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.
So laws should only exist to protect us from fraud or harm from others, NOT to force us to live healthy or wealthy lives – ultimately we are responsible for the lives we lead.
But the overriding irony in Australia about laws designed to protect us from ourselves, is that we are forbidden by the state to protect ourselves from real threats. It is illegal in Australia for any person to carry a ‘weapon’ for self defence in the absence of imminent harm. Obviously that includes firearms, but it is also illegal to carry mace or pepper spray. In all states except Western Australia mace and pepper sprays are classified as prohibited weapons- you can’t even legally buy them without a permit and permits are not issued for the purposes of self defence. In WA it’s more confusing. Mace and pepper spray are restricted weapons which means you can buy them but can’t actually carry them with you unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect you may be attacked.
In 2014, journalist Claudia Fleurs was found to be carrying a small keyring with a pocket knife and a 10 ml can of mace in her backpack on her way into court to cover a case. Although the magistrate threw her case out of court she endured months of stress and anxiety knowing that the maximum penalty in NSW for carrying a prohibited weapon is 14 years imprisonment. In most states of Australia if you are carrying pepper spray and use it to ward off an attacker you can potentially be charged with not only possessing and using a prohibited weapon but also with assault.
So despite the fact that the state is very concerned about how many vegetables we eat, or what substances we put into our bodies, they aren’t so worried about whether we can protect ourselves from real and present danger. It seems like a contradiction on the surface, but really it isn’t. If the state doesn’t trust you to eat properly, or go home to bed early enough on a Saturday night, how on earth will it trust you to defend yourself against imminent harm?
The nanny state believes that it knows best, and if it can’t come to your rescue when you need it the most, then that’s just too bad. It’s the nanny state’s way or the highway. At every opportunity we need to call out the perverseness of nanny statism and declare it for what it really is – an authoritarian tendency to control the masses by people who think they know better than you or me about our own lives.
This article has been adapted from a talk given at the 6th ALS Friedman Conference on May 24-26 2018.