Morality And Humanity In The Gambling Debate

Opposition to gambling has always been somewhat aesthetic and moralistic. The character of that moralising has, however, changed over time.

During the Middle Ages, betting was seen as unproductive and idle. Only knights, clergymen, and monarchs had sufficiently good character to be allowed to play dice for money.

A few hundred years later, Reformation era moralists saw gambling as sin. It was blasphemous to ask God to decide such trivial matters as dice throws.

Their Enlightenment descendants imagined gambling to be irrational; contrary to the spirit of the age of reason. The 19th century saw it as a social disorder; disruptive, inefficient, and, as a consequence, borderline criminal.

Anti-gambling activists of the early 20th century focused on class. The lower and upper orders played different games. Predictably and unfairly, working-class gambling was suppressed, and upper-class gambling left alone.

Today, the vast bulk of anti-gambling opinion has a medical hue. We now see gambling mostly through the prism of illness and addiction.

Mental health concerns are genuine and serious and do not deserve to be dismissed out of hand – regardless of whether we think the Government should step in to manage or override people’s choices.

But the aesthetic and moralistic critique of gambling has not disappeared.

Certainly it’s obvious that opposition to, for instance, poker machines, is not solely based on data revealing the relative incidence of problem gambling occurring on the pokies compared to other games.

A part of that opposition (we can disagree how big a part) is undeniably grounded on how the pokies look ‘sad’. Playing is solitary. Players appear joyless. A poker machine seems to be a mechanised and computerised tool of corporate manipulation; a metaphor of consumer capitalism made real. (‘People cannot seriously enjoy pokies, can they?’)

These impressions colour the debate over poker machine regulation.

Nick Xenophon’s weekend statements suggest much of the political push against the pokies is motivated not by a belief that the pokies are uniquely dangerous, but by a distaste for gambling in general.

The South Australian Senator is drafting a bill to crack down on online betting. And he’s upset about the very existence of sports wagers. In comments to The Age on Saturday, he said he wants to “ban commentators referring to the odds”, ban “odds being broadcast” and impose “restrictions on the maximum bets being able to be played”.

Xenophon would also like advertising of online gambling sites to be banned, having argued in the past gambling advertising should be regulated as heavily as tobacco advertising – in other words, regulated out of existence.

The reasons Xenophon offers for such restrictions are many and familiar. He argues gambling poses dangers to sport itself – match-fixing is inevitable in a world where sports betting is widespread.

‘Children – think of the children!’ could be normalised to gambling. This is left unexplored, but is presumably undesirable; the implicit argument being that sports betting, while not necessarily harmful itself, is a gateway drug to the RSL.

Then, of course, the aesthetic argument: “It’s a shame for the great game of cricket that it’s been reduced to just another event to have a punt on,” Xenophon said in 2008.

Whether gambling enhances “the great game” or undermines it, preserving the enjoyableness of sporting events should not be a central concern of parliament, let alone the Commonwealth Parliament.

As the social scientist Gerda Reith argued in her 1999 book The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture, gambling is endemic, historically and in the modern world. And, as a consequence, has developed great cultural significance.

Through gambling, people engage both the mathematical concept of probability, and the metaphysical concept of chance. It’s a way to make light of risk; to tame uncertainty.

In other words, gambling is part of human nature.

Given gambling’s cultural centrality, it’s not clear why the Government should try to wall it off; to regulate gambling into an isolated and denigrated corner of the Australian consciousness.

Rather than treating gambling as alien and dangerous and not fit for children, why not treat it as a normal part of being and encourage it to be enjoyed responsibly?

Gambling is, after all, just a game.

Bookmakers are running odds on nearly every facet of the royal wedding: the first dance, the colour of the bride’s dress, the colour of Victoria Beckham’s dress, whether Prince Phillip will fall asleep during the ceremony, whether chicken tikka masala will be the main course, and whether Prince Harry will drop the ring and be too drunk to finish his speech (25-1, as of a few days ago). And, unsurprisingly, on the chances of divorce.

These bets do not detract from the wedding, which will be as painful as it would be in a world without wagers.

They do, however, make a game out of it – transforming the public from spectators to participants.

For moralist opponents of gambling like Nick Xenophon, such engagement only conjures up images of ruin.

But there is no need to be that pessimistic. The desire to play games of chance is a part of the human condition. Archaeologists have discovered four sided sticks – proto-dice – dating to 6000BC. In 2011, let’s try not be so scared of it.

Plain Packs Pointless When Smoke Gets In Our Eyes

When the Rudd government’s National Preventative Health Taskforce released a position paper on anti-tobacco measures, they titled it “Making Smoking History”.

If that was the goal you’d think the government could just ban cigarettes – a clear, bold, unequivocal stance on what it has condemned as a very dangerous and addictive product.

But the title does help us understand the reasoning behind plain packaging of tobacco, a policy which federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon announced a few weeks ago. It’s punitive.

The nanny state is no longer trying to inform us of the best choices and the risks of unhealthy behaviour. Now it’s just resorted to bullying – haranguing and punishing people who still make those unapproved choices contrary to nanny’s wisdom and despite nanny’s best efforts.

Where will this end? Surely, after decades of anti-smoking education, the presumption eventually has to fall back onto individual responsibility.

You can hate tobacco companies. You can hate what cigarettes do. But the government is planning to make Australia the first country in the world to impose plain packaging on cigarettes. It seems reasonable to ask whether it will work.

Here’s what we know: smokers are influenced by packaging, to a degree. Lighter colours seem to imply less risk. One leaked Phillip Morris document admitted as much. “Smooth” and “silver” also suggest safer cigarettes.

Hence the government’s proposed new packet design – an unappealing olive green, with unadorned text for the label. But the literature suggests package marketing only influences the choices of existing smokers.

The government’s goal for packaging is to stop people becoming smokers in the first place. Roxon argues “catchy colours” are designed to “suck in young people”. Her aim is to “make sure fewer people start on this dangerous habit”. And there’s no clear evidence packet design inspires non-smokers to start smoking.

The most that reviews of the scholarly evidence can find are surveys in which teenagers are asked to imagine whether their friends could be duped by shiny packages. You may not be surprised to learn teenagers assume their friends are idiots.

This lack of evidence isn’t surprising. People start smoking because they want to try the sensation of smoking, not try the sensation of holding a well-designed package. And what about existing smokers? Let’s just say if graphic photos of bleeding lungs haven’t inspired you to kick the habit, an olive box probably won’t either.

The tobacco companies are upset about plain packaging because it will make it harder to compete for the existing pool of customers. They focus on packaging design because there’s nothing left for them to do.

It’s not as if cigarette marketing isn’t highly regulated already. Smokers won’t even be able to see the olive-ness of the packets until after purchase. New Victorian laws mean cigarettes are closeted out of view behind the counter. Now retailers can only display a sign, provided by the state government, with the words “We Sell Tobacco Here” in black on a white background.

Existing laws will undermine the effectiveness of future anti-smoking policies the government might implement.

After all, it’s one thing to show that people in an experimental psychology lab think lighter colours mean lighter cigarettes. But it’s quite another to imagine that – after decades of anti-smoking advertising, warning labels and social disapproval – the colour of the packet will make a lick of difference to the decision to smoke.

The traditional justification for nanny state-style regulation is that people don’t understand the consequences of their choices.

Should people be allowed to manage their own risks: to conduct themselves in their own way, to abuse or protect their bodies as they see fit?

The answer to that question ultimately depends on your personal values. But the first health warning on cigarette packets was imposed 38 years ago.

Anyway, we’re a long way past the days of health bureaucrats gently nudging us to make better decisions, and moderate sin taxes to recoup the costs to taxpayers.

Budget after budget of tobacco excise increases mean tobacco taxes now far outweigh the burden of smokers on the publicly funded health system.

The government estimates smoking-related illness costs about $300 million a year. But it collects $5.8 billion each year in tobacco excise duty.

If the very existence of brands causes harm, as the government’s plain packaging strategy suggests, then plain packaging for alcohol will no doubt be next. Eighty per cent of Australians believe the nation has a drinking problem.

Brewers won’t be able to get away with fluorescent and sparkling alcopops forever. They’re obviously targeted at younger consumers. Nobody drinks Bacardi Breezers “responsibly”.

Prominent text warning labels will come first. Then graphics.

Seems unlikely? Well, 10 years ago the idea that the government would eliminate logos from cigarette packs would have seemed pretty unlikely too.

In a nanny state, what first sounds absurd can quickly become the law of the land.

Healthy Living… In A Nanny State

If there was one area of human existence which should be left to individual choice, you’d think it would be what we eat.

So the National Preventive Health Agency Bill, now ferreting through federal parliament, is quite a big deal. The agency is charged with preventing chronic disease caused by obesity, alcohol and tobacco through education campaigns and the mass-production of research papers.

It sounds harmless, but if it passes, it will represent the institutionalisation of the Australian nanny state.

The agency is to be a government-funded body with the specific purpose of expanding the scope of government – colonise spheres of human existence that have, until now, been left free from state interference.

We got some indication of the ambition of the new agency from the Kevin Rudd’s Preventative Health Taskforce, which, when it reported in 2009, recommended its formation. That and 121 other recommendations to tax, regulate, and impose national standards on food, beverages, and tobacco.

Julia Gillard announced last week the agency will not have the power to impose taxes on junk food. But that misses the point: the agency has no power to impose taxes on anything. It will, however, be empowered to lobby the government incessantly to do so.

In the long run, the formation of a permanent institution like this is more pernicious than any individual nanny state tax the government might decide implement.

Last year the British government spent 38 million pounds funding institutions to lobby for new laws and regulations, according to a 2009 study by the Taxpayer’s Alliance.

When that government launched a public consultation on potential methods to control tobacco use in 2008, there were a massive 96,515 responses. But a full 70 per cent of those responses were email campaigns originating from government-funded lobbyists – bureaucratic offshoots from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, like “D-MYST”, the youth wing of SmokeFree Liverpool.

The situation is already much the same here: submissions to the Preventative Health Taskforce were dominated by government-funded entities. Councils, non-profits, health networks, and university public health departments all submitted proposals for new laws – and more funding.

One of the key tasks of the new agency is to develop a “national prevention research infrastructure”.

Usually, more research into the social problems and policy effectiveness is good. You can never have too much research.

But much preventive health research is highly politicised, value-laden, and of use only to those who share its predetermined conclusions.

We’re all familiar with the regular announcements that alcohol use, for example, costs Australia an enormous amount of money every year. These massive numbers are described as “social costs”.

As the New Zealand economists Eric Crampton and Matt Burgess have shown, the methodology which underlines almost all of these social cost studies (one endorsed by the World Health Organisation) is fundamentally flawed.

They typically mix costs borne by private individuals and firms – like workplace absenteeism – with costs borne by government – like funding the health system.

But the more critical problem is the failure of these studies to adequately account for the benefits of “harmful” behaviour.

And humans like fat and salt and ale; that’s the way we’re wired. To look at only at the negative consequences of human behaviour without mentioning the positive consequences is rigging the game.

Health paternalists who propose government intervene in individual choices never make explicit the value judgements which inform their belief. After all, not everyone has maximum health and minimum risk as their overriding goal. (If they did, the automobile industry would disappear immediately.)

The National Preventive Health Agency cannot divine everybody’s personal, highly subjective values. For instance, how much they value their current selves (the immediate sensory pleasure of hot chips right now) compared to their future selves (the potential they will get fat if they consume too many hot chips).

But the public health community assumes the most “rational” decision in any circumstance is to favour your future health by limiting your present consumption.

And if you think otherwise, then, well, you’re wrong.

Many argue, pragmatically, that we need to interfere in individual decisions because we pay for them. Our public health system means that the cost of obesity is borne not just by the obese but by every taxpayer. It’s a fair concern.

But first of all, it’s not always true: particularly in the case of tobacco, where the taxes levied on cigarettes overwhelmingly exceed the costs smokers impose on the health system.

And the medical cost of obesity and alcohol is often mitigated by the unpleasant but nonetheless true observation that alcoholic and obese people tend not to live long enough to cost taxpayers as much as the healthy elderly. If you’re going to calculate the cost of individual choices to taxpayers, you should at least include all the data.

Nevertheless, this argument proves too much. Is government provided health care really incapable of coping with free will? So should we be changed to suit the health system – as the health paternalists would seem to suggest – or should the health system be changed to suit us?

If it wants to do its job properly, the National Preventive Health Agency will tackle these heady philosophical, economic and social questions.

I wouldn’t put money on that.

Instead, it’s a fair bet the agency’s output will be drearily predictable: inflated estimates of the costs of obesity, alcohol, and tobacco use, and incessant lobbying for new laws and regulations.

An Illusion Of Safety

Here’s a way to make driving safer: make it riskier.

A German safety expert recommends we raise speed limits on our roads, not lower them.

Ulrich Mellinghoff, head of safety at Mercedes-Benz, argues that raising the top speed on long stretches of Australia’s roads to 130 or 140km/h could help combat driver fatigue.

Mellinghoff’s argument is counter-intuitive. It will definitely make driving feel less safe, but it could result in fewer accidents. And it fits in with an increasing body of knowledge that suggests government attempts to protect us are have the opposite effect – making us less safe and, crucially, less able to manage risk.

We’ve had widely owned, personal transport for more than a century now. And we’ve learnt a lot about safety in that time. The University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman famously studied the results of the American 1966 Motor Safety Act that mandated new car safety standards. Instead of making driving safer, Peltzman found, the new standards prompted drivers to be more reckless on the roads, and endangered the lives of pedestrians. Other risk analysts have found the same occurred when seatbelt laws were introduced around the world.

Economists call that ”moral hazard” – when people feel they are insulated from the consequences of their actions and behave differently as a result.

In 2007, a researcher in Bath, England, attached proximity sensors to his bicycle to see how car drivers responded to his bike helmet use. On average, cars came nearly 10 centimetres closer when he wore a helmet than without. Drivers acted much more dangerously because they assumed the rider was safe. These problems aren’t limited to road safety.

The insurance industry is acutely aware that some customers fail to protect their property when it’s insured. Bushwalkers venture further away from civilisation if they believe search and rescue will be there to help them.

Researchers have even found the introduction of improved ripcords on parachutes did not lower the incidence of skydiving accidents. Instead, they just encouraged skydivers to pull their cords later.

We saw the moral hazard dynamic play out most dramatically in 2008, as the global financial crisis looked set to sweep away the entire world economy. Wall Street made riskier and riskier financial trades and employed ever more complex and precarious financial instruments because of an assumption, cultivated over decades, that if they got in too much trouble the government would bail them out. It would be bad if they lost their financial gambles. But they wouldn’t lose the business over it. They were too big to fail.

Calling a company “too big to fail” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The marketplace starts to imagine the company is unsinkable and relies on it.

Having bailed out other firms, the market really went into free fall when the US government declined to bail out Lehman Brothers in September 2008, dramatically reversing that assumption.

It wasn’t the government’s failure to bail out Lehman Brothers that caused the panic. It was implying they would do so, and at the last minute whipping the protective blanket away.

The long-term cause of the financial crisis was the suggestion the government would do anything to protect bankers. The short-term cause was that it didn’t.

This isn’t an argument against seatbelts or bike helmets. Seatbelts combined with drink-driving laws, education and cultural change have reduced Australia’s road toll significantly. But it should be a warning: many of the well-meaning attempts to make us safer are counterproductive, making us more likely to take risks, and less likely to think about the consequences.

There are solutions. In a revolution in traffic management across Europe, a number of towns are removing traffic lights, stop signs, and other road markings. Once eliminated, drivers enter intersections more slowly and more attentively. Instead of focusing their attention on signs, they make eye contact with other drivers. They negotiate. Accidents in these towns have dramatically declined.

The Dutch have been experimenting with “shared streets”, where the barriers between pedestrian walkways and roads are eliminated. Again, this sounds abominably dangerous. But when guard railings between the footpath and the road were removed from London’s Kensington High Street, accidents fell by 47 per cent.

A spontaneous order emerges when people feel they are fully responsible for their own driving. And it’s a safer one than in a traffic management system that tries to push drivers along pre-determined paths, barking orders along the way.

It’s like the spontaneous order that emerges in society and markets when people are responsible for their actions. So let’s hope risk and reward can be rejoined in the financial sector too.

We talk a lot about helicopter parents who over-parent and insulate their children from the world. The obvious downside of this kind of parenting is that children learn nothing about managing danger.

Perhaps it’s time to talk about helicopter governments as well: always hovering above their citizens, ready to swoop in the moment they stray off the safest path.

Fat Lot Of Good Campaign Against Junk Food Is Doing

The debate over obesity and public health is usually black and white. It’s obvious who the bad guys are: junk food peddlers.

But last year, Cadbury, Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestle, PepsiCo and about a dozen other firms committed to cut advertising of unhealthy products to children. This week, a spokesman for the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative said that “television advertising to children of certain foods has virtually ceased during children’s programs”. The firms are also reducing sugar and salt in some products.

Sounds good? Well, the president of the Public Health Association of Australia described it as “incredibly feeble”. Not “a step in the right direction”, or “good, but they could do more”, but literally so feeble it defies credibility.

Call this the “Healthy Menu Choices” conundrum.

For decades, corporations have been told they need to get “socially responsible” and think about more than just profits. And few corporations are more harangued than those selling unhealthy food. They have been demonised by the expanding public health establishment, who are certain children’s minds are being warped and their bellies expanded by the sinister alliance of sugar and advertising.

Milton Friedman wrote in 1970 that the only social responsibility of business was to increase its profits — profits being how businesses figure out whether they’re providing value. Friedman wrote in vain. Corporate philanthropy has become a bigger and bigger part of the business world. For the food industry, this corporate social responsibility means placating public health activists.

So McDonald’s – the very embodiment of unhealthy eating – has introduced salads. It has struck a deal with the Heart Foundation. In New Zealand, it has a relationship with Weight Watchers. Through the responsible marketing initiative, the confectionery industry is trying to show it is as supportive of a healthy Australia as chocolate makers ever could be.

Yet for all these attempts at conciliation, food companies just get demonised more. Each effort is condemned. If everything they do is going to be dismissed as the cynical expansion of corporate power, why should they try?

There’s a big anti-business component to the push for a nanny state. Many public health activists believe the blame for obesity lies with corporations – not with the choices of the people who buy unhealthy food. In the activists’ view, marketing is making people eat things that they would rather avoid, if only they weren’t so entranced by all the flashing lights and catchy jingles.

Hence the attention public health activists pay to multinationals, and the lack of attention they pay to, say, local fish and chip shops, pizzerias or Indian restaurants. Or Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant — sometimes rich people eat bad things, too.

Last year, McDonald’s started sponsoring a maths tutoring program, Maths Online, for Australian students. The program charged students $40 a month, but McDonald’s sponsorship means it is now free.

The McDonald’s logo is displayed at the bottom of the front page. It’s not like kids are multiplying cheeseburgers and dividing Happy Meals. But, of course, one prominent public health activist, nutritionist Rosemary Stanton, celebrated by asking: “Are we happy [to] sell our children to McDonald’s?”

The public health establishment likes to see itself as a bunch of impartial medical professionals, but it is a coalition of self-styled consumer advocates, “lifestyle advisers” and politicised academics. They see our health as a standoff between corporate profits and the health profession.

But the reality is more mundane, and more frustrating: not everybody believes that every fatty steak is doing them damage.

Certainly, most Australians value their fitness, weight, and life expectancy. But that is not all they value. Unhealthy food sells not because of insidious corporate messaging, but because people like it. Reducing the capacity of corporations to advertise their products won’t stop people wanting fatty or salty food. Unless you believe our primal taste instincts were invented in a boardroom.

So when public health types reduce complex issues of obesity and unhealthy lifestyles to a diatribe about the power of big business, it’s an emotional argument — not an honest one.

Individuals – and in the case of children, their parents – are the ones who choose what they eat. If public health activists want to influence that, they’ll give up the anti-corporate grandstanding and start treating us as if we make our own decisions.

From the Rum Corps to the alcopop

A review of Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia by Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L. Jordan

In the special episode of ABC TV’s Q&A in February this year, Kevin Rudd was asked whether he would like to raise the drinking age to 21: ‘of course’. Rudd quickly backed away from that definitive statement when the audience responded negatively. (The Q&A audience was limited to those between the ages of 16 to 25. Raising the drinking age would no doubt have been a more tangible disenfranchisement than if he had taken away their right to vote.)

In Under the Influence: A History of Alcohol in Australia, Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor L. Jordan explore Australia’s long and stormy relationship with our drinks. Australian culture reserves a prominent place for alcohol and where alcohol is consumed. And Australian history has no lack of social reformers who opposed alcohol’s cultural prominence.

Fitzgerald and Jordan nominate three moments where alcohol has played a part in three critical episodes in Australian history: the Rum Rebellion (the attempt to shut down the spirits trade being the immediate cause of the revolt against Governor Bligh), the Eureka Stockade (where a fair number of the rebels were drunk on the last night of the stockade and probably underperformed in the battle at dawn the next day), and the Dismissal (John Kerr enjoyed his drinks, and Gough Whitlam claimed in 2002 that he never would have appointed him Governor General if he’d know just how much he enjoyed them).

But Fitzgerald and Jordan back away from saying alcohol was anything but proximate to these events. They conclude that the Rum Rebellion wasn’t really about rum at all, but more about the governing style of Bligh. And if some miners were drunk at the Eureka Stockade, it probably wouldn’t have made much difference. Gerard Henderson has argued that the claim Kerr was a drunk is contradicted by no less an authority than his own physician, and to claim, as Whitlam has, that the Dismissal wouldn’t have happened without Kerr’s drinking is to ignore the rather significant political events that led it.

Nevertheless, if alcohol has had little direct impact on the big historical events, it has been a major part of Australian culture. Fitzgerald and Jordan describe the economic and cultural development of domestic wine and beer industries. They detail how what we drink has always been a marker of social status and cultural position, and the regional variations across the country. The regulatory framework that governs alcohol has also governed its cultural place-from the nineteenth century victories of the temperance movement, to the mid-twentieth century closing limits and gender discrimination laws in bars, to today’s Nanny State campaigns.

Fitzgerald and Jordan describe an eighteenth century attitude towards alcohol that was similar to today’s. The twin characteristic virtues in this period were ‘usefulness and amiability’. Usefulness was, in the early industrial revolution, of obviously value. But that usefulness had to be tempered by amiability. This amiability was more than just the agreeableness of good manners it was, in the words of one historian quoted by Fitzgerald and Jordan, ‘a genuine loving regard for other people’.

The authors argue that without understanding those twin virtues, we might mistake the eighteenth century attitude to alcohol as hypocrisy-the men who, for instance, damned John Macarthur’s role in the spirit trade, also enjoyed their fair share of alcohol. Fitzgerald and Jordan point out that there is a substantial difference between drinking to be amiable and drunkenness, and this difference was well-recognised at the time.

But that distinction has never been without its own hypocrisies. We see it today clearly-what constitutes good drinking and bad drinking is often just as much about the class of the drinker than the volume they drink. The alcopops furore of 2008 increased the tax on canned rum-and-cokes, which are consumed more in Frankston than Carlton North, where wine is drunk. Wine remains a protected and coddled industry, part of an idea of what Australians ought to drink.

By providing a sociological history of alcohol consumption in Australia, Fitzgerald and Jordan allow us to unpack the origin of the Nanny State, and the ideology that supports it.

Meet The Nanny Spider: It Wants To Wrap You Up In Little Rules And Eat Your Life

Ignorance of the law is no excuse. So here’s a bunch of things you can’t do without council approval.

You can’t sit in a chair on your nature strip. (The council will impound your chair.) Nor can you play with toy cars on your nature strip, according to the City of Maroondah’s Proposed Local Law No. 8.

You can’t set up a lemonade stand. (The stand will be confiscated.) Nor can you put lemonade on a tray and offer to sell it.

Well, you could; but you’d have to provide proof to the council that you possess public liability insurance of at least $10 million. You’d also need to submit a Temporary Food Event Application and Footpath Trading Permit to the council, as well as an Events Food Safety Program to the Department of Human Services – having familiarised yourself with a 40-page document detailing the protocols for cleaning, producing, acquiring the ingredients for and properly labelling your lemonade. (This is no doubt why we don’t have a vibrant street food culture like America.)

You can’t hold a street party. You can’t take a half-empty bottle of wine or spirits home from a dinner party, unless your journey home avoids footpaths, parks or travelling on roads. (Drink it all at the party. That’ll learn ’em.) You can’t busk without approval. If you have approval, you have to stay mobile. You can only play Billie Jean on your keytar for an hour at a time in any one spot.

That’s a lot of rules and paperwork for what most people would consider basic community interaction. So is it any wonder we don’t know our neighbours?

Australians have talked a lot about the nanny state since the Rudd Government came to power. And not entirely fairly. Many proposals to tax and regulate fatty food, booze and smokes were considered during the Howard years. (An endearing quality of the Howard government was they didn’t actually do much.)

But when we look at all the petty regulations that increasingly govern every aspect of our social and community life, it becomes obvious the nanny state is about more than just taxing alcopops.

The nanny state is a vast array of rules and regulations that filter our social lives though rough bureaucratic webs, and patronisingly hold our hands through the most basic of tasks.

Government advertising campaigns are morphing from information dissemination to schoolmarmish mollycoddling – just look at those WorkCover posters telling us to get health checks, or those “championship” violence ads that seem to believe the best way to communicate with young adults is through condescension.

There is no facet of life the Government doesn’t want a stake in. Our communications regulator has been trying to figure out why some people don’t use the internet or mobile phones much. The answer was revealed in a report released on Thursday: they don’t want to. The report says these people are missing out on the benefits of technology, but come on. If people don’t want to download iPhone apps, why on earth should anybody, let alone the Government, care?

The Federal Government has announced an expansive “Golden Guru” program, which seems to be a sort of real-life social networking for seniors. And every Victorian council puts out a brochure or has a spot on their website encouraging us to be good neighbours – some even recommend topics for small talk.

But at the same time these governments seem to be trying their darndest to stop communities forming. In 2009, the winners of the Premier’s Community Volunteering Award have to be more than just civic-minded; they also have to be really good at filling out paperwork.

This stifling of social interaction is a worldwide phenomenon. In the UK, more than a decade of Labour government has left a moribund nation struggling under the weight of bureaucracy.

It was brought into stark relief this week when the British Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills accused two best friends who babysat each other’s children of running an “illegal child minding business”. They determined that taking turns constituted virtual payment for services. Then they told the mothers surveillance teams would be monitoring the families to ensure this regulatory breach did not occur again.

Pretty much the same thing happened in Michigan: a woman was fined and threatened with jail for minding children waiting for the bus in front of her house.

Australian community hasn’t been totally regulated away yet. But it’s disappearing. Unless governments drop their nanny-first attitude, we’ll lose it.

Alcohol Is Good – So Let’s Drink To That

Australia’s relationship with alcohol is ”calculated hedonism”, according to the latest of many reports into drinking commissioned by the federal Health Department. This presumably is a Bad Thing.

The report, released last week, argues the intentional pursuit of pleasure is getting in the way of productivity, which is a shame. But what if alcohol is, on balance, good? Alcohol, and the social practices that have developed around it, is a key part of human society, and even human civilisation.

My point isn’t to downplay the very real negative consequences regular excessive drinking can have. Or to ignore the damage some drunk idiots can do, like drink-driving or street-fighting.

But Australian public health activists and the Health Department have decided the small minority of chronic alcoholics or our inadequate late-night policing isn’t the problem – it’s our drinking culture in general.

Traditional Australian mateship rituals like shouting a round of drinks are now seen as a form of peer pressure, and allowing staff to go out for after-work beers is seen as employer negligence.

So the Preventative Health Taskforce and the report leaked out of the Health Department argue workplaces are potential ”alcohol harm-intervention settings”, key battlegrounds for the Government to change our drinking culture. They recommend enacting workplace alcohol education, introducing health checks for employees, and making alcohol prevention strategies a part of industrial relations awards.

What’s interesting about these proposals is what they reveal of the health community’s beliefs about the sort of lives Australians should be leading.

A philosophical watershed was reached in February this year when the Health Department updated the Australian alcohol guidelines to describe the consumption of more than two standard drinks on any given day as risky drinking.

A bottle of wine contains more than seven standard drinks. So if you are one of those couples who like to spend their Saturday evenings with a serve of fettuccine marinara, a DVD box set of SeaChange, and a bottle of Clare Valley Riesling, you are now part of Australia’s booze problem.

Sure, the harmful drinking guidelines are just that – guidelines – but they fly so dramatically in the face of normal human behaviour they are almost completely meaningless. All they reflect is the steady ratcheting-up of claims about how we’re drinking, eating and smoking towards our demise. Never mind the fact that on practically every measure we are much healthier than our ancestors.

The vast majority of people have an overwhelmingly positive relationship with alcohol. Drinking is an important social lubricant. All this discussion about the harmful impact of drinking seems to forget alcohol is a key part of almost every adult social engagement held after 5pm. And for good reason. We enjoy alcohol’s effects and how it helps us relate to others. In almost every situation where alcohol is consumed – even consumed above what the health department has declared as risky – the effects of drinking are benign and, well, pretty enjoyable.

People very quickly learn how to manage their own drinking. Health officials might not always agree with our choices about alcohol consumption – bureaucrats will be bureaucrats! – but they should start to recognise these choices are nevertheless deliberate and informed.

After all, alcohol has played a fundamental role in the history of human civilisation – drinking has been tightly enmeshed with religion, nutrition, medicine and, above all, pleasure.

Compared to coffee and tobacco – regional delicacies that only achieved their global popularity a few hundred years ago – brewing, distilling and fermenting has been a major part of almost every culture for thousands of years.

In their new history of drinking in Australia, Under the Influence, Ross Fitzgerald and Trevor Jordon note Australians are nowhere near the booziest people on the planet, contrary to our self-image. Perhaps we deserve governments that treat us with the same relative moderation we treat alcohol.

Consumerist Kiddies? Come On, Give Them A Little Credit

There’s a lot of rage directed at the advertising industry. The comedian Bill Hicks famously told his audience: “If anyone here is in marketing or advertising, kill yourself… you are Satan’s little helpers.”

And Hicks was just talking about companies that advertise to adults. In a documentary aired on the ABC last week, one talking head described advertisers who specialise in children’s products as “very similar to pedophiles”. This is an apparently widespread view, if the reactions to the doco on ABC message boards and Twitter are anything to go by.

In The Age, author Sharon Beder argued there is “a generation of children who have been manipulated, shaped and exploited” by the advertising industry. Corporations are, apparently, turning kids into mindless consumer drones.

But hold on a moment: children can’t afford to be consumers at all. Kids aren’t allowed to earn money – child labour laws are pretty explicit about that. Anything children consume is directly or indirectly controlled by their parents, whether by giving children pocket money, or buying them stuff. Kids aren’t the consumers here. Their parents are.

Often complaints about the commercialisation of childhood seem more like complaints about parenting than marketing. We keep hearing about the insidious development of “pester power”, as if kids are only annoying because a Bob the Builder (a division of HiT Entertainment, owned by Apax Partners) corporate planning session decided that nagging would be the firm’s third-quarter marketing strategy.

If there are parents who think their child will shut up when the advertising industry shuts down, they obviously don’t remember harassing their own parents about a new cricket set, or having their hair braided like other kids.

Take a child to the zoo, and all they want to do is talk about zebras. Watch a movie about cars, and all they want to do is play with cars. If the vast amount of culture modern children are enjoying on the internet, in video games and on DVDs makes them want to wear Elmo pyjamas or eat Transformers-branded cereal, it’s hardly a sign of the apocalypse – unless, of course, you have a philosophical objection to capitalism and brands in the first place.

Claims about the insidious nature of advertising are massively overblown.

Sure, children’s movies may often feature subtle product placements. Last year’s WALL-E did feature numerous references to expensive Apple products. But the plot of the movie was a satire of overconsumption and environmental degradation. Not many children would have left the cinema exhorting the virtues of consumerism.

Kiddie entertainment is usually pretty good like that – greedy characters get their comeuppance; the value of friendship is affirmed.

Similarly overblown are fears of the corporate takeover of schools. Companies that have been told to be “good corporate citizens” and sponsor community and school events are now being accused of brainwashing children.

In her book This Little Kiddy Went to Market: The Corporate Capture of Childhood Sharon Beder even speculated that “it is as if underfunding of schools is part of a corporate strategy to enable advertisers better access” – which only makes sense if you believe that government budgets are determined solely by a cabal of industrial tycoons.

Nevertheless, critics of consumerism argue that advertising is making kids depressed and unsettled because they can’t get everything they want. It’s certainly true that more children are being diagnosed with disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hypertension and depression than in the past. But we’ve only seriously started to diagnose mental illness in children within the past few decades. And there is good evidence to suggest that, particularly in the US, some schools are mischaracterising unruly childhood behaviour as a symptom of mental illness: 82 per cent of American teachers believe that ADHD is overdiagnosed, according to a 2005 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders.

Mental illness in children is not trivial. But to try to blame it on product placement in Pixar movies is just a little tenuous.

10 Worst Nanny State Policies

10: Plain packet cigarettes

The argument for plain cigarette packaging is one of the most stark examples of how Nanny State regulations treat individuals as childish automatons. Plain packaging involves the complete removal of any brand logos, special colours or fonts, pictures or any other unique packaging design, to be replaced by only the brand name in a mandatory font, complemented by health warnings.

But would it work? Supporters of plain packaging cite studies which suggest that consumers would find plain packaging boring and dull, and marginally reduce the positive connotations of smoking. This certainly makes sense. But cigarette packages are already plastered with images of rotten lungs and cancer-ridden body parts. How removing brand logos could significantly make these already extraordinarily distasteful packages less appealing is hard to imagine.

Mandatory plain packaging seems to be predicated on the belief that attractive packaging is enough to convince non-smokers to become smokers, or that for smokers trying to quit, a good-looking logo is just too much to bear. Undermining brand identity would no doubt change the attitude that smokers have towards cigarette brands-the public health research has convincingly demonstrated that-but, as to how this would effect the desirability of smoking itself, the evidence just isn’t there.

The National Preventative Health Taskforce’s discussion paper on tobacco was titled ‘Making Smoking History’. This is surely a new stage in the public health movement’s war against smoking-an open affirmation that the goal of the government should not be to reduce risk, or to inform consumers of risks they should be aware of, but to eliminate an otherwise totally legal product.

9: ‘Clarity in Pricing’

Believing that consumers are being duped into paying too much for goods and services because the market doesn’t provide them enough information, the Rudd government altered the Trade Practices Act in 2008 to compel retailers to display the total price of goods. That is, the law forces firms to add up those pesky ‘fees and charges’ and show a single, total price of products.

In the words of Consumer Affairs Minister Chris Bowen, the amendment was intended to ‘empower consumers to make the best decisions about what they buy.’

But this was easier imagined than implemented. In fact, in the case of car companies, it was nearly impossible to implement. The fees and charges added on the price of a new car include things like stamp duty, registration, luxury car taxes, and dealer delivery fees, all of which can vary depended on jurisdiction, dealer or purchaser.

As a consequence, many major car companies-Ford and Holden, for example-have concluded that they can not display any prices on their national websites at all.

Increasing the amount of information consumers can access seems like a no-brainer for many economists and policy-makers seeking to improve the market. But it is policies with these sorts of justifications that have led to financial product disclaimers which are so long and complex that almost no consumers read them-again, the totally counterproductive result of mandatory information disclosure is that consumers are less informed, rather than more informed.

8: The internet filter

Few Nanny State initiatives have had such bipartisan opposition as internet filtering. Both the Coalition and the Greens Party oppose the Federal Government’s scheme, and the Institute of Public Affairs is joined by organisations such as Electronic Frontiers Australia and Get Up! in arguing that the filter will be costly, ineffective, and a breach of basic principles of free speech.

The primary justification for the internet filter, like so many Nanny State measures, is the protection of children-protecting children from ‘inappropriate’ internet content, like legal pornography or violent websites, as well as the policing of child pornography. But these are two totally separate issues, demanding two separate approaches. Protecting children against inappropriate content is the sort of task parents can easily perform-apart from basic supervision of what children look at online, there is an extremely wide variety of filtering software that can be installed on computers which children may access. Child pornography is however an issue for police. Because child pornography is not generally trafficked on openly accessible websites, a filter will do nothing to disrupt child pornography networks.

Nevertheless, the government has deliberately fudged the distinction between the two issues. Indeed, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy argues that ‘if people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd Labor Government is going to disagree.’

The dangers of the internet have long been an electorally potent issue-the 2007 election saw the Coalition rest a lot of their electoral hopes on a campaign for internet safety. But while many parents may be concerned about what their children come across online, the capacity for those parents to monitor and control internet access has never been greater.

7: Banning junk food ads

There are literally dozens of proposals to deal with Australia’s love of junk food. The National Preventative Health Taskforce has recommended everything from subsidies for gym memberships to subsidising fresh fruit. But the most prominent proposal-and one which has had the longest running support from the public health community-is a ban on junk food ads targeting children, or a ban on junk food ads broadcast during childrens’ programming.

Would this materially shrink our children? The lead editorial of a 2004 edition of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine argued ‘there is no good evidence that advertising has a substantial influence on children’s food consumption and, consequently, no reason to believe that a complete ban on advertising would have any useful impact on childhood obesity rates.’ It continued: ‘the claim that food advertising is a major contributor to children’s food choices and the rising tide of childhood obesity has obvious appeal, but as an argument it does not stand up to scrutiny.’

But inevitably, public health criticisms of junk food ads eventually reduce to vague claims about ‘pester-power’, which perhaps says more about parenting than it does about advertising.

6: GroceryChoice

When the plug was finally pulled on GroceryChoice in June, it was the end of one of the biggest Nanny State failures in recent years. GroceryChoice purported to better inform shoppers about the relative price of their supermarket shops.

That was, at least, the theory. In practice, the website was grossly deficient. Totally unable to effectively monitor the price of individual goods, or even individual outlets, the GroceyChoice instead offered up ‘typical’ baskets of goods in a region.

Furthermore, it was never clear that there was a demand for the service. GroceryChoice revealed a supermarket industry that was actually highly competitive. And the information the website was able to provide was totally dwarfed by the information supermarkets provided as part of their advertising campaigns, and their individual websites.

While the concerns that led to the GroceryChoice project involved the apparent ‘duopoly’ of Coles and Woolworths over the supermarket industry, the results of GroceryChoice actually further encouraged shoppers to favour the big two. In any given region, either Coles or Woolworths may be cheapest option, but the nationally consistent result of GroceryChoice was that independent supermarkets such as Franklins or IGA were always significantly more expensive.

GroceryChoice may have been well-intentioned-who doesn’t want a market with better-informed customers?-but like so many Nanny State proposals, completely fell apart in its implementation.

5: Street parties

Nanny State regulations don’t just have negative economic consequences or erode personal liberty. The stock of regulations from federal, state and local governments that affect all aspects of public gatherings are critically eroding our capacity to form communities.

Take local street parties. Local government regulations are making it near impossible to hold a community gathering, and making it certainly impossible to hold an impromptu one. As the IPA Review pointed out last year, navigating the complex bureaucratic hurdles to hold a party takes a lot of work. Party organisers have to fill out safety plans-a typical one, from Stonnington Council in Victoria, is 25 pages long.

The safety plan makes event co-ordinators safety wardens, responsible for abiding by the safety plan and controlling the safety organisation, which comprises the safety warden and any additional wardens.

As a safety warden in Stonnington, you will have to complete a complicated seven-step risk-assessment process in accordance with joint Australian/New Zealand risk management standards. Fortunately, you will have five response guides to follow, ranging from vehicle accidents to electrical failures, and several prewritten emergency announcements to memorise.

The safety plan is just the beginning. In some councils, event co-ordinators need to undergo a police background check. Sound levels need to be monitored by qualified acoustic engineers. Lemonade stands need regulatory approval, as well as the payment of appropriate fees to the council.

Food handling regulations are particularly pernicious, especially for rural communities, which rely on volunteers to support the also-voluntary Country Fire Authority. The IPA’s Louise Staley found this out for herself when she tried to help the Red Cross feed firefighters during the 2006 bushfires.

She wrote in The Age:

When I was helping the local Red Cross make lunches for the firefighters, it all had to be done in a registered kitchen and a person who had done the food-handling supervisor’s course had to be there at all times. What that means in practice is nobody is allowed to make a slice or biscuits at home.

Governments are increasingly talking about the importance of social capital to alleviate the causes of poverty and isolation and strengthen civil society. Unfortunately, it is too often government regulations that act to undermine social capital-making it increasingly hard to connect with neighbours and build communities.

4: Kogarah’s fat planning

State and federal governments are not the only levels of government imposing the Nanny State. Local governments are using what little powers they have over urban planning to impose a disparate array of regulations. The most absurd example of local government Nanny Statism is the manner by which a number of councils in NSW are trying to manipulate individual food choice.

Three councils, Waverley, Gosford and Kogorah, are using their control over planning applications and development controls to introduce a ban on trans fats-fats artificially made by introducing hydrogen to vegetable oils. Trans fats are used in some foods to lengthen shelf life, enhance consistency and add flavour. The three councils have placed conditions on new commercial developments that they avoid using these sorts of fats.

Food regulation is hardly core business for councils, who are usually limited to hard rubbish collection and approving property developments. The trans fats ban is only the most extreme version of an tendancy for local governments to expand their purview into social issues. Local governments seem eager to become regional Nanny State fiefdoms.

Many councils have also weighed heavily into the debate over alcohol and public health, trying to use their surprisingly adaptable planning powers to enact social change. This, of course, has been encouraged by the historically ambitious nature of the urban planning community to cast their role as less about nominating places to put shopping centres, and more about manipulating society. When the bizarrely political urban planning activists and the strange collection of political trainees and community do-gooders that comprise local councils get together, the result is Australia’s lowest level of the Nanny State.

3: Moreland’s gaming rates

More than any other Nanny State issue, the attack on gambling exposes the long history of class antagonism that supports much paternalistic policy. As Richard Allsop writes in this issue of the IPA Review, the forms of gambling that attract the most adverse attention from the Nanny State’s great and good are those which appeal to lower socio-economic groups-the pokies and the races.

Pokies in particular have been targeted by every level of government with discriminator taxes and regulations-from the vitriol of South Australian Independent Senator Nick Xenaphon who told a gambling industry conference that he looks forward to a future were ‘common sense prevails and you are shut down for good’, to the discriminatory rate rises which many local governments are trying to place on gaming venues. Victoria’s Moreland Council is trying to double the rates of local pokies clubs, while leaving all other businesses in the area alone.

And Xenophon has expressed hope that the government’s proposed internet filter would target online gambling as well.

This is a lot of hate for a leisure activity which only creates a problem for 2 per cent of those who participate. And there are an extraordinary number of well-endowed and accessible resources to support those who have problems with their gambling. In Victoria alone, the Community Support Fund-which draws its revenue from a portion of the state tax on gaming machines alone-has an annual fund of more than $110 million. Every state has a wide variety of 24-hour hotlines, counselling services and support networks. But for those 98 per cent of individuals who have no problem with their gaming continue to be targeted by anti-gaming politicians and lobbyists who cannot bring themselves to admit that gaming can be enjoyable-and manageable-just like any other leisure activity.

2: Drinking in Sydney

Policymakers often have contradictory goals. Nowhere is this clearer than the regulatory back-and-forth surrounding Sydney’s liquor licences. In 2007, the NSW government announced changes to the existing licensing laws that favoured large licenced venues over smaller ones. This was explicitly an attempt to develop a ‘small bar’ and laneway culture which many Sydneysiders felt the city lacked in comparison to Melbourne. These changes lowered the price of licences to $500 for small venues, and allowed restaurants to serve alcohol without meals.

But the intention to develop the small bar culture was dramatically curtailed by a competing Nanny State philosophy-to reduce the amount of liquor consumed and alcohol related violence. In common with many other cities, Sydney has seen an array of early morning liquor lockouts (policies which restrict the entry of patrons into a licenced venue after a certain hour) and freezes on licence applications. These anti-alcohol policies are stopping the much-heralded 2007 changes from having any significant effect on Sydney’s drinking culture.

But these aren’t the only regulations holding back Sydney’s prospective laneway culture. One new bar in Darlinghurst was shut down after just two weeks because the local council decided it shouldn’t open onto a laneway at all, serving the owners with a $3000 fine and an instruction to open onto a main road.

1: Stay out of the playground

Many ‘public health’ problems which lead to Nanny State policies could actually be mitigated, at least in part, by the elimination of other Nanny State policies. One clear illustration of this is the burgeoning limits on what children can do at schools during their lunchbreak. As Christopher Murn pointed out in the November 2008 IPA Review, risk-averse education department bureaucrats are slowly but surely banning all the forms of physical exercise that previous generations enjoyed during their lunchbreaks. In NSW and Victoria, swings, see-saws, flying foxes and roundabouts have been banned. Monkey bars have been removed from many schools-when they were removed from a Townsville school recently, it made national headlines. Various schools across the country have banned competitive sport, games that are ‘too rough’ and cartwheels.

Those activities that haven’t been banned are being regulated out of existence. The NSW Department of Education and Training’s ‘Guidelines for Safe Conduct of Sport and Physical Activity in Schools’ reaches 284 pages, and describes elaborate restrictions for all physical activity. Finishing tape is banned from running races. Curve balls are banned in baseball until the children reach Year 9.

Like so many other Nanny State restrictions, the cost of these sort of restrictions is impossible to quantify. But the social costs are significant-what will happen to a generation of children who cannot compete in sport, or who have been taught to be so risk-averse to totally eliminate any possiblity of injury, no matter how unlikely? Nanny State paternalism will have profound effects on Australia’s social makeup unless there is a dramatic reversal in our attitude to health and risk.