Guest Post: A feminist defence of the nanny state

Written by Anke Snoek

Macquarie University

In Australia Senator David Leyonhjelm http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/david-leyonhjelm-declares-war-on-nanny-state/story-fn59niix-1227415288323 has won support for a broad-ranging parliamentary inquiry into what he calls the ‘nanny state’. A committee will test the claims of public health experts about bicycle helmets, alcohol laws, violent video games, the sale and use of alcohol, tobacco and pornography. “If we don’t wind back this nanny state, the next thing you know they’ll be introducing rules saying that you’ll need to have a fresh hanky and clean underpants”.

Do we have a right to make bad choices concerning, for example, alcohol or smoking tobacco? Every time the government comes up with policy measures to regulate our intake of these substances, people cry nanny state. But how informed are our choices regarding alcohol and tobacco consumption anyway? I would argue that they are not very informed, for several reasons. The first is that the alcohol and tobacco industries have been studying for years how they can sell the most alcohol and tobacco, to make the most profit. We think that the government is interfering with our choices, while the fact is that the tobacco and alcohol industries have been interfering with our choices for decades. Another reason that we are less informed that we think is that important role models in our lives and their use of alcohol and tobacco affects how we consume these products. How much and how often would your father drink alcohol? There is a good probability that you model your consumption on his. Nevertheless, our knowledge of the long-term effects of these substances has changed, and so we should take these changes into consideration when determining our intake. This is where government interference can counteract the effects of marketing strategies and role models.

Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between positive and negative freedom. Negative freedom means that we want to be free from interference from other people, we want to be free from external constraint. Positive freedom looks at our capacity to make informed choices about our lives. When we have negative freedom, we don’t necessarily have positive freedom. When senator Leyonhjelm makes a claim to increase our negative freedom, he shouldn’t only look at the interference of the government, but also at the interference of the alcohol and tobacco lobby. Importantly, he should also promote measures that increase people’s positive freedom; that helps them live the life that they value living; that helps them to think critically about their lives, values and choices. The “right” to make bad choices should be considered against the “right” to make good choices.

When asked on their deathbed what people regret most about their lives, it is often this positive freedom that they failed to take. http://www.ariseindiaforum.org/nurse-reveals-the-top-5-regrets-people-make-on-their-deathbed/ Many men and some women regret that they spend too much time working at the expense of enjoying time with their families or friends. Yet, Australian law isn’t very supportive for working part-time, or men taking parental leave. Compared to most European countries, Australians work long hours and have few holidays. One reason why Dutch people seem to be one of the happiest on the planet is because it is relatively easy for them to combine work and caring. Many people regret that they didn’t follow their passions, and didn’t express their true feelings. ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself’. I doubt that by this they meant: I wish I’d driven without a seatbelt, cycled without a helmet, been drunk or stoned all the time and watched more pornography.

Why promote the right to have fun at one’s own expense, rather than one’s right to live a fulfilling life? But I guess Leyonhjelm’s ideal Australian society isn’t filled with authentic, caring, passionate, individuals, but rather with (eternal) adolescent guys who like to get drunk, smoke (weed), play violent video games, watch pornography, and take unnecessary risks while in traffic. Is this lifestyle really one of personal choice?

If you are further interested in this topic, see also Neil Levy’s excellent analysis of the advantages of a nanny state. https://theconversation.com/is-the-nanny-state-so-bad-after-all-voters-expect-governments-to-care-43914

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9 Responses to Guest Post: A feminist defence of the nanny state

  • Davide says:

    “I guess Leyonhjelm’s ideal Australian society isn’t filled with authentic, caring, passionate, individuals, but rather with (eternal) adolescent guys who like to get drunk, smoke (weed), play violent video games, watch pornography, and take unnecessary risks while in traffic. Is this lifestyle really one of personal choice?”

    Sorry, but how is this NOT an obvious strawman of anti-nanny-state arguments and, by extension, of the people who are against government restrictions of personal choices?

  • Tracy W says:

    There is a rather massive difference between trying to persuade someone to do something, which is fundamentally leaves them the choice, and taxing or banning them from doing so.

    Basically your argument seems to be that people should be free to do whatever they want just as long as they want whatever you want.

  • Anke Snoek says:

    Thanks for your comments David and Tracy. Let me rephrase my argument to make myself more clear: first, I don’t think that the current regulations around the sale of alcohol, tobacco, pornography, etcetera are currently strong enough to speak of a nanny state. You can still get all those things relatively easy and without much punishment. Secondly, if he is re-evaluating regulations, I think his choice can be a little bit broader than the things he is suggesting now.
    Tracy, I think taxing or fining people is a (strong) way to persuade them, but in those cases personal choice is not strongly restricted. Putting people in jail for those things would be a strong constriction of personal choice. Most personal choices come at a price, one way or the other.
    If we are going to defend personal choice against government regulation, why not look broader? Frankfurt makes a distinction between first order desires (desires that just pop in our head), and second order desires (a conscious decision about which desires we endorse, which desires match our identity). The things Leyonhjelm defend seems to be, for most people, more in the realm of first order desires. I don’t mind if the above mentioned regulations got loosened up, I just think that more people will benefit from regulations that gives us more freedom to work flexible, or to have longer holiday’s.

    • Davide says:

      I don’t think the *current* regulations on the sale of alcohol, tobacco, pornography in the West count as a nanny state since they these things are regulated and not banned;

      But completely banning them, as some defenders of the nanny state might want to do definetely would. And of course, there are illegal recreational drugs, which yes, I do believe is an instance of nanny-statalism.

      Fining people is not as ‘strong’ as jailing them, but money is generally a result of time spent working. So in a way forcing people to pay extra taxes or fines for behaviors which you may dislike but only hurts themselves is depriving them of their time.

      As for ‘most personal choices come at a price’ – yes, of course, but how does that justify INTENTIONALLY making the price of some choices higher when the only ‘victim’ of them is the person making the choice?

      I think the distinction between first and second order is very blurry there – you really don’t believe people can make reasoned and conscious decision to indulge in things you would ban, seeing them as part of their identity? You may not like it, but ‘drug culture’ (to quote one example) IS a thing.

      You can’t simply dimiss personal choice because you don’t like the mindset of people who indulge in personal choices you disagree with; that’s why I mentioned the ‘strawman’ fallacy in m previous post.

    • Tracy W says:

      If taxing or fining someone is just a (strong) way to persuade them, would it therefore be okay for the current political party to tax or fine anyone who advocates people vote for the opposition? I mean, clearly we think that the current political party has a right to put up signs and write articles and etc advocating people don’t vote for the opposition. And you claim that taxing and fining is just a strong form of persuasion that doesn’t strongly restrict personal choice.

      (Personally I think this would be a terrible policy, and taxing or fining people because you don’t agree with their choices about their own lives or who to vote for definitely deserves to be called a nanny state. )

      As for your distinction between first order choices and second order choices, again, this strikes me as another way of you deciding that people should be free to choose as long as they choose to do what you want them to choose.

  • garry says:

    You correctly assert that “our knowledge of the long-term effects of these substances has changed, and so we should take these changes into consideration when determining our intake”, but then go on to assume that only the government is capable of leveraging this information. Why? Individuals can, and do, respond to changes in what they understand to be the consequences of their actions. There’s no particular reason to expect the government, acting on this information, to produce a better outcome than individuals doing the same thing.

    In fact there’s a reason to expect the opposite. The problem is that governments have no particular incentive to make good decisions, for the usual reason: the feedback mechanism is weak-to-nonexistent. Individuals make mistakes – but this is true whether those individuals are making decisions about their own welfare, or are working for the government making decisions about the welfare of other people who they will never have to answer to. The cost of making a mistake is enormously higher in the first situation, so it’s reasonable to expect these individuals to be far more careful than those in the latter situation.

    You cannot get away from people making choices, but you can minimize the number of people making choices that they have no reason to care about getting wrong.

  • James Bond says:

    I find the idea of a nanny state very strange. What one is arguing, from my point of view, is that private individuals are essentially incapable of making decisions for themselves, and because of that, the state (i.e., individuals removed from the situation at hand) should make decisions for you. This assumes that abstract decision making (e.g., regulations, laws) serve people better in the long run than their own cognitive faculties. “You cannot defend against the tobacco companies. Your agency is undermined. We must do this for you!”

    Couldn’t a very real consequence of this reasoning be that private individuals start to make even worse decisions, because they (a) are required to think less and less, and (b) realize that the state will resolve the situation for them, if things really get out of hand?

  • David Duffy says:

    What an odd mixture of things to put under the rubric of “nanny state”. Some are banned because they are immoral, others are taxed, at least in part, because of the “externalities” eg health costs, loss of productivity, harms to others. It’s hard to drink yourself to death or gamble yourself into bankruptcy without impinging on other people. As to bicycle helmets – they roughly halve severe head injury rates, no doubt about it – it’s more a matter of what total number of injuries is acceptable in aggregate to people, since the risk to any one individual is so small. There are numerous activities more dangerous than riding without a helmet, but usually fewer people indulging.

    Anyway, why is this a feminist defence?

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “One reason why Dutch people seem to be one of the happiest on the planet is because it is relatively easy for them to combine work and caring.”

    The Dutch are also a nation of enthusiastic cyclists, and very few of them wear helmets. The Dutch government decided against imposing compulsory helmet laws because they concluded this was not justified on health and safety grounds, and they knew that helmets are very unpopular with the general public. Introducing compulsory helmets would almost certainly result in a big drop in the number of Dutch people choosing cycling for their daily transport needs.

    “Why promote the right to have fun at one’s own expense, rather than one’s right to live a fulfilling life?”

    Your assessment that people who enjoy a drink or enjoy pornography are “having fun at one’s own expense” reflects your personal tastes and prejudices, but tells us nothing about the people who enjoy these things. The fact that you are anxious to impose your tastes and prejudices on others indicates to me that you have very little concern for the concept of individual freedom. Which is why it’s not surprising that you’re enthusiastic about the idea of a “Nanny State”.

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