The Three Ghosts of Restrictive Legislation | Taylor Downs
I have long wrestled with my belief as to whether government should have a larger role in society, as an obligation to protect and promote the interests of its citizens, or whether we should cut back the state in the fashion of Ayn Rand and maintain a mere night-watchman state, because as rational beings we are smart enough to make our own decisions and look out for ourselves . In the past I have tended towards the larger, nurturing state so as to prevent Disraeli’s vision of two nations and to keep in check our inherently flawed human nature. Thus, invoking the classic conservative notion of paternalism and noblesse oblige in that the ruling body has an obligation, by virtue of their position, to care for and protect the citizens of the country as without a state human life would be ‘noisy, foolish and flawed’ as Oakeshott claimed, or perhaps it would be a Hobbesian society in which life is ‘nasty, short and brutish’. However, I seem to have been visited by the three ghosts of legislation as events of past, present and future have led me to challenge my own presuppositions, as we should all try to do regularly. Namely: the sugar tax (2018), the government’s handling of the current covid crisis, and the proposed measures to tackle obesity.
The sugar tax, introduced in 2018, was more aimed at companies rather than consumers in a bid for them to reduce the sugar content in their drinks, which many duly did; some did not however, such as regular Coke, which led to an increase in price of 24p per litre for those drinks containing more than 8g of sugar per 100ml of drink. The decision by many drinks to reduce their sugar content led to widespread public backlash with many complaining that the drinks had been ruined, AG Barr, makers of Irn Bru, even received a petition some 54,000 strong to keep its ‘hands off our Irn Bru’; The Irn Bru taste did change but pressure was so strong that they later released its classic flavour as a limited edition run. Not only was the tax widely unpopular but it also didn’t work. Although the sugar content in some drinks did indeed decline, it seems the British sweet tooth conquers all as Public Health England reported an overall increase in sugar consumption of 2.6% which just proves the ineffectiveness of these measures. This tax has done nothing to solve the problem of obesity, achieving nothing but punishing those who are responsible enough to enjoy these drinks in moderation as well as hitting those lower income families harder. Many studies have found that because it’s cheaper, lower income families purchase food with lower nutritional value including these sugary drinks and so these families would’ve been hit harder by the hike in prices despite them not being the intended recipient of government punishment. Overall the message from ghost of restrictive legislation past is giving my idea of a paternalist government a run for its money as the sugar tax is completely unfit for purpose and instead punishes those that were already responsible, while those who can’t control their sweet tooth simply found their sugar fix elsewhere.
To keep with the theme of obesity tackling legislation the current government’s plans must be discussed next. Although specific details haven’t yet been announced by the government, there seems to be certainty in the media of certain proposed policies which include banning adverts for junk food before 9pm and restricting buy one get one free offers in supermarkets. For these policies to come from a prime minster who has previously described himself as a ‘libertarian’ when it comes to legislation restricting food and drink, this is an unwelcome shock. These proposals, apart from being slightly absurd in my opinion, seem to be wholly detrimental. These measures will be felt by the ordinary person a lot more than the sugar tax however as millions every day seem to feel a bit better about their day when they can have twice as much Cadbury fruit and nut (yes that’s the indisputable best flavour) for the same price but the government in its omniscience seem to think that by restricting the availability of these offers then sugar consumption will promptly fall. If the failure of sugar tax tells us anything though, it’s that this won’t work, and people will simply pay more meaning that sugar consumption stays the same but poorer people will be even worse off. Yet again the proposals are likely to hurt those who are responsible enough to curb their eating habits while those the legislation is aimed at will change little in their life. In addition to this the government is adding junk food averts to the post watershed hours of TV. In an age where what is deemed appropriate for children to watch has been watered down by parents and broadcast companies alike it seems to me that this change will have little impact when our children are too busy deploying to the virtual middle east to be concerned with a new chocolate bar. The motivation for this new set of measures is that obesity increases the lethality of the corona virus and that it is a huge drain on the NHS, however the premise of the national health service is that health issues, preventable or not, are a shared burden; perhaps the critics of the NHS aren’t as blasphemous as people would have us believe. So, by this point my presupposition of the superiority of a paternalistic government is waning.
The final issue that this article will tackle is the current handling of the corona virus crisis. Before the crisis I would have been in support of a hypothetical lockdown and increased police powers in a bid to stop the spread of the virus, however after experiencing it something just didn’t sit right with me. On my return from university around the time lockdown had been enforced, as soon as I got off the train I was confronted with two police officers asking my reason for travel, my departure station, and any relevant ID; I have also heard stories of the police moving people along on their walks etc. and although I understand the reasoning for the measures, they seemed unnecessary considering the 0.28% mortality rate which is far lower than any other seasonal virus. The state telling us when we could or couldn’t go outside, who we could see and where we could go was deeply disturbing, not to mention this devastating effect on the economy and skyrocketing debt. The effect on society was plain to see with friendly neighbours quickly becoming police informants overnight and a country that prides itself on being manners and being polite reduced to crossing the road when we saw someone else on the pavement. It’s my belief that all these restrictions should have been voluntary decisions made by each company or individual, the government could’ve offered the same support packages but made going into work or wearing a mask voluntary so that those at risk could still have shielded why those under 30’s could carry on and build up the herd immunity necessary to bring things back to normality.
These three issues highlight the issues with a paternalistic state and that in pursuit of protections for its citizens, it has ultimately had a detrimental effect. Although I’m still not completely convinced that a hands off, minimalistic government is the best for society as a whole, my faith in a paternalistic state has certainly been challenged and in the future the government needs more trust in its own people. Although there will always be outliers, the people of Britain are smart and much more deserving of the faith in its people that this current government seems to be lacking.