The Nanny State: Why The Government Should Tell Us What To Do

by Beth Cherryman

Towards the end of the Labour government much criticism had developed over their attempts to influence people’s behaviour.  For instance, though implemented long before, high taxes on goods or services that were deemed ‘bad’, such as heavy taxes on smoking.  The Labour government took this a step further by banning smoking in public places.  Other instances like banning chips in school cafeterias or banning vending machines in secondary schools, in a bid to influence children’s’ diets were also instituted under the Labour government.

Such policies are paternalistic in the sense that the government decides what is good or bad and tries to conform its citizens to these behaviours.

Intuitively paternalism is quite offensive – probably this is where much of the negative response to ‘the nanny state’ comes from.  It is after all a statement of mistrust, or making explicit the government’s a lack of faith in people to make responsible choices.  At worst, paternalism expresses a belief that the public, as a whole and in parts, do not know what is best for them.

However, in some instances it is probably right to say the government knows best.  People who loose a lot of weight or quit smoking often feel empowered and find they have far more choices open to them now, even if the initial prompt to loose the weight or stop smoking was external.

Paternalism benefits at a personal level because it often seeks to free people from a situation that diminished their well-being or restricted them.  Far from curtailing liberty, paternalism fosters choice and individual agency.

Also, paternalism benefits everyone as a member of society.

It comes down to: Are we a group of individuals or are we a society?  Any rational being would want to be in a society.  Societies offer security, safety, cooperation, division of labour, protection, etc.  In society we are free to engage in our role as a human being, we are not allowed to simply act on desire but must debate and cast votes and live in the way society has deemed the good life.  If we were merely individuals then we would be reduced to rational choice machines, never able to debate what it is to be moral or engage in moral activity because we are too concerned in self-preservation.

But, to enjoy the freedoms of living in society we must necessarily compromise.  Your desires may be inappropriate – you cannot just go around killing people, or taking their stuff, or behaving in such a way as to make the environment unpleasant for everyone else.  Legal system expresses the values of a society.  We have laws against murder; if you kill someone we will remove you from society.  A heavy tax on smoking is similar in the sense that your smoking makes life a little less pleasant for me, possibly shortening my life.  Rather than excluding you from society, you pay heavy taxes as compensation.  In the same light, we make eating vegetables and salad easier not so much as ‘an incentive’, but as a reward for engaging in society in this way.  We might even give compensation if we are asking you to make a sacrifice or do something particularly unpleasant, such as giving up drugs.

Paternalism benefits us by making society possible and cohesive, and gives us agency because we are able as a society to decide what constitutes the good life.  We elect the government, and we can boot them out, or kick up a fuss, should they suggest a policy we dislike.

Paternalism does not take our choices away.  The Government simply nudges us in a particular direction.  To me this is much better than something like tied benefits, which seem to punish people for not conforming to the society’s notions.

The Government should tell us what to do because, as we live in a democracy (well, technically a constitutional monarchy), we are the Government!  We decide what constitutes a good life.  Paternalism seeks to give us more choices and agency, and tries to make society as pleasant as possible.