'Parental Socialism': Regulators Tiptoe into the Candy Store

Article excerpt

Only the government is capable of making this judgement

To a large great extent, the end of the Cold War effectively signalled the vindication of classical liberal philosophy's view that economies and societies organised on socialist principles are incapable of providing decent living standards and a humane quality of life for their citizens. However, there remains a puzzle as to why there remains a fervour amongst sections of the community for collectivist solutions to resolve complex economic and social problems, including in developed countries organised on the basis of economic markets and social liberties underpinned by the rule of law.

For example, in Australia, in the last 40 years, the amount of public expenditure (Commonwealth and State governments combined), as a proportion of economic output has grown from 27.6 per cent to 43.6 per cent, with seemingly no effective brakes in place to prevent a further increase in the public sector's share of the economy.

In a recent paper, 'Afraid to be free: Dependency as desideratum' in the journal, Public Choice, the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan identified a strain of 'parental socialism' in modern society, where individuals invite the government to impose collectivist solutions on their behalf, in an effort to provide security from economic and social risks. Further, Buchanan considered that 'parental socialism' is on the increase. According to Buchanan, '[t]hat gloomy prospect looms, not because socialism is more efficient or more just, but because ... [p]eople are afraid to be free; the state stands in loco parentis'. He expresses alarm that:

the source for extension in collective or state control here is 'bottom up' rather than 'top down', as with paternalism. Persons who are afraid to take on individual responsibility that necessarily goes with liberty demand that the state fill the parental role in their lives.... they seek order rather than uncertainty, and order comes at an opportunity cost they seem willing to bear.

With the values of autonomy and self responsibility seemingly losing their appeal, Buchanan suggests that the 'learned helplessness' acquired by living in a political culture of preferential treatment and protection from ourselves may have left individuals incapable of accepting the responsibilities of freedom. Indeed, the shift towards 'parental socialism', where people are 'afraid to be free', is, according to Buchanan, the most dangerous threat to economic, political and social freedom in the modern era, and represents an alarming twist on the more conventional notions of socialism that emphasise top down economic and social controls.

Regulatory manifestations of 'parental socialism': The case of obesity

There is good reason to suggest that 'parental socialism' is on the march in Australia, with some commentators noting that the growth in regulation has been driven by the demands from various sectional interest groups for the elimination of (or at least protection from the adverse effects of) various risks.

For example, one the seemingly new frontiers in the debate over regulatory control relates to the prevention of childhood obesity. Various nutritional activists have argued for an array of regulatory interventions, including banning of 'junk foods' and soft drinks in school canteens and school vending machines, banning the display of selected foods and beverages near supermarket checkout points, restrictions on television advertising of 'junk foods', nutrition labelling at chain restaurants, 'fat taxes' on food producers, and additional physical education requirements in schools. Indeed, some of these regulatory measures have already been implemented in an effort to appease these lobby groups.

In many instances, the new war on obesity' is being fought by imposing restrictions on producers. Effectively, producers are being held responsible for the consumption decisions by individual consumers, and are penalised if their products are deemed to have been used excessively. …