Some people cannot abide bad decisions, whether they’re made by humble individuals or the great and the good. They are so incensed by them, in fact, that they’d like the government to intervene on their behalf, and force us to do their bidding. They aren’t motivated by any great love of humanity, but by a snooty disdain for everyone else’s lack of discernment. As far as they’re concerned, the ‘wrong’ people are at liberty to make ‘wrong’ decisions, and everywhere that human affairs fall short of perfection, proof of their malign influence is to be found.
Inevitably, such people find evidence of poor judgment wherever they look: in prejudice and inequality, which they exaggerate at every opportunity, and in historical tragedies, which they ascribe to the exclusion of their ideological kin from the levers of power. Suffice to say, had the Britain and Germany of a century ago been run by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, there’d have been no First World War, and no need for Blackadder to teach us what happens when decisions are left to gung-ho oafs, instead of the learned and the earnest.
Nowadays, the despair of these malcontents is often expressed through their displeasure with our lifestyle choices, for here lies the Holy Trinity of condescension. First, they showcase their superior knowledge by identifying a health risk. Next, they highlight our relative ignorance by observing our failure to heed their advice. Finally, they impose their will on us by calling for the government to regulate our behaviour. There are always objections, of course, but these are swept aside by the insistence that many individuals are too ignorant, feckless or immature to make sound choices, or are helpless addicts, in need of help to kick the habit. Basic liberties are sacrificed on the altar of victimhood.
All tyrants, however petty, profess to act on behalf some powerless group or other. The prohibitionists who had smoking banned in public places claimed to represent bar workers who were unable to find a job elsewhere. Now that they’re pushing for a ban on smoking in cars, it’s our children they’re fighting for. The experts who want a clamp-down on calorific foods tell us that we’re guileless victims, being force-fed unhealthy gloop by conniving corporations; that we’re addicts, who need rescuing from our weak wills; that we are too busy juggling the complexities of life to manage our own diets. Those lobbying for a minimum pricing on alcohol advance much the same arguments, portraying Britain as a giant Gin Lane, inhabited by inveterate boozers, who would drink themselves to death given half a chance.
I’m not sure how many people are truly that vulnerable, but it isn’t a sufficient number to justify constant changes to the law, and it certainly isn’t the job of ban-happy reformers to decide who fits the bill. For them to invoke the power of the state on behalf of this helpless minority means turning the rest of society into a support group, and stitching it up with needless constraints and unwanted costs. It means undermining parental responsibility and encouraging a lack of personal judgment. No need to think for yourself, analyse the data, or trouble yourself with the jargon. Just raise your beak, open wide and allow mother hen to feed you.
When I was in my early twenties, I spent a lot of time down the pub. Often, I would go there straight from work and wouldn’t leave until I was kicked out. There was nothing unusual about this at the time. The pub-as-front-room phenomenon was commonplace among my friends, and seemed considerably more appealing than sitting at home or visiting a gym. “What is wrong with my life that I must get drunk every night?” sang Fine Young Cannibals on the jukebox. Nothing, we replied. We’re just having fun.
From the perspective of the prohibitionists, our behaviour was irrational. Being conscious of the risks we were taking, but oblivious to the pleasure we derived from them, they would see all the costs but none of the benefits. Their conclusion would be that we were confused, ignorant or mentally unstable. We were lesser beings, who needed to be saved from our own self-destructive instincts. We were proof that if there is to be order and happiness in the world, people like us should be brought to heel.
It’s easy to think this way and join the ranks of the disdainful – to align oneself with people of knowledge and social conscience, and to look down with contempt at the habits of the lumpen masses. You needn’t be a credentialed expert; you need only share their aloofness and self-regard. Once you have assumed this lofty position, you are committed to a never-ending quest for new dangers and new proof of people’s inability to deal with them. Rest assured, once cigarettes, salt, sugar and fat have been regulated into oblivion, something else will be put in the crosshairs. And no matter how absurd the idea of banning it sounds right now, once the BMA has published its findings, made its recommendations, and whipped up a media frenzy, a ban will seem like common sense itself.
The nanny state has become so much the stuff of Daily Mail headlines that it’s hard to slate it without sounding like a suburban curtain-twitcher. But it needs slating, because it is not all that it seems. The issue of public health is really a political one. Like so many other concerns and crises nowadays, it is used to demonstrate that the social arrangements which arise when people are left to their own devices are defective. And it is championed by those who feel those arrangements have denied them the status and influence they deserve. Those who would actually like to be left to their own devices – every self-respecting adult, in other words – should be disgusted. They have a duty to kick against these pricks whenever and however they can.