No granny chic in nanny state shtick
Risk-averse paternalism makes for a perverse reversal of freedoms.
The nanny state isn't a cheap Tory slogan. It is a threat to our free, open, pluralist society. Chris Middendorp wrote on these pages last week, in justifying why governments should increase regulation over individual choice, that opposing the nanny state was ''glib'' and a ''distraction''.
His comments echo New South Wales Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, who argued on the ABC's Q&A last June that she ''often find[s] that this notion of the nanny state, it's trotted out when people are a bit hard-up for an argument''.
Both are poor analyses.
The first modern use of the phrase was not, as Middendorp argues, by British Conservative MP Iain Macleod in 1965. Nor is it particularly connected to free-market thinking. It originated from Dorothy Thompson writing in the June 6, 1952, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In dismissing aspects of English colonialism, Thompson wrote that ''Britons are turning Britain itself into a Nanny-state''.
The phrase was an evolution from its 1800s predecessor ''grandmotherly government'', used to dismiss laws that coddle workers from the realities of the world. It's a sign of how far the former champions of working people have drifted from their roots that they are now nanny's greatest advocates.
Paternalism places the imperfect knowledge of one-size-fits-all government policy against the diffused knowledge and judgment of individual action and the market.
Middendorp may describe the market as ''brutal, amoral places'', but it is not a place. The market is the decisions of 22 million Australians, each motivated to act in their own self-interest - a process distant government cannot understand. And when it has tried to do so in the past, it has failed with horrible consequences.
Do the people have a government to preserve our freedom? Is any measure justified in protecting us? Nanny sympathies favour the latter.
These questions are central to the preservation of our liberal democratic principles of the primacy of the individual to choose their own life, faith, opinions and how they use their property. Almost all laws that exist stem from these basic principles.
Road laws are often cited as an example of supporters of the positive role of government to act as nanny. They're not. Road laws are necessary because when cars collide at high speeds, innocent people can be robbed of their lives. We have road laws to mitigate that risk. But we also recognise there's a point where road laws offend the founding principles of a free society, so we don't ban cars or people driving them.
But there are exceptions. Laws specifically targeted to children escape the ''nanny'' tag because we recognise the unique vulnerability caused by children's immaturity. Suggesting otherwise, as many nanny advocates do, is, well, childish.
Advocacy for government encroachment is often justified to protect us from ourselves. No one disputes that free people can make bad decisions. Without our mistakes we cannot learn. It's immoral to create a risk-free society that infantilises people.
We also need to recognise that one person's mistake is another's deliberate decision. Nanny's supporters too often confuse their own subjective views with what is objectively right.
Most of us cannot understand why others trade quantity of life for their preferred quality of life by engaging in behaviours that are unambiguously linked to early death, such as smoking. But most of us rationalise away the dangers when we drink alcohol or eat certain foods that have equally undesirable affects.
Nanny's advocates use an incremental strategy to advance paternalism, starting with measures that are small and seemingly justifiable.
If one nanny measure works, advocates argue the government should do more. If it doesn't, then it's because the government didn't do enough. It then becomes a vicious cycle of self-justified laws that defer choice and responsibility from individuals towards government.
No one seems to mind when the product or behaviour targeted is something they don't like. But once a precedent is established it is quickly replicated elsewhere.
Take plain packaging - for videos. In 2009, the South Australian Parliament legislated for plain packaging of R18+ films unless they were separated from other video stock. The justification for this measure was public morality.
It's the same argument used to justify federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's incubated internet filter. Similarly, for some it justifies why same-sex couples shouldn't be allowed to marry.
Contemporary paternalism now also takes the form of anti-social capital local government regulations that make it nearly impossible to hold street parties without fear of a clipboard-holding local government bureaucrat questioning you.
Similarly, my late grandmother wouldn't be allowed to offer firefighters her volunteer-made cut sandwiches because of strict food handling and labelling laws.
Excessive government corrodes civic virtue.
If someone chooses to engage in a risky but legal activity, they are not a victim. Reward requires risk and responsibility. Even if we could abolish risk, it's not a price worth paying - our freedom.