Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tolerance, Acceptance, and Civility

A libertarian perspective

There is a phenomenal episode of South Park in which the main characters are forced to visit a "Museum of Tolerance" where they are bombarded by PC propaganda on various social and racial issues. When the brainwashing doesn't work, the kids are sent to a Nazi-style "Tolerance Camp" for more intensive indoctrination. The moral of the story is the difference between acceptance and tolerance. To tolerate something, as one of the young heroes precociously explains, is simply to put up with it. It does not mean you have to like it or approve of it. And so all that coercive inculcation had not been to impart the children with tolerance, after all, but rather to mandate approval, to force acceptance.

The distinction is lost on many people. We should seriously want social toleration, in the narrow sense, meaning the willingness of people to coexist with those of different opinions, lifestyles, religions, ethnicities, and so on, and to refrain from using force to make others conform to their own will. But not everyone is going to like everyone else, or want to associate with everyone else. To impose acceptance on people is to be intolerant and make a crime out of their thoughts.

Libertarianism boils down to true tolerance. To live and let live, to refrain from initiating force or threatening or delegating initiatory force against peaceful people, is the essence of the libertarian ethic. It does not mean that libertarians approve of all behavior that we would shield from violent sanction. It is common to confuse what libertarians believe should be legal, should be tolerated, with what we think is virtuous. Crack cocaine and racist job discrimination should both be legal. They should both be tolerated. To say this is not necessarily to endorse them or to say that everyone needs to accept them.

It seems that a lot of people have trouble with this concept because they tend to believe that their own idea of what's good and bad naturally corresponds to what should be enforced by the state. It is discouraging that most people accept using the government to force their way on others and see government as a proper moral guide. While acceptance is something that is obviously going to vary from person to person, and tolerance is something we should all want everyone to practice, there is something else that the world could use a whole lot more of, and that's civility.

Civility lies somewhere between tolerance and acceptance. It is tolerance, for example, to leave in peace those whose consensual sexual practices one might find distasteful. It is acceptance to actually approve of what they're doing. Civility is, at a minimum, not being a total jerk, spewing lewd invectives at them every time they walk by on the street.

Tolerance is not punching someone in the face because of his religion. Acceptance is being completely okay with what he believes. Civility is, at least, not mocking his God in front of him at every opportunity. Not relentlessly insulting others is a bare minimum. Civility, however, should not always be at its minimum. It is often proper to treat others with some respect, to give them, when you can afford to give it, the benefit of the doubt, to be open to learning and gaining from their humanity even if you don't accept everything about them, to be polite and, when appropriate, to smile.

The market, thankfully, does encourage civility among people, for the most part. It inspires people to trade with one another courteously, to engage with each other politely enough to share resources and perspectives. Commerce cannot, however, create civility all on its own. Indeed, the relationship between the two is reciprocal. Just as trade bolsters civility, civility enables market transactions. In the process, acceptance is to some extent encouraged, but one grand wonder of the market is how well it caters to diverse demands, including those of the petulant and contemptuous. You can refuse to accept 99% of the world and still get what you need. But while acceptance is not intrinsic to market transactions, the market simply cannot function without a requisite amount of tolerance.

Tolerance is in fact the baseline of civility. It is impossible to be genuinely civil if you're being positively aggressive. The president who bombs a village is less civil than the most inconsiderate moviegoer you've ever had the misfortune to sit behind. The drug war is more uncivil than a junkie relieving himself on the sidewalk. Taxation is less civil than common greed. After a century of the global empire and myriad progressive experiments, it is no surprise that America's not as civil a place as it used to be. Without at least some civility there is no civilization. Without being tolerant there is no being civilized. We should accept this today if we want the future to be tolerable.

Some degree of acceptance probably helps in maintaining tolerance and civility. The PC establishment can go way too far, but accepting some differences among people, even if you don't embrace them completely, helps make civility easier and tolerance effortless. But the biggest danger is in being intolerant against that which you simply don't want to accept. Of this, the PC establishment is frequently guilty, as it puts so much stock in its version of acceptance that it often neglects tolerance.

In the ideal world, everyone would at least stay civil. On a day-to-day, personal basis, it is usually best to try to be civil, even when others aren't even trying. Civility can be hard to achieve, even harder to retain. Perhaps sometimes it's too hard, and being uncivil is perfectly appropriate. Sometimes it's impossible to disagree without being disagreeable. But even then, it is surely possible to be uncivil without being uncivilized.


Government and the obesity "Epidemic"

Obesity is an increasingly common problem around the world, and especially in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight, and nearly half of those are heavy enough to be considered obese. The proportion of obese children in the United States will almost double over the next four years, according to projections. By 2010, nearly half of all children in North and South America will be obese, according to a recent report in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity.

Medicaid and Medicare bear significant costs for treating health conditions associated with obesity, including diabetes and cardiovascular problems. A 2001 Surgeon General's report put the social cost of obesity at about $117 billion per year. Because of all this, public health advocates are increasingly calling for government intervention to slow the increasing incidence of obesity. They are trying to remove from schools foods and drinks they consider unhealthy. Trial lawyers have explored suing fast food restaurant chains. One of the more extreme proposals is a so-called "fat tax" to offset government medical expenditures and raise the cost of unhealthy foods.

Current government efforts to control obesity largely take the form of consumer education and food industry requirements for transparency in nutritional information. The federal government has required food producers to disclose nutritional information for years. The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (1966) required all consumer products involved in interstate commerce to have labels that are both accurate and informative. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 further enhanced labeling requirements. Many of the larger restaurant chains and fast food establishments make the nutritional information of their menus available on Web sites or on printed menus or posters.

Could government do even more? Economists generally agree government should intervene when the costs of one person's actions are borne by others. However, most also say government should not interfere when the cost is borne primarily by the individual. The reason economists give is that individuals are better than government at making choices that best fit their preferences. For example, even though we might prefer to be slender, we value the taste of food in the present more than we dislike the added weight that will accumulate in the future. Hence, we are only as fat as we want to be.

But USDA researchers Fred Kuchler and Nicole Ballenger argue not all of the bad consequences ("negative externalities") of obesity are borne solely by the individual. Some, they note, are absorbed by society in the form of higher health care expenditures. That problem could be remedied by charging higher health insurance premiums to obese people. The fact insurers have not done so is probably because it is not worth the effort to underwrite populations in this way.

Economist Arnold Kling, author of the forthcoming book Crisis of Abundance, suggests there is an additional role for government, but it is limited. In an interview for this story, he said, "The impression I have is that we do not have knowledge in these areas that is sufficiently definitive to provide a basis for a major policy initiative." He continued, "I believe that the main contribution of the government at this point would be to continue to support research concerning the causes, consequences, and treatments for obesity."

As Kling points out, to fight obesity we must first understand what causes it. Obesity is a complex medical condition and likely related to a number of different factors. People often blame overeating, too much fast food, and sedentary lifestyles. Other theories include increased automobile use and living in suburban neighborhoods where people walk less than in other areas. Carbonated beverages and sweeteners made from corn syrup are often mentioned as contributing factors. But not everyone agrees preventing obesity is simply a case of counting calories consumed and subtracting those that are burned.

Sandy Szwarc, a registered nurse who has worked with international obesity researchers and eating disorder clinicians for years, says the evidence for obesity being directly caused by diet and exercise is less clear than people often believe. Szwarc says, "It's easy to accept the popular beliefs that inactivity, gluttony, and eating the wrong foods are the cause of fatness, and to believe that exercising and eating 'right' will keep us slim. But researchers, using a variety of methodologies, have shown time and again for more than 50 years that it isn't consumption of fat, sugars, or any 'bad' food; 'overeating'; or even exercise that predicts and precedes the onset of obesity. It is primarily our genes and restrictive eating," Szwarc concludes, with the latter term referring to caloric restriction diets. Szwarc points to work by the prominent researcher Jeffrey M. Friedman, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller University, who finds obesity has a hereditary basis similar to a person's height.....

Another important observation is that obesity has increased largely due to the stroke of a bureaucratic pen. Dr. Eric Oliver, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic, argues the obesity epidemic is largely a creation of the diet industry. Over the past 30 years, the weight of the average adult American has risen by only 8 to 12 pounds. At the same time, however, the definition of what is overweight was lowered by the National Institutes of Health.

As Oliver told Health Care News, "The only reason that over 60 percent of Americans are 'overweight' and roughly 25 percent are 'obese' is because these definitions are set at unreasonably low levels. In fact, the official definitions of overweight and obese are based on dated and inaccurate data linking body weight to mortality and were written by a handful of doctors with extensive financial ties to the weight loss industry. The most recent scientific evidence suggests that the optimal weight for mortality is what we consider 'overweight' (i.e., a BMI between 25 and 29)."

It's easy to see there is no simple fix for the obesity "epidemic." Many of the factors behind obesity are desirable to society: lower rates of smoking, higher standards of living, less expensive foods, and technology that makes food cheap and work easy. These are indicators of economic development, and most Americans see them as worth carrying a few extra pounds for. To achieve the goal of making Americans reach an unreasonably low body mass standard, anti-obesity advocates will increasingly have to confront this reality.

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