If they come for our fructose, they will come for our fat next.
- 2004 — Tax on trans fats.
- 2010 — Tax on sugary junk food.
- 2011 — Tax on all foods containing more than 2.3 percent saturated fat.
This type of legislation raises the question of just what the role of government should be in the determining the foods we eat. Those of us in the ancestral health movement are faced with a strange dilemma: we live in a society wherein we have almost unlimited destructive food and lifestyle choices lying within our immediate grasp, while the preeminent solutions to all of life’s problems invariably lie on a spectrum between libertarian individualism and collectivist bureaucracy. Neither the problem nor the popular solutions have solid foundations in our ancestry.
As much as I consider myself a libertarian, as do many others in the ancestral health movement, we have to admit that the strict individualism promoted in many libertarian circles has no counterpart in traditional societies. Take, for example, the travels of Weston Price. Whether he was studying foragers, pastoralists, or agriculturalists, all of the healthy, successful groups he studied had strong collectivist ideals.
In Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (p. 170), Price wrote of the Australian Aborigines, “No member of their society would be allowed to live with the tribe if he had defied the ideals of the group. Immorality is cause for immediate death.”
In Time, Space, and the Unknown: Maasai configurations of power and providence (p. 127), anthropologist Paul Spencer wrote, “According to the Maasai stereotype, a sorcerer is a nefarious individualist, creeping through the bush and bent on his own eccentric course in a society that constantly demands gregarious sharing.”
In describing the Swiss villages of the Loetschental Valley (p. 25-26), Price described their system of compulsory schooling, which was under direct supervision of the Roman Catholic Church. A boy’s dream in this valley was to be a Vatican guard. It was the local priest who gathered the people together to “recognize the presence of Divinity in the life-giving qualities of the butter made in June when the cows have arrived for pasturage near the glaciers,” when they would “thank the kind Father for the evidence of his Being in the life-giving qualities of butter and cheese made when the cows eat the grass near the snow line.”
The people would eagerly celebrate their national holiday (p. 27) with bonfires “lighted at a given hour from end to end of the valley throughout its expanse” so that “every moutaineer on a distant crag” can see the lights, knowing “that the others are signalling to him that they, too, are making their sacred consecration in song which says ‘one for all and all for one.'” Price remarked:
This motive has been crystallized into action and has become a part of the very souls of the people. One understands why doors do not need to be bolted in the Loetschental Valley.
One thing all these groups certainly lacked was the modern bureaucratic state. I will not by any means deny that oppression and bureaucracy existed in antiquity, but the level of taxation and inflation we see today is very much a product of the twentieth century.
When I worked at Old Sturbridge Village, one of my responsibilities — apart from making pottery, bottoming shoes, firing black powder muskets, and running the saw, grist, and carding mills — was to learn as much as I could about 1830s New England. Although the Federal Government existed at this time, 90 percent of our taxes went to the local municipality where they were distributed by direct democracy. The typical town had an established, tax-funded church, and if you didn’t like it you could go start your own town.
The poor did not go hungry. Each year, families would bid in an auction of sorts to take care of poor individuals in exchange for a stipend from the town coffers. The lowest bidders would take that person into their homes as a member of their own family for the year. In the 1830s, the “poor farm” was a controversial experiment. Here, the town coffers would fund a farm where the poor could work to feed themselves. The success was questionable, however, because hardly anyone was poor except those who were mentally or physically disabled, and thus the poor lacked not only property but also the ability to use it efficiently.
It seems to me that one of the most insidious characteristics of the modern nation-state is that we have come to see the nation as synonymous with the state, outside of which we have no collective identity. Any of life’s problems falls at the feet either of the individual or of the state. Are there any poor among you? Feed him of your own personal charity, let him get his Federal check, or let him writhe in the misery he has created for himself. These are the choices we believe confront us.
I see several problems with us laying all of our collective responsibilities at the feet of the government:
- First, it depersonalizes things. We sweep our problems under the rug and pretend they do not exist. It is like pretending there is no death involved in eating vacuum-packed meat, which allows us to pretend our society is not violent and to denigrate the uncivilized and monstrous nature of the hunter. Shall we no longer take responsibility for teaching our young how to eat, as our ancestors did?
- Second, it diminishes our ability to experiment. The greater the scale of the forced collective action, the fewer collective actions can take place. Had the Federal Government rather than the towns instituted the poor farms of the 1830s, they’d have lost the ability to compare the successes and failures of different towns using different systems. Likewise, if the next decade brings saturated fat taxes to most modern industrialized nations, there will be little basis for tracking the successes and failures of these projects.
- Third, it will be the ideas with the most political power, not the best science, that win out.
Was it really that difficult to see that a saturated fat tax would follow a trans fat or sugar tax relatively quickly? In America, we have Daniel Steinberg, chair of the 1984 NIH Consensus Conference on cholesterol, advocating an “Ultimate, Long-Term Solution” to amass “an all-out commitment of money and man-power to reeducate and modify the behavior of the nation” modeled after the campaign against tobacco, which would use “the right combination of education, peer pressure, and legislation” to institute a lifelong “low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol diet” beginning “in infancy (7 months).” Nobel laureates Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein support Steinberg’s general views on lipids, and consider high intakes of PUFAs to be among the “powerful new weapons” that can aid “the anti-cholesterol forces,” in combating cholesterol “just like modern armies” (though I do not know what their political views are).
The movement against refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup has many bright people within it, but none of its leading luminaries have won Nobel prizes for their work on the biochemistry of sugar or have chaired any NIH Consensus Conferences on the definitive role of sugar in promoting disease.
I am not suggesting that this type of prestige is the only element in the recipe for political success. In the 1970s, JP Holdren co-authored a textbook entitled Ecoscience: Population Resources, Environment with Anne and Paul Ehrlich in which the authors advocated tax measures such as “high marriage fees” and “taxes on luxury baby goods and toys,” as well as “bonuses to first-time brides who are over 25, to couples after five childless years, or to men who accept vasectomies after their wives have had a given number of children” (p. 785). I don’t think the fact that President Obama appointed Holdren as his science advisor suggests we will see these types of taxes any time soon, any more than we will see some of the other measures they discussed like “a long-term sterilizing capsule that could be implanted under the skin and removed when pregnancy is desired” with “official permission,” or “adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods” (p. 787).
As the authors admitted, “compulsory control of family size is an unpalatable idea.” Their prediction that “an increasing number of people in the 1980s. . . . may begin demanding such control” (p. 788), however, was quite clearly wrong. It was the Rockefeller-headed 1969 UN World Population Panel’s advice that “the press, radio, television and movies” should “play an important part in legitimizing the concept of family planning and in developing broad community acceptance of the principles of responsible parenthood” that succeeded, precisely because the press, radio, television, and movies are “palatable” forms of entertainment and people enjoy being entertained more than they enjoy being taxed.
The Pentagon is a powerful institution, but when its representatives asked Congress for permission to start a Total Information Awareness database that “the government will use to monitor every purchase made by every American citizen,” which they considered “a necessary tool in the war on terror,” Congress laughed them out of the hall. Even the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) fell apart. In the ashes of these grandiose plans, we’ve been left with city schools implementing small-scale NAIS for children, the IRS collecting itemized lists of credit and debit purchases, and less ambitious plans to institute the “traceability for livestock moving interstate.” If these programs succeed, it is because the ideas of preventing truancy in school, making taxation fair, and making meat safe are all quite palatable.
Palatability to the populace is as much an ingredient for political success in a democracy as is the political power of an idea’s advocates. But along a spectrum running from appallingly repressive to endearingly liberating, taxing sugar and taxing fat lie pretty close to one another. Power and prestige in this country are on the side of taxing butter and eggs, not sugar. Denmark’s experience suggests that if we ever pass a sugar tax, a saturated fat tax is riding in on its heels. In America, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if the saturated fat tax came first. Only time will tell.
Is paying a little more for butter and eggs the end of the world? Hardly. The problem is that these trends are rising in tandem with increasing denial that rights to human person, property, and contract even exist. Farmers have recently been charged with the felony of conspiring to sell raw milk. A county judge recently ruled that “no, Plantiffs do not have a fundamental right to own and use a dairy cow or a dairy herd,” and that “no, Plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to produce and consume the foods of their choice.” The FDA recently stated that “there is no fundamental right to freedom of contract,” a claim they called “anachronistic.” It therefore seems dangerous to me to promote this ideology when it suits us, without realizing that it may more often be used against us, just as anti-trust legislation was so often used against the labor movement.
I do not think the solution lies in abandoning our collective responsibilities toward one another, but rather in forming grassroots, alternative institutions based on voluntary association that will be a means of support and mutual aid. Rather than spending our time complaining about taxes and reeducation campaigns, I believe we should withdraw our support from these programs but spend the balance of our time developing grassroots education campaigns, community and children’s programs, farm-to-consumer networks, academic symposia, and other such institutions.
We are entering a world wherein looking into another person’s eyes will be a revolutionary act. We should do it often.