A Liberal Attack on the Nanny State | Charles Amos


The Government’s most recent paternalistic measures are a total outrage. The complete ban on online HFSS advertising is an affront to free speech, the necessity to display calorie counts a bureaucratic nightmare, and the ban on ‘buy one get one free’ deals an unjustifiable restriction on commercial freedom. Yet again, the Nanny State is raising prices for consumers and effectively restricting the choices they make. The following will strike the philosophical root for supporting these restrictions.

The Principles of Paternalism

Under the paternalist philosophy a specific system of mono-valuation is adopted. The costs and benefits of action are all reduced down to their propensity to further the individual’s health and longevity. Opposing values, such as the pleasure derived from eating toast with liberal helpings of butter, are simply given no weight in the paternalists’ calculations.

Such a system of valuation mandates consuming no more than 2,500 calories a day and insists upon a rigorous three hour programme of exercise each week. The logical conclusion of such an argument demands no smoking or drinking, and strictly no drug taking. Taken together these actions are said to produce the perfect man. This is the ideal which the Government and Public Health England wishes to realise amongst the population.

This philosophy is totally opposed to the principle of individual freedom. In the past such an objection would have halted the march of the paternalist in his tracks, at least in intellectual discourse, but today the matter seems different. Freedom as a principle no longer holds the same axiomatic power that it once did. That being the case, this foundational principle of liberal social philosophy shall be reasserted.

Freedom Defended

Freedom allows the individual to pursue his own ends. Under such conditions he is able to set his own goals, and weight up the innumerable costs and benefits of various courses of action. Since only the individual has access to his own mind, the knowledge that a third party can obtain on his preferences is almost always going to be of an inferior nature. Only I know the trade off I am willing to accept between having an additional gin and tonic and potentially falling down the stairs. More importantly, it is impossible for a third party to set an individual’s ends, this is intrinsic to the individual.

Welfare Effects of Recent Policies

From the preceding it can be concluded that the individual is best placed to make decisions concerning his own health and lifestyle choices. It is only freedom that allows everyone to pursue their own lifestyles as they wish.  The Governments’ most recent interventions decisively reject this pillar of support for individual freedom. Take the ban on TV advertising of HMSS foods before 9pm, and the total ban on online advertising, as an example. 

Such measures stop food producers from informing their audiences of various new products. As a result of this individuals are less well informed of new types of olive oil or Marmite that may be available. Consumers are left worse off. Persons are unable to pursue certain values as effectively as they had before. If I don’t know about the existence of a new mint chocolate doughnut, then I am unable to consume one and realise the benefits.

Contrary to popular myth, advertising does not force anyone to buy anything, and every exchange resulting from it can, ex ante, be considered to have benefited the purchaser and supplier. When the food industry advertises it simply lowers the search costs of finding new products. Without such a mechanism to inform consumers of new products, the public stand to miss out on a huge range of culinary delights, simply because they don’t know about them. The Hayekian knowledge problem for consumers becomes far harder to solve without advertisers   

The Government has no regard for the values of the consumer, that is the taste derived from sugar in sweets or salt in soy sauce; its myopic focus is exclusively on reducing obesity and improving health. Individuals are simply not trusted to know what is best for themselves. Every contempt is shown for the fat man who insists upon a five course dinner with cheese. To the State such enjoyment is just plain wrong. The lifestyle pluralism that liberalism allows is simply rejected out of hand. Such a policy does not enhance human welfare but almost invariably diminishes it.

Some individuals prefer eating more and dying younger, while others prefer eating less and living longer. All individuals are unique, we all weight up costs and benefits differently. Banning ‘buy one get one free’ deals, and the advertising to notify consumers of their existence, only diminishes human welfare. The first man is left poorer and unable to exercise his freedom to buy one Coca Cola and get a second one free, and the second man is left no better off either. If he didn’t want to pick up the second bottle of Coca Cola no one was, or is, forcing him.

The Logical Absurdity of Paternalism

Many will still question this Millian defence of individual freedom, believing that it fails to grasp that what individuals do is not always in their best interests, what people want is not what they should necessarily have. This is a reassertion of the paternalist principle of the value of health championing all others. Let us proceed with this line of argument to its logical conclusion to reveal its absurdity.

If the Government believes that a section of the British public is overweight then why does it not enforce rationing on such individuals? Why does it not force people into exercise classes? Why does it not fine people for being obese? This is the logical conclusion of the paternalist agenda, since this would be the most effective way to ensure a healthy population that wasn’t obese.

What can be the justification that the Government could give for not pursuing such an agenda? If the ban on online advertising is merely a means to ensuring that supermarkets sell less to the obese, which it is,  why not stop the supermarkets from selling an excessive number of HMSS products to the obese outright?

The Government has already accepted that force can be used to shape people’s diets (most commonly applied to the supply side of the economy) on the basis of reducing obesity; it simply makes no logical sense not to use force to achieve this goal in its totality. A tax or price control is little short of a prohibition. If the State is to make certain foods all but unaffordable, it has essentially prohibited there consumption.  

The moment that the Government concedes that people should be free to make unhealthy choices is the moment the whole paternalist edifice must collapse. If the individual is free to consume seventeen hamburgers a day and die at a young age, then it follows that advertising must still be allowed for such products also.

Both rationing and banning advertising have the same paternalist foundation for their support i.e. they reduce obesity. If the Government is to reject the foundation in one instance, e.g. by ruling out rationing of hamburgers, then it must also rule out the foundation in the other e.g. banning advertising of hamburgers. It is not logically possible to maintain a foundation that allows a less effective means (advertising), while simultaneously rejecting the most effective means (rationing).

The totality of the preceding demonstrates the absurd nature of a consistent application of paternalism. Such a philosophy is totally at odds with the principle of freedom and the plurality of consumer lifestyles that such a sphere allows.

A Liberal Defence of Lifestyle Pluralism

 It is individuals who are best placed to decide what they consume and not the State. For it is up to the individual himself to decide what ‘best interests’ mean, and no one else can ultimately do that for him: an aspiring beauty model’s ‘best interests’ will be served via eating little, a city banker’s ‘best interests ‘ by eating a lot wining and dining clients. Only in a free market can all of these ‘best interests’ be fully realised simultaneously, an impossibility under the Nanny State.

Liberals ought to accept, and embrace, differing body types. Being obese is not necessarily a bad thing; it comes with a huge number of benefits. Unlike slim people these individuals consume more cream cakes and greater numbers of sausages, and this consumption enhances the individual’s subjective welfare. This is not a trivial matter, many fat and obese people explicitly take this view.

Ultimately, conceptions of the good life differ, and this embodies itself in what we eat. There is no intrinsically good body shape. Food consumption is only ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to the instrumental value it provides for the individual’s ends. The Platonic ideal promoted by the Government is nothing but a ghastly illusion. The principle of freedom must be reasserted, the ghastly illusion must be rejected. 


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