In the Beginning There Was the Nanny State

By Shanahan, Angela | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, January 2011 | Go to article overview

In the Beginning There Was the Nanny State


Shanahan, Angela, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


We have ceded so much moral authority to the state that the state has now started to act not just like a nanny, but as a replacement for both mummy and daddy, says Angela Shanahan.

T he hatred of the nanny state is one of those sentiments shared by both social conservatives and their not at all socially conservative libertarian friends. Both groups are repulsed by state interference which attempts to control private, and sometimes quite trivial behaviour, deeming it either socially responsible or irresponsible, depending on the whim of some government department, board, or worse, a politician's personal antipathy.

We all hate the idea of putting horrible pictures on cigarette packets which condemn the remaining few smokers (who are generally poor and often struggling anyway) to the wastelands of social ostracism. We particularly scoff at the downright uncivilised notion of labels on wine bottles which reduce the status of one of Australia's most valuable and refined products. We know pregnant women shouldn't drink, but when did a label on a bottle ever stop anyone stupid enough to drink while pregnant?

We even hate the exhortations against youthful binge drinking. Remembering our own vodka and orange-soaked youth, we reason that if you don't drink when you are young, and get totally rotten so as to know better when you are older, then when can you drink?

Having said that, there are many conservatives like me who support one or two of nanny's more sensible and serious prohibitions. We social conservatives do not so much hate nanny (being mothers, we sort of know how she feels) but we do feel wary of the double standard which harps on relatively minor peccadilloes at the expense of really socially harmful and destructive things which also have a tendency to spread.

So despite nanny's persistently virtuous injunctions about minor misdemeanours like youthful binge drinking, or smoking, the prohibitions and the odium targeted at the smokers and drinkers should not be equated with the behaviour of drug addicts or raving alcoholics. On the socially destructive scale, heroin or amphetamine use, which causes chaos crime, communicable disease, child abuse and more, is hardly on a par with smoking.

But for some mysterious reason nanny wants it to be. But a double standard has been created and heroin use, which is socially destructive, seems to be supported, even semi-legalised, in injecting rooms by indulgent bureaucrats. As for binge drinking, yes, we know young people get drunk and vomit on the carpet in the front room as they tiptoe through the house at 3am. We also know they sometimes kill themselves in car accidents. They know it too.

This coercive stuff about minor matters is just rubbish, and we know it. Ads on television or labels on wine bottles will never change anyone's behaviour and more often than not it leads to confusion, especially about diet and nutrition. But then we might ask why should it change our behaviour? After all, we learn from our mistakes, and even some of our mistakes are not that bad. Furthermore, so much of this stuff is little more than the subjective opinion of the head of department. Binge drinking is a good example.

The Australian definition of ?binge drinking' is pretty abstemious - more than three glasses of wine at a go for women. But for our Russian and Scandinavian friends, a ?binge' is the equivalent of two thirds of a bottle of spirits or three bottles of wine! (Although the measurements weren't particularly accurate since there was some controversy about whether ?binge' meant passing out or not being able to find the bus stop.) On the other hand, that amount would be alcohol poisoning and instant death for an Italian, who on average drinks one or two glasses of wine. The former Rudd government's preoccupation with saving us from ourselves was really a new abyss of triviality.

There is something fishy about all this. Does this harping on the trivial conceal, and indeed encourage, a tendency for the state to encroach in serious ways into our lives? …

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