At the 2020 Summit one of the more surprising recommendations was a so-called “fat tax”. Although such a policy represents a number of practical obstacles, it also raises a number of fundamental ideological objections.
For one, a fat tax manifests itself in considerable intervention in the daily lives of individuals. Moreover, a fat tax inevitably involves a punitive government influence on individual decision-making about food – which is (of course) legally available without restrictions, and something about which individuals have made decisions for millennia without the “assistance” of governments.
Free market liberals believe that the most effective method of changing behaviour is to incentivise individuals to behave in a particular way. This is why we have tax breaks for investment in research and development, for example. Similarly, this is also why we have tax breaks for mining companies that regenerate the environment after mining ceases. In certain circumstances, incentivising behaviour yields better results than penalizing behaviour.
It is interesting, therefore, that bureaucrats rarely entertain the idea of incentivising people when it comes to personal health and well-being. On the contrary, there is a compelling role for government in encouraging people by providing the correct pattern of incentives to lead more active lifestyles. Britain’s National Health Service was founded with two missions – to cure ills, and to create a healthier society; just like Australia’s health system, it has focussed entirely on the former.
There is little need to cite statistics on how inactive our society has become. We are lazy. We play less sport than ever. We watch more television than ever. We spend more time being stationary than moving around. This damages our health as the pounds pile on. Given the rising health costs associated with this (and the economic costs of having an increasingly unfit workforce) Government intervention could be a good way to get us off our couches, in principle. But, instead of a fat tax, it is worth considering an alternative policy: Fun Runs.
Under this policy, each local government would be empowered to hold 10 or 20 km Fun Runs on a quarterly basis (or more frequently). Local councils would be responsible for organizing the logistical side of the fun run and for receiving registrations from individual participants; funding would ideally be contributed by federal and state governments, since both are involved in some way in providing health services. To encourage participation in the local Fun Runs, each individual who leaves the starting line and crosses the finish line within a pre-determined finish time would be given a cheque for, say, $20; a relatively small, but nonetheless substantial amount. Having previously registered one’s entry in the Fun Run in the lead up to the race, the cheque would be waiting for the individual runner at the finish line – you get the reward immediately. Cheques for people who registered, and failed to show, could be destroyed on the day of the Fun Run as a striking illustration of the immediate monetary benefit foregone by one’s unwillingness to participate.
The time limit would apply to every person over a certain age, say 15 or 18. Seniors, less able-bodied people, and children, would be encouraged to participate but would not be required to finish in a set time. Thus, the Fun Run also encourages broad-based community participation in physical activity.
Additional cash prizes could be awarded for the best time by an amateur in a number of age categories. Times for individuals could be recorded and kept by the Local Government concerned. If individuals finished faster in subsequent Fun Runs, they would be eligible to receive slightly more – say $25 – at the finishing line, instead of $20. The cash amount could increase incrementally each time the individual improves his or her time (up to a certain limit!).
The mean or median finishing time for all runners in a particular shire or council area could be calculated. Competition between council areas could be an instrumental way to build community support for the project. Imagine the announcement: “…and this quarter, Baulkham Hills Shire Council finished first, ahead of Waringah Shire Council by a median time of 4 minutes.”
The Fun Run initiative is an inexpensive way for the government to promote physical activity. It involves no coercive intervention into people’s lives. It encourages people to get involved in their local community. In a small way, it offsets the private costs incurred by individuals to keep active - for example, the cost of buying running shoes or paying for a gym membership - without encountering the problems that would exist if a tax deduction for such costs were offered. After all, when such a tax deduction is offered for such items, it can never be ensured that they are actually utilised. A small monetary reward, however, for completing a fun run, is observable, identifiable, accountable and completely equitable - any individual who starts and finishes the fun run receives the reward.
While applying equitably to all members of society, the fun run could in effect provide a greater incentive to those who truly need the additional encouragement provided by a relatively small cash prize. Individuals on lower incomes could conceivably be incentivised more while also receiving funding they might need to engage in physical activities, again, by offsetting (for example) the cost of new running shoes. For a very significant part of society, this additional amount could make a real difference to the disposable income – it comes without tax, instantly, and it comes with a real sense of being deserved.
Of course, local governments are already strapped for cash and it would be ridiculous to hold a Fun Run if the result were a corresponding (or disproportionate) rise in council rates. On the contrary, the logistical costs of holding the quarterly event could be offset by private sponsorship. Local gymnasiums, health food companies and sports brands, and particularly local businesses, would jump at the opportunity to be involved in such a great local event.
Local governments are ideal agents for this policy because of their knowledge of the local area in which Fun Runs could be held. It is also a legitimate activity for local governments since it potentially has a great impact on community involvement, community cohesion and community fitness. Local governments have invested heavily in providing cycle and running tracks. This would be a good event to put those investments to use.
Government involvement in health and fitness need not be punitive, it need not be focused on food, and it need not be framed in tax deductions or tax penalties. Rather, a simple policy such as the quarterly Fun Run initiative could provide just the right incentive to give individuals a kick to get their fitness regime off to a running start.