Monday, May 13, 2013

Advocates of a nanny state assume we are all children

Nanny state critics understand that incremental attacks on our freedom to choose are single steps down a longer road to remove individual choice and responsibility.

In these pages last week Paul Williams attacked the rising groundswell of Australians who are sick of increasing local, state and federal government regulations of their choices.

First, misrepresentations need to be corrected.

Williams implies 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who was suspicious of government power, would have renounced his views had he observed the behaviour of drunken louts in the Queen Street Mall.

Considering people abused alcohol in the 1800s, gambled, smoked tobacco and ate fatty foods, it seems unlikely.  After all, the Sumerians first made beer 4000 years ago.

Similarly, the term ''nanny state'' is not for those who ''selfishly put their wants above the safety and happiness of others''.

The term ''nanny state'' was written by journalist Dorothy Thompson in a 1952 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  It was an evolution of the 1800s term ''grandmotherly government''.  Both were designed to criticise government behaviour that treated people as infants.

It was designed to reject views like Williams' that some people, in this case Australians, are ''so-called adults'', who are ''still children emotionally and intellectually and therefore unable to make appropriate decisions regarding risky behaviour''.

It has the same use today.

Attitudes toward nanny state taxes, laws and regulations are based on a fundamental difference about how we should be governed.

Critics of the nanny state argue the job of government is to create a framework for us to live our own lives, that everything is legal unless explicitly made illegal and that we should learn to manage risk through our choices.

Nanny state advocates argue the job of government is to coddle us from the world's evils, avoid risk and use taxes, laws and regulations to either steer or direct our behaviour.  It turns the idea of a liberal democracy upside down.

Advocates think their seemingly good intentions are justification enough and that it's misleading to claim we are on a paternalistic slippery slope of declining choice.

But the cat was recently let out of the bag by the Australian Drug Foundation.  The ADF argued there should be a complete ban on alcohol advertising during sporting events.

But when quizzed on radio, their spokesperson argued that after an ad ban ''the thing that's next is getting a consistent alcohol taxation regime across Australia — so that's really the thing we've got to really tackle after this one''.

Today it is an ad ban, tomorrow it is upping taxes.

If the ADF follows a well-worn route then soon alcohol will have more taxes, store display regulations, text-based warning labels, graphic warning labels, plain packaging, a licence required to drink it and eventually a ban.

These would all seem bizarre except they have been proposed or introduced in the past.

The same is true of restrictions on gaming.  Does anyone think that if mandatory pre-commitment was introduced, anti-gaming activists would down their advocacy tools and declare they wanted no further regulation on pokies?

Each proposal is put and the public is tenderised by activists and advocates into swallowing their bitter pill because it is supposedly good for us.  But once it is introduced it is either a failure, justifying further limits on people's choices, or a success, also justifying further limits on choice.

As News Limited columnist Nick Cater argues in his recent book The Lucky Culture, there is a moralistic crusade by elites who object to ''so-called adult'' making different choices to themselves.

By standing up against excessive taxes, rules and regulations, Australians are merely objecting to the idea they are ''children emotionally and intellectually'' because they, for example, like a couple of beers with their barbecue.

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