Tocqueville over the next several years, the culmination of which was a class wholly devoted to his book. With each rereading I gained a deeper understanding of not only the American culture, my culture, but also myself. It seems that now, no matter what the topic of conversation, I am reminded of Tocqueville and his thoughts on democracy.

Such an instance presented itself one afternoon when I found myself enjoying the company of several friends as we finished lunch. The conversation turned to a discussion on America’s growing obesity problem and the way in which Americans often approach food. During this conversation, I was struck by the parallels between Tocqueville’s discussion of equality and freedom and the typical American mindset toward food. These parallels offered a partial explanation as to why there is an obesity problem in America and not, for example, in England. While there are many factors that play into the American obesity problem such as genetics, the accessibility of cheap, fattening foods, and the growing lack of physical activity, these parallels suggest that there is an aspect of democracy, a mindset that it produces, that fosters a proclivity toward obesity.

Democracy, Tocqueville argued, conditions men to love equality more than freedom. Freedom and equality are often believed to be integrally connected so that if one increases, so will the other. Tocqueville believed that while equality and freedom can work together they are in fact distinct. One could be free but not equal or equal but not free.

Equality, Tocqueville wrote, presents innumerable daily pleasures that all can enjoy. Americans, for example, acknowledge and speak to each other as equals which is not common in aristocratic societies. The perils, to which equality tends, however, are neither immediate nor clearly visible. In an effort to keep men equal, restrictions on freedom are often employed to prevent any one person from being better than another. The loss of any one freedom may seem small, but when added together, over time, those losses diminish and eventually eradicate freedom.

Freedom, in contrast to equality, presents daily reminders of its ills and offers benefits which are neither immediate nor clearly visible. Freedom is messy as it requires society to allow others to do as they choose as long as it does not infringe on another’s freedom. Consequently, freedom requires the daily sacrifice of allowing people to make bad decisions; this is in stark contrast to the daily pleasures presented by equality. The advantages of freedom, much like the dangers of equality, are not always easy to see but are only recognized after a period of time in the ability to think critically and evaluate one’s choices.

Tocqueville’s discussion of equality and freedom in America reveals a democratic predisposition toward desiring what is gratifying in the moment rather than focusing on the long term effects of one’s actions. This predisposition is, in part, to blame for the obesity problem of our modern age. Tocqueville’s belief that we are often all too willing to sacrifice our freedoms for the pleasures of equality is similar to the fact that we are often all too willing to sacrifice the benefits of healthy food for the pleasures of comfort foods, never stopping to fully consider the implications of those choices.

Delicious but unhealthy foods present to us daily charms. They allure us with the rich sugary taste of dessert, the caffeine rush of pop or coffee, or the convenience of prepackaged food. While they may produce an increase in poundage, the primary ills of these bad foods are neither immediate nor clearly visible. Who can see the inner workings of our bodies as the arteries slowly narrow or the immune system is compromised? It is only over time, as the symptoms begin to manifest, that we realize the effects. Like equality, the pleasures of unhealthy foods are immediate and tangible while the ills are subtle and slow to materialize.

The advantages of healthy food, like those of freedom, require sacrifice and are not readily observed. For Americans who like healthy foods, there is the sacrifice of choosing to limit the intake of the unhealthy foods they also desire. For those who do not like healthy foods the sacrifice is in choosing to eat them anyways. Just as it is impossible to see the unhealthy foods eroding arteries and weakening the immune system, so too, it is impossible to see the healthy foods strengthening the immune system or keeping everything running in top shape. It may only be in old age that one fully realizes how good the healthy food has been for the body.

While I am not attempting to blame the obesity problem in America on democracy, I am suggesting that there may be a connection between the obesity problem and our democratic heritage. This is a connection that needs to be pursued more extensively in our effort to reduce obesity in our nation. We can make regulations, to limit the size of the glass that restaurants can use to serve pop, for instance, but until the mindsets of our citizens are changed, we will continue, as a nation, to struggle with this problem. This is not to say that we should stop being a democratic nation. Democracy is a rich and wonderful heritage, but in order to avoid its pitfalls, we must both acknowledge the presence of those pitfalls and then foster those habits which are contrary to the dangerous tendency. In this way we can perhaps have our cake and eat it, too.

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