Not many of us like being told how to live our lives, especially by those we don’t know and trust. It gets up our nose. Yet there is an endless number of people who want to do just that. When they enlist the support of the government, we end up with the nanny state.
This became very apparent during the Senate nanny state inquiry that I chaired four years ago. In addition to almost 500 submissions, hundreds of people communicated their frustrations in less formal ways.
Some mentioned the same issues that the inquiry examined – compulsory bicycle helmets (almost unique to Australia), our tobacco taxes (the highest in the world), alcohol taxes (close to the highest), regulation of alcohol consumption (including Sydney’s lockout laws), and recreational cannabis (still totally prohibited).
But there were plenty of others. Many complained about unreasonable speed limits and their enforcement. Smokers complained that restrictions were no longer linked to risks of secondary smoke. Motorcyclists pointed out how the road safety industry assumes riders are all reckless fools. Sporting shooters noted the mass of petty regulations having nothing to do with safety. Plus much more.
I was often asked if I could explain Australia’s proliferation of laws and regulations designed to save us from our own poor choices. After hearing from those who defended particular nanny state measures, I concluded that the nanny state is an outcome of the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. This is the psychological term for people who fail to adequately assess their level of competence — or specifically, their incompetence — and thus view themselves as much more competent than everyone else.
This is shown by surveys in which, when asked if they are above or below average intelligence, about three in four people say they are above average. Many are obviously kidding themselves, but it promotes the illusion that they are qualified to guide those less fortunate.
Among the worst offenders are doctors, some of whom see little difference between advising individual patients against risky behaviour and enlisting the law to prevent us all from doing it. This year’s Australian of the Year (a doctor) is using his win to promote a sugar tax. But they are not alone; all sorts of people, including Nobel Prize laureates, insist they know what’s best for us in ways well outside their area of expertise.
Nanny state thinking is obviously patronising and authoritarian, but when it extends to controlling how we think and what we say, it becomes quite sinister. This is increasingly seen with people purporting to know what’s best for, and to speak on behalf of, minority groups, policing what others say about them and taking offence on their behalf. Contravene their rules and you are immediately branded a racist, homophobe or misogynist, subject to outrage, ostracism and cancel culture. They define it as hate speech and are well on the way to making it a crime.
And woe betide anyone from a minority group with differing views. A black or brown person who fails to go along with the racist oppression narrative, who is gay but doesn’t find homophobia around every corner, a woman who doesn’t subscribe to the male patriarchy concept, or a transsexual who expresses doubts about adolescent sex change, soon finds there is no wrath like that of a woke nanny stater whose sense of superiority is challenged.
It can reach peak absurdity when a homeless, destitute person is still considered unworthy because of white privilege, male privilege, heterosexuality or any of the other imagined sources of advantage, by those who are themselves wealthy and privileged. It takes a certain kind of superior intelligence to come to that conclusion.
The nanny state is insidious, preventing us from making our own choices. Irrespective of whether they are wise, provided we do not harm anyone else, this should not occur. Moreover, we should be free to think and say whatever we like subject to nothing more than counter argument by those who have a contrary view.
But that is not the way it is. Despite many of us objecting to particular nanny state laws, there are just too many who think it is OK for others based on their sense of superiority. And that leaves us with an awkward question: if there are so many people incapable of making the right choices, requiring smart people to guide them, how can they possibly be expected to elect a government? Won’t they get that wrong too?
David Leyonhjelm is a former senator.