Jogging with Mao

In China, radio broadcast exercise regimens first began in 1951 and reached their peak in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.

Every day, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., students and workers collectively exercised for eight minutes. Let's just say they were strongly 'incentivized' in participating.

The Communist Party intends to bring back those routines the hard way. In 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that officials planned to make the daily fitness routines compulsory for all employees of state-owned enterprises. Similarly, when the Nazi Party in Germany proposed its program in the 1930s, it included the following provision: "The state has the duty to help raise the standard of national health … by increasing physical fitness through the introduction of compulsory games and gymnastics."

Here, in Canada, there is a more and more prevailing reasoning which goes something like this: the state is justified to intervene toward people who have "unhealthy" behaviours or who consume products with special health risks (say, tobacco, sugar and fat) since they increase health-care costs, which are borne by taxpayers as a whole given the socialized nature of our health-care system. For similar reasons, companies who provide those types of products should also be sued and/or regulated out of existence.

This reasoning is actually pretty coherent: since our health-care system is socialized, smokers, for instance, are causing a prejudice to society by increasing health costs for everyone (I'm purposely putting aside here the grim argument according to which smokers actually end up costing less than the average non-smoker in terms of total consumption of social programs since they tend to die younger).

The same logic can be applied to behaviours other than smoking. This is why public health advocates are proposing special taxes and additional regulations on sugar and fat.

But a big part of what makes people unhealthy is insufficient physical activity. In that sense, Mao's China and Nazi's Germany were ahead of us, in so far as they understood the importance of 'encouraging' fatties to hit the treadmill.

There's only a small detail missing from that apparently logical public health reasoning: the fundamental importance and value of individual liberty and personal responsibility. Those values actually are at the very basis of our civilization.

My point is not to say that public health officials in Canada are communists or fascists. As a matter of fact, one of my closest neighbours works for Health Canada in the anti-tobacco field and she's the nicest person you can imagine. She has all the best intentions of the world.

What I'm saying is that when you allow for the machinery of the state to step in, in order to dictate lifestyle choices under the pretext of reducing health-care costs or improving the overall health of citizens, history teaches us that there is a slippery slope in terms of violations of individual liberty.

As the financial situation of most provincial governments continues to decay (and rest assured that it will) and as government health spending keeps growing faster than what taxpayers can afford (and rest assured that this trend will continue for the foreseeable future), the pressure will increase to trump individual liberty in favour of an ever-more proactive nanny state. Within the public health logic, it just makes so much sense.

In the end, if socialized medicine has the unintended consequence of leading us toward a totalitarian society controlling our every move, I believe the solution is to rethink the system instead of eating tofu while pedalling our bikes down the road to serfdom.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.

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