I was at the Liberty League annual conference yesterday, on a panel discussing threats to liberty. Brendan O'Neill spoke about censorship on campus (you can read his speech here). I was asked to talk about the 'nanny state'. This is roughly what I said...
It’s easy to see ‘nanny state’ issues as some of the less pressing threats to freedom today. Partly this is the result of the term nanny state itself, which sounds rather cuddly but is misleading because nannies generally have the interests of their clients at heart—something that can’t always be said about the modern public health movement. And partly it is because the public health lobby is often regarded as an arm of the medical community and people generally respect and trust doctors. This is also a misconception. The public health has very little to do with health and more to do with statism, snobbery and anti-capitalism.
I am going to argue that the public health lobby is, in fact, one of the most dangerous threats to liberty. Firstly because it is not just a looming or potential threat. The damage it does is very real and is growing by the day. Secondly, because unlike earlier moral crusades against food, alcohol and tobacco, it is heavily funded by the government and therefore has more power and influence. And thirdly because its entire modus operandi is to tax, control and ban—especially ban.
Earlier in the week you may have read about the public health group that ranked Britain’s high streets in order of their healthiness. This was the media hook upon which they hung a whole slew of policy demands which amounted to having the state decide which shops could open up, what they could sell and where they could position their products. They want differential taxation for 'unhealthy' businesses to encourage them to close. They want a cap on how many 'unhealthy' businesses can be allowed on a street. And they want these businesses to be run in a very specific way—for example, no e-cigarettes at the counter and no chocolate near the checkout.
What is an unhealthy business? According to this group, it’s things like tanning salons and fast food shops, but also - quite tellingly - payday loan shops and bookmakers. What have pawn shops and bookies got to do with health? Nothing, as far I can see, but their inclusion is a clue to the fact that the modern public health lobby has more in common with the middle class reform movements of the nineteenth century than it does with medicine.
What do you think this public health group mean when they talk about fast food outlets? Do they mean Leon? Pret a Manger? Yo Sushi? No, they mean kebab shops, McDonalds, chippies—the places they associate with the great unwashed. Why this obsession with minimum pricing? Because it will raise the price of the alcohol that poor people drink without affecting the price of craft beer and champagne. Why the relentless drive to turn smokers into second class citizens? Could it be because only 1 in 10 professionals smoke, whereas the rate is more like 1 in 3 amongst unskilled workers?
Policies such as plain packaging, minimum pricing, advertising bans and licensing controls are all direct attacks on economic freedom. The aim is for the state to control every lever of competition: price, availability, packaging and marketing. The current agitation from the likes of Action on Sugar is for the government to dictate how much of a given ingredient can legally be put into food products. The aim is for the state to decide what a product costs, what it look likes, what's in it and where it can be sold. The rate of tax on tobacco and alcohol is already so high that the government makes more profit than the manufacturers. This all amounts to a virtual nationalisation of industry without the state having to go to the trouble of manufacturing the product itself. No wonder the public health movement is full of antediluvian socialists, deep Greens and anti-capitalist throwbacks. It is not uncommon for public health demagogues to blame cancer and heart disease on free trade and so-called neo-liberalism.
But whilst the public health lobby is overtly anti-business and anti-market, this is largely a device by which they portray themselves as Davids in a David and Goliath battle. Their real target is the individual and it is the individual who ultimately pays the price of tax rises, advertising bans and prohibitions.
The attack on individual freedoms in quite blatant in the case of smoking bans. The totalitarian tendencies of those who want the state to restructure the high street to save the working class from temptation and vice were on open display last year when Lord Darzi called for a ban on smoking in London’s parks to turn them into what he called ‘Beacons of Health’. The justification for this Orwellian measure was that children should not have to see people smoking. This is the same mentality that drives the campaign to label films that depict smoking with an 18 certificate. As loopy as that campaign is, it is at least only trying to censor fiction, whereas Darzi wants to censor reality using the full apparatus of state force. The logic behind it is the that the individual must sacrifice his desires and unite behind the collectivist fantasy that Britain is a GOOD, CLEAN COUNTRY.
Some time ago, it was suggested that all adults be given photo IDs with which they could buy alcohol, but with the clever twist that it would not allow more than three drinks to be bought within 24 hours. This idea soon hit the buffers because its implementation was considered too expensive and impractical. But it was this, and not any ethical objection to stopping grown men and women living freely, that were raised. On the contrary, one prominent doctor said it was a jolly good idea, it was just a shame it was so impractical. It was the same when someone suggested making smokers buy a licence to purchase cigarettes a few years ago.
In short, the health lobby is not constrained by any concerns about liberty. The only thing holding it back is practicalities. In recent years, some anti-smoking campaigners have finally started to admit that the prohibition of tobacco is their ultimate goal. Others disagree, but only because it is not yet seen as feasible. But they all agree that prohibition is ideal in theory. The thought that people should be allowed to smoke regardless of whether prohibition is feasible probably doesn’t even cross their minds.
The same is true of most of those who want to legalise, or at least decriminalise, drugs. For libertarians, drug legalisation is a no-brainer and it has been gratifying to see more and more people coming over to our side of the argument in recent years. But very few people in the public health racket support legalisation because they believe that it’s none of the government’s business what people put into their mouths, lungs or veins. If drugs could be successfully suppressed they would support prohibition in a heartbeat. You only need to look around the world to see the bans on e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, alcopops and any number of other products and activities to see that the public health lobby will never be a principled ally against prohibition. On the contrary, it is the most potent source of prohibition, petty regulation and illiberalism that we face.