29 September 2015
by David Leyonhjelm

True meaning of the Nanny State

Over the last few weeks I have learnt two things. First, a lot of people dislike the nanny state. The incredible popularity of the Senate Inquiry into it – both in the media and among the general public – is testimony to that.

However, it is also clear that lots of people are confused what the term 'nanny state' means, even among those who ought to know.

At its core, nanny-statism involves enacting laws and enforcing policies that interfere with or manage personal choices, when the only consideration is the individual's own good.

The Senate inquiry into Personal Choice and Community Impacts, of which I am chair, has adopted 'nanny state' as a short-hand phrase to describe its focus.

Why does this inquiry matter?

I am a classical liberal, like John Stuart Mill. And it is John Stuart Mill's 'harm principle' that is at the core of the political philosophy I espouse. It states, 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign'.

The harm principle is distinct from public health interventions that address public problems, such as product safety, sanitation, vaccines and water quality. Those are not nanny state laws, as they are not directed at making individuals live their lives according to a certain set of rules or to a certain standard.

A good example of nanny state intervention can be seen in the case of obesity. If you eat too much and get fat, that is your problem. It may be unwise and we can disapprove of it, but it is not the government's business whether you eat too much and get fat. You are the one affected, and the costs you incur are private.

We should also stop using the phrase 'obesity epidemic', because obesity is not catching.

Some will argue that those who harm themselves as a result of poor choices cause the rest of us to pay more via our socialised health system. That is true, but it does not need to be the case; some countries have health systems where the costs are covered via insurance with premiums adjusted according to risk factors. And once we start telling people how to live based on this argument, where does it end? Do we want to make it a crime to eat chips, or not to exercise?

The confusion of nanny state issues with non-nanny state can be seen in relation to speeding. Typically this is not a nanny state issue because speed limits have the aim of protecting others from harm. However, that might not be the case when enforcement of speed limits occurs on an isolated, empty road.

A related problem emerges when people confuse the sort of regulation needed to protect children with regulation intended to protect adults from harming themselves through personal choices.

The Nanny State inquiry is not about children, and attempts to make it so are a strawman. No-one disputes that children must be treated differently from adults. While I prefer decisions about children to be left to parents, without state interference, there are circumstances – like child abuse – where the state must become involved.

Public health advocates also purport to speak on behalf of the poor, less educated and less sophisticated. This looks superficially compassionate, but it is not. It is arrogant and elitist, and assumes moral and intellectual superiority.

Its effect is to hector people about unhealthy lifestyle choices, often coupled with the coercive use of state power to manipulate their purchases. This takes an economically destructive form when it results in regressive taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, which hit the poor hardest.

And there is a fundamental aspect to this issue. Every time people in love with their own expertise – including many public health advocates – seek to regulate what people buy or how they spend their time or what they put in their mouths, they forget that the people who shop are the same as those who vote.

If we can trust people to vote – a difficult and demanding choice with profound consequences – we can trust people to know what to eat, to drink, to buy, what video games to play, and whether or not to smoke. At its core, nanny statism is a threat to universal franchise.