Both sides of politics should cease nanny-state meddling

Bookmark and Share Ideas & Liberty and Nanny State | Tim Wilson
The Australian 8th January, 2013

Stopping the assault on people's freedom requires an attitudinal change to the role of government.

Last week Nick Cater wrote on this page, in "Do-gooder laws nothing but a drag" (January 3), about the dodgy social economics of anti-tobacco advocates who use what they admit are unrealistic assumptions and calculate costs without factoring in savings.

But anti-tobacco crusaders are not alone. Similarly spectacular calculations have been made that purport to show that the social costs of alcohol consumption are about $15 billion a year.

Yet, subsequent industry-funded research found that more than $10bn of this amount was in private costs, such as a Sunday morning hangover. Instead, public costs were closer to $3.8bn - less than the revenue that governments collected from taxes and excises on booze. So, as with tobacco, government is a net beneficiary from the consumption of alcohol.

Unfortunately, these aren't isolated examples of the use of questionable "social" economics. Similar methodology is used by health sociologists to tenderise the public into forgoing choice and to shock politicians into taxing, regulating and banning behaviours even if there will be limited benefit.

The NSW and Victorian governments have now banned solariums because tanning can contribute to the "risk" of cancer. Meanwhile a giant, publicly available nuclear ball of gas emitting UV rays, colloquially known as the sun, continues to operate unregulated.

But manufacturing evidence to justify government encroachment over individual choice is only a symptom. The much bigger issue is the belief that it is the role of government to decide how people live.

The foundations of liberal democracy are that the framework of government should provide for individuals to pursue their own interests. In differing forms, Australia's mainstream political parties have traditionally subscribed to this governmental approach.

To varying extents, Liberals and Nationals have instinctively favoured empowering individuals to promote societal and economic growth. Throughout most of the 20th century, a labourist Labor Party prioritised the dignity of workers and unionists, believing their interests were promoted by improving working conditions and their material lot. But at the heart of both philosophies was a respect for the individual and their choices.

That liberal consensus no longer applies. Having largely abandoned labourism, and coaxed by the Greens on its far-left flank, Labor has adopted a contemporary form of late-19th-century progressivism.

Contemporary advocates for progressive politics conveniently confuse the term progressive with progress. But in political terms they mean radically different things.

Coupled with British Fabianism, progressivism philosophically promotes the idea that the power of government should be imposed to soften the consequences of an economy and society where free people pursue their own interests.

The fallacy of progressivism is that it views the economy and society as a playing field controlled by a government dashboard of levers and dials that can be tweaked to achieve an artificial level playing field.

Taxation provides the perfect example. Progressives impose escalating taxes on an individual's income to help low-paid workers, and concurrently apply sin taxes that disproportionately hit the consumption habits of the same lowly paid people. Similarly, energy policies (such as the carbon tax and the solar feed-in tariff) tax into competitiveness inefficient renewable technology, but act as a subsidy for multinational corporations that is paid for through the increased electricity bills of working Australians.

It's ironic that the two largest advocates for progressive, nanny-state regulations are those who are also the biggest advocates for a woman's right to choose what to do with her body.

In the 2006 debate on the use of RU486, former health minister and the present Attorney-General Nicola Roxon argued: "I do not believe that parliament should be some busybody neighbour or social policeman in our community."

Tanya Plibersek, who is now the Health Minister, argued she "respect(ed) women enough to believe that they have the ability and right to make such decisions for themselves".

Sage words. But they apply them only to abortion, and not when this principle conflicts with their government's policy priorities. So many government encroachments into people's lives (for example alcopops taxes) are justified on the grounds of rising healthcare costs.

The models for progressivism and for liberal democracy are fundamentally contradictory. Progressives look to the power of government to manage society and the economy top-down, while liberals use government to empower individuals to contribute to society from the bottom up.

The Centre-Left used to subscribe to a form of liberal democracy. Today it has opted for progressivism.

The Centre-Right is also not immune from this impulse, as the absurd ban on solariums attests.

So the role of government has become to run a technocracy, the McKinsey consulting company view of the world where society is run by models and data is used to inform "evidence-based policy" to endlessly justify increasing the power of bigger government at the expense of rapidly shrinking citizens.

But progressive technocracies are intellectually vapid because they assume that the job of the government is to act, without questioning whether government should interfere in the first place.