The Nanny State Is Coming…For Your Democratic Soul

Is saying “nanny state” just a cheap slur?

The term was coined in The Spectator in 1965 and clearly bears the marks of that publication and that era.

I have in my collection half a dozen academic papers published in public health journals decrying its use: “The nanny state fallacy”; “No need for nanny”; “Nanny or Steward?” “Medical police and the nanny state: Public health or private autonomy?” and so on.

One, co-written by a prominent member of the Rudd government’s Preventative Health Taskforce, Mike Daube, compares “nanny state” to the phrase “health Nazi”. Daube and his colleagues argue the latter is needlessly offensive and the former is “an easy phrase in the same tradition”.

Daube’s artless comparison reminds us that one can protest too much. The problem some in the public health community have with the nanny state appellation isn’t that it’s unfair. It’s that it resonates with the public.

And we rely on “nanny state” because it describes something very specific – an observable and concrete change in the way government relates to individuals. It has no obvious or elegant alternative.

Where more “traditional” regulatory interventions try to protect individuals against the adverse consequences of the decisions of others, the nanny state primarily seeks to protect individuals from themselves. As with all public policy, supporters deploy a wide variety of justifications, but this is what makes nanny unique.

And the attitude which underpins such paternalistic policy has implications far beyond alcohol and fast food. It is, in a very real way, profoundly undemocratic.

If we can’t trust people to choose their poison, then how can we trust them with a vote?

That question may sound glib. But democratic legitimacy rests on a positive belief that while not all citizens may be equally intelligent or informed, they are equally sovereign, and as a consequence have the right to have a say about the country’s future. In their own small way.

The systematic chipping away by nanny state activists of these assumptions – that people should be assumed to be competent to make such portentous choices themselves – presents more of a challenge to democratic legitimacy than the public health community may recognise.

Nobody is suggesting a cadre of experts should guide citizens to make the correct political choices. They never will. (The public health community would no doubt be horrified at the thought.) But it is just as hard to see not, given this paternalist philosophical stance.

After all, we have undermined the notion of individual responsibility to such a degree that some government advisors no longer even trust people to, say, manage their own food serving size (the Preventative Health Taskforce suggested regulators standardise portions in restaurants).

Basic notions of political equality should compel us to leave those food portion decisions in the hands of individuals, not state-appointed experts. We cannot pretend to have a legitimate democracy if the government operates under a presumption that voters are idiots.

So dismissing individual responsibility has consequences. Once you’ve accepted that the government should not treat people as autonomous, all sorts of authoritarian policy results.

The increasing centrality of income management for welfare recipients is driven by the same philosophy. To support nanny regulations yet oppose income management is incoherent.

That’s a hypocrisy found on the left. On the right, drug-warriors against the nanny state are just as contradictory.

This is why the strongest objections to nanny interventions have always been philosophical, not practical or economic. The nanny state is a radical reworking of the relationship between individual and state.

Certainly, some nanny interventions have been going on for a long time, and, in retrospect, few find them are objectionable.  Seatbelt laws protect people from the consequences of their own decisions and potentially the behaviour of others.

The difference is of degree, not kind. But there is a difference nonetheless.

Where we can isolate one or two regulations of the past with similar purpose, the nanny state of the 21st century is expansive and insatiable. It’s a volume thing.

The Preventative Health Taskforce proposed 122 separate recommendations to clamp down on alcohol, tobacco, and weight-gain. It recommended seven entirely new bureaucracies be set up. It suggested twenty-six new laws and regulations.

Some critics have begun to describe paternalist interventions as indicative of a “bully state” mentality; a graduation from nudging to shoving. While this is true for some new and proposed regulations, it’s not clear that, say, imposing new, simplified food labeling laws is really bullying.

The Nobel-winning economist James Buchanan tried to rename the nanny state “parental socialism”. Buchanan’s alternative has an appeal, but its second word is louder than the first. And nanny is the better metaphor. In a democratic system, government is the hired help who we delegate to perform collective tasks – not actually our progenitors or superiors.

We could invent other phrases.

Public health activists are clearly frustrated by the nanny state critique. So they should be. They do not understand how substantial a challenge their ideas are to the philosophical assumptions which underpin liberal democracy.