Fat Taxes and Foucault
In recent months, proposals for “fat taxes” have gained growing popularity amongst certain academic and political circles. Proponents for such measures suggest that such policies would help lower America’s obesity rate and/or help fund a public healthcare plan. A series of articles from Slate.com invoke (in part) a seemingly Foucauldian lens in examining this trend.
Before exploring these articles, it should be noted that this post in no way intends or should be used as a systematic analysis of American healthcare, documenting all the complexities of this debate from a political, sociological, biological, psychological, and historical perspective. Instead, this post simply intends to highlight the continuing importance and relevance of Foucault’s powerful sociological insight.
For the purposes of simplicity, this post labels policy suggestions that propose either directly taxing “obese” individuals or implementing a surcharge on “fatty” foods and beverages (such as a soda tax) as a fat tax. Such proposals are not an entirely new phenomenon, as Slate’s coverage notes that during World War II, physiologist A.J. Carlson suggested charging “overweight” citizens a fee of $20 per pound overweight in order to fund the war effort. However, recently, it appears as if such measures are experiencing a resurgence in popularity as potential remedies to America’s “war” on obesity.
All three of the Slate articles identify some of the concerns with these initiatives. For example, one article alleges that the main impact of a soda tax would fall unevenly on poor, nonwhite citizens. While these citizens may genuinely enjoy the taste of such highly sugared beverages, the author documents how price also plays a role. Many poor families simply cannot afford the “healthier” premium beverages. Consequently, some may suggest that a tax on highly-sugared beverages penalizes poor families for not being able to afford healthier choices.
Additionally, the author of these articles claims that these policies may further encourage America’s discrimination against “fat” individuals. According to the author, “fat” Americans already face social prejudices, which result in such a wide variety of adverse consequences as lower wages, less education, and higher rates of stress and depression, and the implantation of these “fat taxes” would only further promote such negative treatment.
When framed in this manner, it’s easy to see how Foucault’s notion of a disciplinary society applies to this issue. While “fat tax” advocates may have the best intentions in mind, their passion may inadvertently be sponsoring the further governing of our bodies. As Foucault argues, such a distinction leads to the construction of an “healthy body” ideal type, which warrants social actions against those considered to be “unhealthy.” However, one of Foucault’s key contributions is that such a distinction governs all of us, compelling us to behave in the appropriate manner (assuming the “healthy body”) in order to avoid social scrutiny and penalization.
Certainly, there is much more to this complex and highly important issue. However, perhaps it would beneficial for all parties to take a deep breadth and examine the rhetoric and all the possible social implications of these policies before moving forward with any substantive policy suggestions.