Magazine

A Point of View: In defence of the nanny state

  • 4 February 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Nanny and child

Some people hate the idea of a nanny state, but might actually benefit from a little paternalistic nudge in the right direction, says Alain de Botton.

A key assumption of modern politics is that we should be left alone to live as we like without being nagged, without fear of moral judgement. Freedom has become our supreme political virtue.

It is not thought to be the government's task to promote a vision of how we should act towards one another or to send us to hear lectures about parenting, chivalry or politeness. Modern politics, on both left and right, is dominated by what we can call a libertarian ideology.

Sections of the public grow more or less apoplectic at the idea that governments might want to teach us anything. Even modest measures like trying to get people to eat less fatty food or drive less petrol-guzzling cars tends to provoke howls of protest that this is going simply too far.

It is a sign of this climate that the current government has almost given up all attempts to tell us anything. It seeks just to nudge us in extremely modest, quiet ways to donate our livers if we have a car crash or to file our tax returns on time. But that's about as far as it dares to go.

Image caption A truly libertarian state would have no advertising at all, remaining entirely neutral

All this concern with freedom can be traced back to thinkers like John Stuart Mill, who in his famous book, On Liberty of 1859, explained: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant."

In this scheme, the state should harbour no aspirations to tinker with the inner well-being or outward manners of its members. The foibles of citizens should be placed beyond comment or criticism, for fear of turning government into that most reviled and unpalatable kind of authority in libertarian eyes - the nanny state.

Compare this with how religions handle things. Religions have always had much more directive ambitions, advancing far-reaching ideas about how members of a community should behave towards one another.

Consider Judaism, for example. Certain passages in the Jewish legal code, or Mishnah, have close parallels in modern law. There are familiar-sounding statutes about not stealing, breaking contracts or exacting disproportionate revenge on enemies during war.

Sexual needs

However, a great many other decrees extend their reach dramatically far beyond what a libertarian political ideology would judge to be appropriate. The code is obsessed with the details of how we should behave with our families, our colleagues, strangers and even animals.

It dictates that we must never sit down to eat a meal before we have fed our goats and our camels, that we should ask our parents for permission when agreeing to go on a journey of more than one night's duration, that we should invite any widows in our communities for dinner every spring time and that we should beat our olive trees only once during the harvest so as to leave any remaining fruit to the fatherless and to the poor.

Such recommendations are capped by injunctions on how often to have sex, with men told of their duty before God to make love to their wives quite regularly, according to a timetable that aligns frequency with the scale of their professional commitments. "For men of independent means, every day. For labourers, twice a week. For donkey drivers, once a week. For camel drivers, once in thirty days. For sailors, once every six months."

Libertarian theorists would concede that it is no doubt admirable to try to satisfy a spouse's sexual needs, to be generous with olives and to keep one's elders abreast of one's travel plans. However, they would also condemn as peculiar and plain sinister any paternalistic attempt to turn these aspirations into statutory pronouncements. When to feed the dog and ask widows over for supper are, according to a libertarian world view, questions for the conscience of the individual rather than the judgement of the community.

In secular society, by the libertarian's reckoning, a firm line should divide conduct that is subject to law from conduct that is subject to personal morality. Thus, the stealing of an ox is a matter to be investigated by a police officer, whereas not having enough sex with your wife if you're a camel driver is not.

Propaganda

Looking back upon centuries of religious self-assurance, libertarians stand transfixed by the dangers of too much conviction. An abhorrence of crude moralism has banished talk of morality from the public sphere. The impulse to probe at the behaviour of others trembles before the incensed question of who anyone might be to tell anyone else how to live.

Libertarians often pity the inhabitants of religiously-dominated societies for the extent of the propaganda they have to endure. Yet this is to overlook secular societies' equally powerful and continuous calls-to-prayer.

Image caption Religions have rules about sex

We don't currently live in a "free" society in the true sense of the term. Every day, our minds are assaulted by commercial messages that reach us from all sides. The whole billion-pound-a-year advertising industry runs counter to any assertion that we're currently free and un-nudged as it stands.

A libertarian state truly worthy of the name would accept that our freedom is best guaranteed by an entirely neutral public space. It would judge that it was no assault on liberty to deprive us of all advertisements in fields, city streets, taxis, websites, phone booths, tube stations, dentists waiting rooms, airport concourses or Hollywood films.

An alternative option would be to build a more plural system of advertising, where the traditional commercial messages paid for by Procter & Gamble or Nike were balanced out by ones promoting ingredients of the good life as defined by Aristotle and others. Advertisements for 4x4 jeeps would run alongside ones evoking the importance of what the Greek philosopher eloquently termed kalokagathia or nobility of spirit.

If we tend to think so often about eating crisps and buying cars, but relatively little about being nice or just, the fault is not merely our own. It is also that these two cardinal virtues are not generally in a position to become clients of Saatchi and Saatchi. Only the more negligible of goods presently have the resources to insist that we keep them foremost in our minds.

Liberty

In the modern world, there is so much that we would like to do but never end up doing, there are so many ways of behaving that we subscribe to in our hearts but ignore in our day-to-day lives. And perhaps most significantly, there are so few people around us who dare to exhort us to act well.

The exhortations we need are typically not terribly complex: forgive others, don't be mean about people you envy, dare to apologise, be slow to anger. These are things we know we ought to do but which we manage to forget at key moments.

We are holding to an unhelpfully sophisticated view of ourselves if we think we are above hearing well-placed, blunt and simply structured reminders about being good. When we fail to be kind, we are not usually happy about our lapses. The mature sides of us watch in despair as the childish sides of us trample upon our principles and ignore what we most deeply revere. We may begin to wish that someone could come along and save us from ourselves.

The true risks to us turn out to be different from those conceived of by libertarians. It is not always or even primarily the case that we find ourselves at the mercy of some external, paternalistic authority whose claims we resent and want to be free of. Only too often, the danger runs in an opposite direction. We face temptations and compulsions which we revile, but which we lack the strength and encouragement to resist, much to our eventual self-disgust and disappointment.

In a society that took seriously our laziness about being nice, an occasional paternalistic reminder would not necessarily constitute an infringement of our "liberty" as that term should be properly understood. Being free should not invariably entail being left totally to one's own devices, it should also be compatible with being admonished and harnessed. Complete freedom can be a prison all of its own.

It is perhaps in the end a sign of immaturity to object too strenuously to sometimes being treated like a child. Why does the idea of a nanny state always have to be so terrifying? The libertarian obsession with freedom ignores how much of our original childhood need for constraint endures within us, and therefore how much we stand to learn from certain paternalistic strategies. It is not much fun, nor ultimately even very freeing, to be left alone to do entirely as one pleases.