I agree with Brendan O’Neill; the term nanny state is misleading. It does not come close to describing the dangerous presumption of authority over other people’s private lives.
In any case, O’Neill told a gathering in Sydney last night, the phrase is an insult to his nan.
I liked her not least because she was the very opposite of the nanny state.
Her daily breakfast was a bottle of stout. She only ever ate stale bread because she thought it tasted nicer. She smoked all the time and if anyone ever complained about her cigarette smoke she said that they could always go outside until she had finished.
Excessive smoking regulations, government-enforced food faddism and alcohol prohibition are only the most outward expressions of a deeper interventionist logic, O’Neill said.
What we have today are governments that have shifted from focusing on infrastructural issues and economic matters towards obsessing over individuals’ behaviour, thoughts, and relationships.
For most of the modern era, governments had a fairly narrow remit – their job was to keep their nations secure, to enable prosperity, and to protect property and individuals from criminal damage or physical harm.
Today, in a massive turnaround, we have what the British Labour Party calls “the politics of behaviour”, or what the ever-growing Nudge Industry calls “behavioural economics” and the politics of “behavioural insight”.
We have governments that have moved from keeping the external, infrastructural world chugging along to policing and correcting the internal lives of their citizens.
We have gone from a situation where governments concerned themselves with macro issues to a situation where governments micromanage the moral existences of their citizens.
We need to recognise the extent to which this winds back the ideals of the Enlightenment itself.
O’Neill is in Australia as a guest of the Centre for Independent Studies. He’ll be joining me, Paul Kelly and Andrew West to discuss the public broadcasting in Sydney on Tuesday March 15.
On May 2 we’ll be having a public discussion on the derailing of the Enlightenment. Details of these events and O’Neill’s other public engagements in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne are on the CIS website.