There is nothing like the aroma of strong, fresh coffee. So it was as I woke one recent day. My executive officer had left for work, but graciously left the coffee and its aroma for me to enjoy.
Down the stairs I tottered with my dog (who pretends to be too feeble to manage the stairs by himself). I let him out, let him back in, gathered a cup of the brew, and entered my office.
“Hi,” she said in her silky voice. Yes, sitting there primly in a muumuu, with a box of doughnuts on her knees, was Myrtle, my muse, the inspiration missing from these columns for so many weeks.
“Hi, yourself,” I rejoined with my usual distinctive wit. “Where have you been? And what’s with the doughnuts? I thought you were on a serious diet. In fact, weren’t you talking about barometric surgery the last time you were here?”
“It’s bariatric surgery,” Myrtle said, smiling indulgently. “And yes, I did talk about it. But I’m beyond that now. I have found peace. Have a doughnut? I got a selection, but no chocolate, no jelly, just as you like them.”
“This is great,” I said, my mouth halffull of a cinnamon-sugared delight.
“Yes, but we must enjoy them while we can,” Myrtle said. “Soon, they will prohibit doughnuts. Or,” she reflected, “they will outlaw eating them in public places or near the entrance to schools, hospitals and office buildings. Their relatives, the elephant ears, are disappearing from high school football games and county fairs.”
“Come on, Myrtle,” I said, “you’re making doughnuts sound like cigarettes.”
“Exactly!” she exploded, with a rage I had not before witnessed. “I understand the secondhand smoke, even though I don’t put much faith in the argument or the evidence. But my weight is not a matter for government policy. Our state and federal governments are making ‘obesity’ an obscenity, without considering the significance of their war on individual choice.”
“Hold on, Myrtle,” I said taking a bite from my third doughnut. “We now recognize that we are all in this together. If you or I overeat, we can become a burden on the people who end up paying our medical bills. With the socialized medicine we have today, through government-subsidized, employer-sponsored health insurance, if I get a heart attack and you suffer from diabetes, other people will pay the bill. Ultimately, it is the taxpayer who gets stuck with the consequences of our gluttony.”
“Well,” Myrtle said, gathering her ample dress about her ample self, “I didn’t sign on for any of this. I never elected someone to lecture me or regulate my legal, adult behavior.”
“You don’t have to elect someone to do that,” I said. “It’s what politicians do. They set up a program to help people, then they tell people that the program costs too much, then they try to change people’s behavior so they can get rid of the program they started.
“People eat and suffer the consequences of doing so. People smoke, drink, take drugs, speed, stay out in the rain and suffer the consequences of their behavior. But, in a society dedicated to freedom, a society based on the liberal ideas of John Stuart Mill, those actions are permissible if they do no damage to others. Sadly, we are willing to prevent individual behavior in fear of adverse consequences before we will hunt down firms or governments for their violations of our welfare.
“We will treat private, individual behaviors as abominations, unlawful acts, before we demand an end to injurious pollution. We create seat-belt laws, rather than require that our cars and trucks be safe on the roads.”
I would have gone on in this vein, but Myrtle was sitting in the rocker, snoring gently, her lips powdered with sugar. She is an inspiration.
Marcus taught economics more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.