It’s freedom we need, not the nanny state

Type: Think Pieces Written by Tom Papworth | Tuesday 22 February 2011

Some people might actually benefit from the nanny state, but the questions of who decides what is in people’s interests and whether individuals can be coerced will forever separate libertarians from paternalists, says Tom Papworth.

Paternalism, or (as it is now called, in a strange shift of gender and status) “the nanny state”, has always had its defenders amongst the elite. After all, it is the elite who define what is good; what is virtuous. It is little surprise that they would seek to defend their mores, even to the point of crushing the individual freedoms of others.

Over time, this has taken many forms. Most Greek city-states confined women to the household and reserved the public space for males; for three centuries, any sign of deviating from religious orthodoxy in the Kingdom of Spain was investigated by the Inquisition; sodomy is illegal in around 70 countries.

These were not mere acts of cruelty; on the contrary, they are promoted for the supposed good of both society and those directly affected. The Greeks wanted to preserve women’s honour; the inquisition sought to save heretics from eternal damnation; those who ban homosexuality consider it to be a moral corruption and also harmful to the participants.

It was the realisation that great historic injustices were the result of powerful men imposing their values on others that engendered the great liberation movements. In Europe, the reformation and the enlightenment were deliberate attempts to destroy the stifling dominance of religious and secular conservatism. One might therefore assume that paternalists would not wish to see a return to theocracy. Yet it is to religious law that Alain de Botton turns in his article for the BBC online magazine when looking for an example of how a society might set out rules for how citizens might live their lives.

De Botton cites Judaism, the rules of which “extend their reach dramatically far beyond what a libertarian political ideology would judge to be appropriate” to include “how we should behave with our families, our colleagues, strangers and even animals.” Judaism isn’t alone in this respect: Christianity and Islam are both equally prescriptive. De Botton concentrates on the lighter side of religious diktat (notably how often the Mishnah says that one should have sex with one’s wife). But not all religious law is so benign: Deuteronomy 21, verses 18-21, tells us when to stone our children; Sharia prescribes stoning for adultery and conversion to another faith (“apostasy”).

What underlies these – and all – paternalistic beliefs is the idea that it is justified to use force to make individuals live by rules that are intended for their own good. Nobody questions whether rules should exist to protect individuals from one another, but the idea that rules should exist to protect us from ourselves is deeply controversial. And with good reason.

Talk loudly and carry a small stick

One means of avoiding the obvious objection to paternalism is obfuscation. Thus, moral conservatives often conflate comment with coercion, and suggest that libertarians are willing to allow any behaviour to pass without criticism. “The foibles of citizens should be placed beyond comment or criticism”, are the words that de Botton places in the libertarian’s mouth.

This is a deliberate misrepresentation. Freedom of speech is a cardinal libertarian virtue, and that includes the freedom to criticise the behaviour of others. At the heart of every liberation struggle is the right to criticise kings, bishops and oligarchs. What is remarkable about today’s protests in Tahrir Square or last month’s rising against Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is that, just weeks before, any dissent would have resulted in a visit from the secret police. Indeed, it is noteworthy that Mubarak defends his three decades of dictatorship with emergency legislation that is supposed to be in the interests of the Egyptian people. The Arab world has taken paternalism to the extreme, with countries run by individual father-figures who do not trust their people to rule their own lives.

A libertarian society would certainly be marked by vociferous debate; there would be no shortage of shock-jocks condemning behaviour of which they disapprove. But their reaction would be limited to words; they would not be able to use force to bring others into line.

This is the crucial difference between a libertarian society and a conservative one (using “conservative” to mean any society that seeks to impose rules of virtue upon its people – which has been done by socialists and communists just as much as by reactionaries and Conservatives). In this sense, the term “nanny state” is unhelpful: the common image of nanny may be interfering and bossy, but she is at least kind and loving; someone to whom one might run with a cut knee. A nanny who used force to discipline a child would face an Ofsted investigation and possible criminal prosecution, but the nanny state uses force regularly to impose its will.

This is why the actions of the nanny state elicit “howls of protest”. It is not that the specifics are so extreme. Using less petrol or eating more healthily may very well benefit the individual who is being coerced by paternalists – at least in the narrow sense that the air is less polluted and their arteries less full of fat. If we focus on the specific issues that the paternalist prioritises, it is easy to argue that the citizen (“the infantilised-citizen”, if the coercing authority is considered to be a father-figure or a nanny) is better off. But this is to ignore three things: what the infantilised citizen loses when they are no longer required to make decisions for themselves; what they lose when the sanctions for non-compliance are imposed; and the possibility that the well-meaning patriarch gets it wrong. Whether it is piles of corpses or merely constrained and limited lives, the costs of paternalism can be staggeringly high.

De Botton therefore misses the point when he says that “Libertarians often pity the inhabitants of religiously-dominated societies for the extent of the propaganda they have to endure.” It is not the propaganda of the Ayatollahs that bothers libertarians, any more than they are bothered by Songs of Praise or Thought for the Day, or by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s apparent hotline to the BBC newsroom. What bothers libertarians is VEVAK, and the fact that Iranians can be arrested for listening to the BBC World Service.

The people aren’t as stupid as you think

This confusion between criticism and coercion can be taken to the extreme. Unable to reconcile the freedom of individuals with their refusal to do what the social elite think is right, the paternalists have resorted to the expediency of “false consciousness”, the idea (first coined by Marx) that material and institutional processes in a capitalist society are misleading; that the poor, deluded masses simply do not understand what is good for them.

The libertarian is a humble person, who lives by the creed that no individual can know for sure what is best for anyone, and that we should therefore allow others to find their own path through life, and to make their own mistakes. The paternalist, by comparison, combines a deeply pessimistic view of humanity – deluded individuals unable to make informed choices – with a supreme arrogance about the ability of elites (including always the writers themselves) to judge how others should live.

One particular target of this is advertising, which is seen as both trivial and manipulative. On the one hand, it is alleged to distract us from discussions of higher issues and to create in us a materialistic nature; on the other, it tricks us into buying things we don’t need. Yet this belies the fact that the public space is larger than it has ever been; millions now avail themselves of technology to engage one another in debate, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers in politics and the media. As for our materialistic nature, we may be richer, and so have greater choice and opportunity to acquire, but that may very well help create a deeper, more vibrant society. It is only once individuals reach a certain level of material security that they can afford to devote their efforts to the longer-term concerns of ethics and politics.

What a piece of work is a man

Ultimately, it is the dim view that paternalism holds of humanity that is its downfall. It is not that those who wish to live in a free society “think we are above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders about being good.” It is that we believe that we are able to act upon those reminders without having to be coerced into doing so. So contra de Botton, we do not ever “wish that someone could come along and save us from ourselves”, for to do so would be to surrender the very thing that makes us human: our ability to choose for ourselves and to fashion our own conception of life. Complete freedom is never “a prison all of its own.” It is the crucible of human existence.

Tom Papworth is the Director of Policy at Liberal Vision, which exists to promote individual liberty, a free economy and limited government among the political and media community and to the wider public, and a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute.