Navigating the Nanny State

By Leyonhjelm, David | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Navigating the Nanny State


Leyonhjelm, David, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Nobody likes the Nanny State, writes David Leyonhjelm. But what about seatbelt laws? How much Nanny is too much Nanny?

Most people accept that some things are legitimately the responsibility of the government while others are private matters. Indeed, this distinction was well known to the ancient Greeks. Aristotle described the public realm of the polis, state, city or republic as the site where people consent to or contest the laws, contracts, covenants, or principles of community that govern personal and social conduct.

The private realm was defined by the hearth and home, remaining the place of family, comfort and individual identity. He viewed the family as the primary and immediate unit of society, forming the training ground for conduct, nature, and morality.

There has always been debate about where the border lies and the overlap between the two, but serious encroachments into the private realm by the government have traditionally been associated with authoritarian regimes. Russia's state run holiday camps, East Germany's network of community spies and China's one child policy are obvious examples, among many. In George Orwell's novel Nineteen EightyFour, party members were monitored via cameras in the walls of their homes as the regime sought to abolish the family, orgasms and the sex instinct so there was nothing to detract from love of Big Brother.

In non-authoritarian countries the encroachments take a more benign character, frequently motivated by the same sense of superior knowledge and desire to protect that we associate with mothers and their children, or at least child carers. Hence they are commonly referred to as signs of the Nanny State.

The care of a mother for a child is based on reality. A mother does in fact have superior knowledge and naturally seeks to protect her child while it is too immature to make rational choices. The ability to make such choices and take responsibility for the consequences is what distinguishes adulthood from childhood. Parents recognise this by tailoring the protection they provide to children, for example by applying warm clothing to small children when it is cold but allowing older children to decide for themselves.

Governments are not super parents with superior knowledge, but public servants and politicians acting with legal authority. Moreover, citizens are not children who are incapable of making rational choices and accepting responsibility. Yet there has been a vast expansion by the government into the private realm with the government assuming it has superior knowledge and that adults are unable or unwilling to make the right rational choices.

Two ideas of government

There are many views on the appropriate relationship between governments and the governed, but two that have particular relevance to this subject are those of the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

Hobbes believed the natural state between people was conflict, with life being 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. He considered people were needy and vulnerable, easily led astray, with fragile capacity to reason. The only way to avoid a perpetual state of war of all against all', in his view, was to agree to relinquish all rights to a sovereign who could not be questioned. The sovereign dispensed justice and allowed such freedoms as it considered appropriate while maintaining civil society.

Locke's view was that people generally got along quite well when left alone, and in the natural state were equal and independent with a right to defend 'life, health, liberty, or possessions'. However, he assumed this was not enough, so they agreed to establish a civil society to resolve conflicts in a civil way with help from government. Rights were only relinquished to the extent necessary for this to occur, and if the government ever retained more than necessary he favoured a revolution to restore the balance. His views were quite influential to the authors of the American Declaration of Independence. …

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