The True Origins Of Anti-Paternalism

Opposition to government paternalism wasn’t always a conservative or libertarian thing. Indeed, the use of the word “nanny” to describe state interference in individual choices originally came from the left.

In a 1960 article in the New Statesman, the magazine set up by members of the Fabian Society, nanny was deployed to attack the British Board of Film Censors. “Novels and the Press get along, not too calamitously, without this Nanny; why shouldn’t films?” asked a New Statesman columnist William Whitebait. Nanny “exercises a crippling drag on the growth of a serious and healthy British cinema.”

Eight years earlier, the American journalist Dorothy Thompson (and one time wife of Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel-winning socialist writer) was using nanny to describe British imperialism in the Middle East.

Western empires, Thompson wrote in her syndicated column, have “filled the role of headmaster, or Nanny-governess”. The West does not treat the inhabitants of its colonies as equals. She continued:

It is an amusing notion that comes to me that, with the retreat of empire, Britons are turning Britain itself into a Nanny-state, perhaps out of a long habit in persuading or coercing natives to do what is good for them.

Anti-censorship and anti-empire. These are not typical conservative positions. But both were drawn from the same anti-paternalism that drives the modern resistance to public health regulation – a belief that a powerful class should not impose their own values on the rest of society.

Colonial masters instructed their subjects in the best way to live their lives – lessons given force by military domination. And 20th century censors claimed to be protecting the less refined from the crude excesses of popular culture – judgements only moral superiors could make. Whitebait made much of the fact the British censors were aging aristocrats. Sir Sidney Harris, 83, was being replaced by Lord Morrison of Lambeth, 72. Who were they to tell Britons what they could or could not watch?

Of course, this is not how public health activists record the history of anti-paternalism. I gullibly took their claims at face value in May last year when I wrote in The Drum that “nanny state” is first found in the Spectator in 1965. This is more than a decade after Thompson used it.

According to this story – told by the Australian public health luminary Mike Daube in a 2008 paper in Tobacco Control – it was coined by the former Conservative minister of health Iain Macleod, who later died of a heart attack. (Macleod was a deeply ill man, suffering from an inherited weakness for gout, a war wound, and a chronic inflammatory disease. But Daube and his co-authors imply it was just smoking that did him in.)

Does nanny’s origin matter? Yes, insofar as it demonstrates that anti-paternalism is not – or at least was not – the exclusive preserve of the right.

How would the readers of those words in the New Statesman have responded to the claim by the British Labour leader Ed Miliband last week that the Tories had failed to stop the sale of discount chocolate oranges to the masses? Yes, Cameron complained about the same thing when he was in opposition. But, as our New Statesman readers might say, Cameron is a Tory. You’d expect a bit of Tory paternalism from him.

Or how would those who nodded along with Dorothy Thompson’s distaste of imperial paternalism feel about the recent Australian complaints that Aldi is selling cheap alcohol?

Rejecting eight out of Aldi’s 20 liquor license applications in New South Wales, the chairman of the state liquor regulator said last week that “I don’t know if there are areas that have too many bottle shops but certainly there are areas that have enough”. Are there? That seems a call best made by Aldi and its customers.

One could even go so far as to say that cheap is a good thing. Recall that it was Aldi which consistently won the Rudd government’s Grocery Choice competition. Aldi is at once hero for selling consumers goods they want cheaply (food), and pariah for selling consumers goods they want cheaply (alcohol). This doesn’t have just a whiff of paternalism. It has a stench.

And somehow such paternalism is even more obnoxious when it is petty, as it is with the Aldi licence rejection. Sure, reports suggest Aldi’s cheapest wines are rubbish. This is no surprise at $2.49 a bottle (By contrast, a critic in The Australian suggests that the 83c beer is “gluggable”). But so what? Cut-price bottom-shelf alcohol is already available at other stores. Geographic limits on bottle shop numbers are designed to do nothing more than frustrate purchasers. “All this of course for our good,” as Whitebait sarcastically told his New Statesman readers.

Those who seek to limit our choices usually have good intentions.

The film censors who banned Battleship Potemkin for three decades believed they did so in the British people’s best interests. The colonialists believed the same about the third world. And those who would limit bottleshops in New South Wales also believe they are doing the right thing.

But the underlying philosophy is the same: a deep paternalist belief that people must not be trusted to look after themselves.