Are we freer today than we were half a century ago? That question is surprisingly hard to answer. The state control over the economy that characterised Australia in the 20th century is quickly being replaced with nanny state controls.
Barriers to trade have been mostly eliminated, and state monopolies eradicated. But accompanying that has been explosive growth in social and environmental regulations. There are now more pages of Commonwealth legislation introduced every year than were passed in the first 40 years of federation.
In our social lives, freedom has both advanced and retreated. For example, restrictions on the sale of alcohol have eased. But they have been replaced by nanny state measures such as smoking bans. In the future, cigar bars will be as distant a memory as the six o’clock swill.
Since smoking bans were enacted this year in Victoria and NSW, sales growth in pubs has dropped significantly. Hotel patronage may return to former levels – international experience seems to indicate that it will – but when smokers return to the pub, they will be less free than they were in October last year.
Unquestionably, advocates of individual liberty and personal responsibility have lost the battle on smoking. That’s not surprising – smoking is reviled by everybody who doesn’t enjoy it. In a liberal state, that disagreement would be sorted out by negotiation; before the bans, many restaurants and hotels already enforced non-smoking areas or disallowed it entirely. But in a nanny state, such negotiations are replaced by force of law.
Similar sentiments lie behind restrictions on poker machines. The gaming industry is a political football to be kicked around at every state election, while individuals who value their freedom to enjoy the pokies are ignored.
In a nanny state, the government morphs into an over-eager insurance company, assuming the role of risk-manager for its citizens. Any risky or unhealthy endeavour has to be eliminated – individuals cannot be trusted to assess the risks themselves.
The next target is food. Numerous proposals are on the table to tackle our expanding waistlines, including banning certain types of fats, banning junk food advertising, and even taxing fatty food.
Earlier this year, the Labor Party hinted that it was considering banning the use of licensed characters such as Shrek in junk- food advertising, should it win government. Last week, the Cancer Council of Australia came out in support of a general ban on junk food ads aimed at children.
However, there is little evidence that such bans work. Both Quebec and Sweden have tried them, but neither have seen any reduction in childhood obesity. There are twice as many overweight children in Sweden as there were 15 years ago, even though the Scandinavian country has had a ban on all advertising aimed at children since 1991.
Furthermore, politicians hurrying to make political capital out of medical problems such as obesity and lung cancer rarely think through the unintended consequences of their policies.
Swedish advertising bans have not reduced obesity, but they have had other results. Losing the revenue from the highest-paying advertising has reduced the quality and quantity of children’s television programs. Similarly, restricting the advertising market has raised the cost of toys in Sweden to 50 per cent above the average European level.
The Australian Government’s hard line on tobacco has had similar consequences. Smokeless tobacco products have been swept up as the nanny state tries to purge society of everything that meets its disapproval.
It is unfortunate that Australia lacks a strong intellectual history emphasising individual liberty and personal responsibility. Our “she’ll be right mate” attitude is easily swamped by our calls for government to intervene in personal decisions.
Laws are passed with little reference to how they will affect our freedom. As a result, individual liberty in Australia is slowly being eroded by neglect.