I’ve been fat all my life, but only recently did I admit it to myself, and it took longer still for me to start putting serious effort into doing something about it. It required me to stop making excuses; to look unpleasant facts square in the eye and integrate them into my thoughts and actions. And it worked. I still have a ways to go; I’m not fit enough to be a Joe Boxer model (yet). But for the first time since my preadolescent childhood, I have a normal weight and (more importantly) a healthy body fat percentage.

Along the way, I’ve joined a number of online communities having the general purpose of cultivating self-responsibility. Most of the advice offered there has been solid and helpful: Every excuse is a claim to victimhood. Fat loss is in your control. You rule your body, not the other way around. There are no panaceas, no magic bullets; you have to work for it, and your biggest enemy is yourself. In short, the key to improving yourself, no matter how many obstacles hinder you, is accepting personal responsibility.

But not all of the discussion in those groups encourages personal responsibility. In the background, weaving its way amidst all of the reminders that if you want to change you need to get up and do something is the persistent whine of the idea that we need to do something. And who is this “we” of which that idea speaks? Your friends? Your family? Your fitness club? Your local community?

No. “We”, in this case, is of course the state.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not deny that there are deep, systemic issues behind the sudden increase of obesity (source) in some Western nations in the past few decades, led by the US (gold medal winner as always). There are, and they do fit the narrative of the social reformer. Poverty and obesity are linked, most strongly as a co-effect of poor education. Marketing is geared towards overconsumption rather than health. Unhealthy foods are being subsidized. Money, rather than science, determines what goes into health textbooks. All of these things are true. So, concludes the social reformer, obviously the government has to do something about it!

You know, the government. The small group of rich and powerful people that bails out the social reformer’s hated 1% at the expense of the poor and the middle class, because it is the 1%. The people who enforce a monopoly on the education system that has utterly failed to lift the poor out of poverty. The government that hires the same marketing firms to run their propaganda campaigns that big businesses use to convince you that you need another sandwich, Snickers, or supersized soda. The government that subsidizes unhealthy food in the first place. The government that invented a Food Pyramid that, by some strange accident, just happened to coincide with the interests of the world’s largest agricultural lobby. The government that then wrote health textbooks from which school districts are mandated to teach, containing that same politically correct, non-scientific misinformation.

That’s the government that is supposed to save us from the obesity epidemic.

And they sure are putting on a show of trying! Take for example Michelle Obama’s infamous school lunch reform program. I could write an entire article on everything that is wrong with it, and maybe I will—but not right now. In any case I won’t be surprising anyone by pointing out it has had all the effect of throwing a few marshmallows at an onrushing assailant (or maybe spoonfuls of tomato paste would be a more appropriate projectile in this case). Discussion has been raised of putting warning labels on food similar to those found on cigarette packs. New York City, the fiefdom of Mayor Bloomberg, infamously banned trans fats and large beverage sizes in restaurants (along with a long list of other things). Meanwhile in France, the government has moved to ban the distribution of free refills at restaurants. (I don’t have a source for this, but French acquaintances tell me it looks likely to pass.) Socially Responsible Fitness Enthusiasts applaud the move and say the US should follow suit. This will surely help the problem, because making things illegal always puts a stop to undesirable behaviors.

(That last sentence was sarcasm.)

But let’s put aside our distrust of government for the moment, and give broader consideration to the social reformers’ claim that we need to do something. Because before we even address who the we in question ought to be, there’s something more fundamental to their approach that needs to be addressed: the construction of a we that is capable of solving a problem at a social level, made out of individuals who have demonstrated a catastrophic inability to solve the problem in their personal lives.

(By the way, this issue is by no means unique to liberal social reformers. As I indicated in my last article, it applies just as strongly to any libertarian who believes that the government will ever change before the people who keep on voting for the damn thing do.)

Earlier, I mentioned that poverty and obesity are linked, but as co-effects of a shared cause rather than poverty causing obesity. In fact, whereas a person below the poverty line is more likely to be overweight than normal weight, most overweight people in the US are well above the poverty line. Clearly the problem is not as simple as ending the dietary/nutritional effects of poverty in order to end obesity. Redistributing wealth to poor people with unhealthy habits will create wealthy people with unhealthy habits. The solution to the problem lies at a deeper level, and that level is personal.

In plain terms, our society is characterized by such shortsighted and irresponsible thinking that, in a country where food is cheaper than almost anywhere else in the world, Americans spend two to three times the global average on food, and have an obesity rate to match that spending. That trend is an aggregate of personal choices. No matter how much social issues contribute to these problems (government interference most of all), individuals are still ultimately responsible. We can choose to dwell on our collective victimhood, or we can make the best of our individual situations. The FDA and USDA may have lied about healthy eating, and my health teachers may have failed to teach me about portion control. But in the end, I was the one who had to take the steps to lose weight. I had to stop blaming my genes and metabolism, and learn self-control. I had to find the diet that worked for me and stick to it. And it wasn’t the social reformers who helped me do that. Michelle Obama, Michael Bloomberg, and the government of France didn’t have anything to do with it. I have only to thank the people who insisted, against all my objections, that getting fit was within my personal ability to achieve.

Reform does need to happen at the macro level. But it will never emerge out of society made up of people who will not do what they can with what they have in their own, personal spheres of influence. The social reformer would do better to talk about the empowerment of individuals over their own lives than to advocate for the empowerment of the state over the individual, and he would do better yet to contribute to the former out of the means that lie within his own power. Because ultimately, even where the state cannot be held to blame for the macro-level problems we face, the best it can do is redundant to what the individual can do for himself, his family, friends, and community. And that potential can only be reached once the individual embraces personal responsibility. Excuses and blame, even when rooted in truth, are only useful to those who wish to cling to helplessness and victimhood. And nobody who will not help himself is capable of helping anyone else.