Given the centrality of utility theory to economic theory, it is not surprising that many economists think of the world’s problems and solutions as matters of personal responsibility. Or even worse, they claim that as long as individuals are free to make choices, there is little anyone should say or do to change the situation. For example, the Economist in 2003:
Why not tax fattening food – sweets, snacks, and take-aways? That might discourage consumption of unhealthy food and recoup some of the costs of obesity.
It might; but it would also constitute too great an intrusion on liberty for the gain in equity and efficiency it might (or might not) represent. Society has a legitimate interest in fat, because fat and thin people both pay for it. But it also has a legitimate interest in not having the government stick its nose too far into the private sphere. If people want to eat their way to grossness and an early grave, let them.
However, it is not clear that the freedom to buy whatever we want in the supermarket is really freedom in a deeper sense. A public health perspective suggests that we need to move beyond solely talking about the personal responsibility and realize the importance of the food environment, as explained by Marc Ambinder in The Atlantic:
… just being an American can naturally lead you to be obese: obesity is an almost inevitable consequence of living with our cultural norms, our history of agricultural production and subsidies, our long-standing socioeconomic inequalities, and the impact of technology on our behavior and bodies.