Sunday 28 January 2018

Nick Cohen's dystopia

Nick Cohen has gone on a health kick and thinks that his midlife crisis should form the basis of public policy. Previous victims of this delusion include Sarah Vine, David Aaronovitch and, a few days ago, Jenni Russell. After Cohen gave up drinking last year, he wrote a factually inaccurate article calling for more temperance laws. He is now running a half marathon and has decided that the British population must forced to do more exercise.

The results are fairly terrifying. His latest Observer column begins like this:

If you imagine a healthy future for Britain, or any other country that has put the hunger of millennia behind it, you see a kind of dictatorship. Not a tyranny, but a society that ruthlessly restricts free choice. It is a future that views the mass of people as base creatures jerked around by desires they cannot control. Expert authority must engineer their lives from above for their own good and the common good.

This is literally Orwellian, with the opening sentence evoking the famous line from 1984: 'If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.' And whilst you might expect Cohen to draw back from this explicit authoritarianism and say something along the lines of 'but that would not be reasonable' or 'only kidding!', his article continues in exactly the same vein. Towards the end, he reasserts:

When we imagine a healthier future we are also imagining a more authoritarian state. Individual choice will be constrained and wisdom of the crowd rejected.

If this is the deal on offer, many of us would say that you can stick your 'healthy future' and give us liberty. It is doubtful whether the choice is as binary as Cohen suggests: despite all the wailing about obesity, people's health continues to improve whereas none of Cohen's coercive policies have been shown to work - but he seems to believe what he says and he takes it as read that people should be prepared to sacrifice liberty for longevity. As I wrote in Killjoys, this is a core belief of the 'public health' lobby despite the fact that nobody makes such an extreme trade-off when left to their own devices.

His overarching justification for forcing lifestyle change upon the population is the usual excuse about poor diets and lack of exercise bankrupting the NHS (may peace be upon it). Anyone who knows the economics of longevity understands that this is piffle (have a read of Death and Taxes for a summary). But, having fallen for this popular myth, he then launches into his programme for change:

Here’s my partial sketch of how Britain would have to change to limit the costs to the NHS that stunted lives and avoidable pain will bring. Pedestrians and cyclists would have priority on the roads. If the roads are too narrow to take cars, cycle lanes and a pavement wide enough to allow pedestrians to walk or run in comfort, then cars will have to go. 

Roads are obviously not too narrow to take cars, so I can only assume that Cohen will extend cycle lanes to make them so. I assume this because...

It will not necessarily be illegal to drive in towns and cities, just pointless. Motorists would inch along because cycle and bus lanes would take up road space and pelican crossings would be reset so pedestrians never had to wait more than a minute to cross a road. 

This is an idea that can only be seriously entertained by someone who works from home in central London. How practical would it be to bring Britain's roads to a standstill in an effort to force people to walk?

Let's look at some statistics. 89 per cent of all journeys in Britain are taken by road and two-thirds of business/commuting trips are taken by car. Only 6 per cent of car journeys are under a mile and the majority of journeys under a mile are already taken on foot. Even if we leave aside the foul British weather, the weight of luggage and the need of vans and lorries to make deliveries, the distances involved are simply too long.

Incidentally, although I don't have the stats for this, life experience tells me that pedestrians at pelican crossings do not have to wait more than a minute to cross the road.

Even when they reached their destinations, drivers would search forever for a space because car parks would have been demolished and replaced with public parks.

Because everyone lives within a mile of their workplace and should just get on their bloody bike, eh Nick? Never mind all the people who live in the suburbs, small towns and countryside - who are, by the way, in the majority.

Cohen's logic suggests that closing down railways, bus routes and the tube would also be necessary to get Britain exercising and yet he does not mention any of these. Perhaps the idea of getting around London without the help of an engine is not as appealing as the vision of suburban drones marching to the office?

School runs will become history as heads refuse to admit any able-bodied child who arrives at school in a car.

What about those who arrive in a bus? Is motorised transport only acceptable if it is owned by the state?

No fast-food outlet would be allowed within a one-mile radius of a school. 

Effectively, this would mean no fast food outlets in Britain's towns and cities. Thanks to Dan Cookson, we know what an exclusion zone of 400 metres around schools - as proposed by Sadiq Khan - would look like.

Cohen is proposing an exclusion zone that is four times wider than this and that applies to all fast food outlets, not just the new ones. This would amount to a total ban on shops selling pizzas, hamburgers, fish & chips, kebabs etc. Cohen would probably be happy with that, but it sounds a tad heavy-handed.  

Agricultural subsidies for fat and sugar would be abolished. 

There are no subsidies for 'fat'. Fat is a component of most food products including meat, cheese and milk. In so far as there is a subsidy for sugar, it is part of the EU's farming regime of tariffs and subsidies which, on balance, makes sugar more expensive that it would otherwise be.

Rapeseed oil and sugar beet cultivation would stop as new subsidies for public transport began. 

I have no idea what he is talking about here. Is he suggesting that the government ban the farming of these crops? Or does he think that people will spontaneously stop consuming them when public transport is (further) subsidised? If so, why? There is no logical connection between the two, but the call to subsidise public transport confirms that it is private car ownership, not physical inactivity, that is really bugging Cohen.

Meanwhile, the manufacturers of processed food high in sugar, salt and fat would face advertising bans and punitive taxes. (If food manufacturers want to dump prematurely sick patients on the NHS, we will say, they can damn well pay for the privilege.)

Food manufacturers don't pay excise taxes, consumers do.

It may seem a less practical measure but I would hope to see a vigorous challenge to the paradox of our culture’s celebration of thinness and athleticism in an overweight world. The idealisation of film stars and athletes raises impossible expectations. Because 99% of people do not have the genes – or the time and money for training – to even think of imitating them, we simply don’t try. A small blow could be struck if UK Sport were forced to stop sponsoring elite Olympic athletes and spend its millions on sports facilities for all instead.

Again, I have no idea what he's talking about it. Whilst I am extremely sympathetic to the idea of not paying people to participate in the jingoistic tedium of the Olympics, I fail to see how withdrawing the funding will make us any thinner. It is wibble.

Sugar and fat addiction, like all addictions, provide a temporary respite for the poor, the depressed and the disappointed. 

Sugar and fat addiction do not exist. Giving up something you enjoy and then missing it does not make you an addict.

Perhaps we should offer them better lives rather than snatch away the few comforts they enjoy. 

That would be nice wouldn't it? But you have no way of doing it and you're only going to make their lives worse by dishing out the kind bans and taxes as that evil billionaire Mike Bloomberg threatened us with this week.  

This sounds a stirring counter-argument. 

It's better than taxing the hell out of us, censoring the media, and making us walk for miles in freezing temperatures, yes.

But as any reader who has been an addict will know, addiction prevents you finding a better life.

People are not addicted to driving and there is no evidence that they have a latent demand for cycling, walking or tasteless food.

God knows, there are good reasons to mistrust experts re-engineering societies from above.

Given that the main 'expert' Cohen cites is a fanatic called Tim Lang who thinks that repealing the Corn Laws was a mistake and believes that making food more expensive is an admirable end in itself, this mistrust is justified.

But as with tobacco, freedom of choice in the food and car markets has left us with no choice but to trust them.

The vilification of 'car markets' is a new one to me, but it is no surprise to see tobacco being used, once again, as a precedent for controlling the lives of private citizens.

Cohen admits that many readers will regard his proposals as 'dystopian', and so they are. Nevertheless, I am glad that he has put them down on paper. His article is a fine reminder of what we are up against.

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