The phrase “nanny state” used to be one of those automatic argument-winners, like “freedom and democracy” and “you sound like Hitler.” Nobody wants to be treated like an infant, let alone like an infant that is tied to the government’s apron strings.
The phrase is losing some of its power in the UK. Labor leader Keir Starmer recently proclaimed that he would not be deterred from launching his “child health action plan” (which includes supervised tooth brushing at school) by accusations of nannyism. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is pushing ahead with plans to ban the sale of disposable vapes (which are favored by children) and phase out smoking by 2050 despite complaints from the libertarian right of his party or its amen corner at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
But the important modifier up there is “some.” The government has shied away from taking on the food and supermarket lobby that continues to stuff us with all sorts of noxious additives. Starmer’s health plan only devotes a few lines to the all-important question of obesity despite the fact that highly addictive foods of various kinds — either ultra-processed and/or soaked or coated in fat, sugar, and salt — make up half of our meals in the UK. Even before Starmer had spoken, party newspaper Labour List raised the problem of snobbery: Starmer risked coming across as a middle-class do-gooder (he lives in Islington), who wants to deprive working-class citizens of their right to eat chip sandwiches and fried Mars Bars.
It’s time to forget about such worries and embrace — nay celebrate — the Nanny State. Ban fast-food advertising before 9 p.m.! Increase taxes on sugary drinks and processed food! Put on a national exercise campaign! And boast about the fact that you are doing it!
The phrase “nanny state” has only ever been used to crush common sense and block social progress. The term was coined by the Tory MP Iain Macleod who used it to demonize the Labor government’s plans to introduce a 70-mile-an-hour speed limit. Since then, the limit has saved thousands of people from horrific death in a ball of fire and metal. The term was then used to demonize a succession of life-saving and health-enhancing policies — banning tobacco advertising, banning smoking from underground trains or offices, cracking down on drunk driving. If you haven’t been accused of nannyism, you haven’t done your bit to improve public health.
The idea that the nanny state is a bad thing rests on the assumption that individuals are isolated, rational entities, who are the best judges of their long-term interests. This has never been a remotely realistic view of human nature. Contrary to libertarian propaganda, founders of modern liberalism such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill recognized that human beings are social creatures who can be deceived about their own interests. But now in the age of the welfare state and preference-shaping algorithms, the rationalist view has gone from unrealistic to absurd.
The British state provides (or tries to provide) its citizens with all sorts of cradle-to-grave benefits: healthcare, education, old-age pensions, law and order, and, if you’re over 60, goodies such as free and subsidized transport. Have a heart attack and an ambulance will come (eventually). Get lost on a mountain, and rescuers will arrive.
Given all this, it’s only reasonable that the state should take an active interest in the lives of people it has to care for — that it should be a nanny rather than just a sugar daddy. And by the state, I don’t mean an abstract entity, still less a terrifying goblin. I mean the British people in their collective capacity. People who overeat while taking no exercise are not just harming themselves; they are imposing a cost on the rest of the population. A responsible state has to strike a balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the rest of us.
Today more than a quarter of Britons, and more than a fifth of 10 to 11-year-olds, are classified as obese. Obesity is linked to all sorts of other health problems such as diabetes, cancer, and arthritis; 16% of the labor force report that they suffer from long-term health problems. Ignoring the country’s health crisis on the grounds that you dislike nannying is thus doubly irresponsible — irresponsible to the mass of people who rely on the NHS if they fall sick or have an accident, and irresponsible to future generations who will inherit a broken health system if the government does not address the problem.
What about individual responsibility? Conservatives kvetch that the Nanny State robs us of the freedom to make our own decisions and our responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. This argument not only fails to address the problem of the unintended consequences of other people’s decisions (for example, the safe driver who is injured by a reckless drunk). It fails to address the way that powerful people can shape our choices.
Big business has long been able to call on the power of a vast advertising industry that encourages us to give into our basic instincts. It can now also call on the power of the high-tech industry that has invented smart phones that accompany us everywhere and services that know our innermost secrets. Recommendation algorithms know what we like and tell us how to get more of it. Newsfeeds reinforce our prejudices and whip up our emotions. The Nanny that we need to fear today is not the Nanny State. It is the Nanny Tech Company in Silicon Valley that is in the business of telling us what to want and when.
The critics of the Nanny State are right to worry about the loss of freedom. Freedom is not only a good in itself but also a key to economic progress. They are also right to be worried about encouraging dependence on the state, which can rob us of our dignity while also rendering us both needy and sluggish.
But the biggest threat to freedom these days does not come from a state that is elected by the people and subject to all sorts of oversight. It comes from a rapacious corporate world that has more power over our preferences than any world has ever had before. And it comes from people who keep indulging their appetites and hoping for the best. What sort of freedom do we lose if greedy companies are prevented from advertising junk food before 9 p.m.? What sort of freedom do we have if we spend decades dependent on the state because we became obese when we were young?
We should stop apologizing for the Nanny State as an unfortunate limitation on freedom and start recognizing it for what it is: a chance to improve our lives and free ourselves from the overweening power of big companies and base appetites.