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No freedom to choose

By Nicola Wright - posted Wednesday, 13 June 2018

I once watched a speech on the nanny state by Brendan O'Neill who said that he didn't like the term nanny state, for two reasons. One of them was because he thought the term much too cutesy and benign to describe the insidious authoritarian nature of attempts to control how people live their lives. The other reason was because as a child his grandmother was called 'nanny' as was mine. His nanny drank stout for breakfast and smoked like a chimney, likewise my own nanny loved sweet treats, didn't partake in the kind of exercise that is recommended these days and didn't like eating salad. The lifestyles of our nannies were the antithesis of how the nanny state would like to see us behave.

But for those who didn't call their grandmothers 'nanny' while growing up, the term points to something rather more sinister: the nanny of the nursery, the paid provider of child-care, the strict and overpowering overseer, the person who applies arbitrary bed-times, feeding schedules and closely supervised outings. The harsh nanny is somebody who makes decisions for you, and doesn't trust you to make mistakes. Nanny does what she does 'for your own good.'

So when we talk about the nanny state, we are talking about the tendency for government and government bodies to make laws or levy taxes on a raft of lifestyle activities 'for our own good.' We see it in action in Australia in bicycle helmet laws, seat-belt laws, the banning of recreational drugs, laws against smoking in public, laws governing retail trading hours, plain packaging of cigarettes, anti-nicotine vaping laws, movie and games classifications, over the counter codeine restrictions, lock out laws, street drinking laws, prostitution laws and jaywalking laws. That's quite a list and it's not even comprehensive!


The nannying also manifests as nudging and hectoring in the form of food pyramids, exercise guides and mind numbing slogans the aims of which are to cajole us into eating our 2 + 5 serves of fruit and veggies each day. Have you heard of BETA? The Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government? BETA is our very own Nudge Unit. Their mission is to manipulate you into making more 'rational' choices, the assumption being that the behaviour they desire from you is rational, whilst your preferred preferences are not. In their own words, they want to "find new ways to improve the lives of all Australians." Because we're not capable of doing this ourselves you see.

And it's not just government departments who are guilty of it. Influential celebrities sometimes lever their popularity to try and change us for the better. Jamie Oliver is one example. He is outspoken about the diets of the poor – appalled in fact that they would rather buy a large screen TV and eat "chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers" than buy organic fruit and veggies. It wouldn't be so bad if the nannying only came in the form of these kinds of warnings and advice. But it goes beyond this. Jamie Oliver doesn't just dish out dietary advice to the plebs, he actively campaigns for legislation that would force people to behave in ways that he thinks are best. He successfully campaigned for a sugar tax on sugary drinks in the UK and now wants to extend it to milkshakes. He wants a ban on junk food advertising, and two for one pizza deals in supermarkets; and his reach extends to Australia as he calls for us to adopt similar measures. He calls the sugar tax a 'tax for love', even though a sugar tax only works to reduce consumption on people who are so poor that they literally cannot afford the extra pounds and are therefore forced to go without. Mission accomplished!

Jamie may be right about the dangers of sugar – eating less sugar is probably something that most of us would benefit from. And there's no doubt his motivations are good. But it has to be our own choice. Levying a lifestyle tax is paternalistic and unjustly punishes those who can afford it least. Meanwhile the government enjoys a boost in revenue as others continue to consume soft drinks like they always did. But it's not just taxes. Activities that don't actually have a victim, have been made crimes, and even the smallest of fines for things like not wearing a seatbelt or a bicycle helmet, that are designed to 'improve' your behaviour or save you from harm are enforced at the point of a gun, if ultimately you refuse to pay them.

Often as is the case with any well meaning intervention, negative unintended consequences result from laws designed to improve our lives. Laws that prohibit products that people want like recreational drugs, or cigarette packets without gory pictures on them inevitably result in a black market. The consequence is that police resources are taken up with prosecuting victimless crimes, to the point that more laws are enacted to undermine the organised crime networks that service these markets.

Another perverse consequence of these kinds of laws, is that they may be based on wrong or incomplete information. How many times has nutritional science declared certain that foods unhealthy, only to change their recommendations after new information comes to light? Imagine if during the 1980s the government enacted an 'egg tax' in an attempt to get us to eat less of them? Do you think we would easily shed ourselves of that tax, once it was in place – even if as science has now shown us – eggs were good for you all along? Do you think we would get a refund?

But even the most unhealthy lifestyle choices ought to be ours to make without punishment or hardship. And in making those decisions we get to think for ourselves and exercise our moral autonomy. As John Stuart Mill said "The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice."


In other words then, it's good for us to weigh up the pros and cons of wearing a bicycle helmet or drinking in bars until 4:00 am and to then come to a decision based on our own needs and preferences. Being forced to make a certain choice through the edicts of the state diminishes us all.

John Locke the enlightenment philosopher had this to say about it:

What if he neglect the care of his health or of his estate…Will the magistrate provide by an express law that such a one shall not become poor or sick? Laws provide…that the goods and health of subjects be not injured by the fraud and violence of others; they do not guard them from the negligence or ill-husbandry of the possessors themselves. No man can be forced to be rich or healthful whether he will or no.

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This article was first published by LibertyWorks. It  has been adapted from a talk given at the 6th ALS Friedman Conference on May 24-26 2018.

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About the Author

Nicola Wright is a senior writer at Liberty Works Inc.

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