As parliamentarians start to interfere with the size of our wine glasses, Brits are whining that the Nanny state is getting too big for its boots. Why should the state tell us what to eat, how much to drink, how to have sex? Because to save us from ourselves, say some. To save us from others, say others.
Many of the people (OK, men) that rule this nation had nannies, matrons and ward sisters telling them what to do when they were young. But most of us didn’t. We can distinguish between being told what to do (don’t drive my car), and being given information that helps us decide what to do (if you drive my car and crash it, I’ll cut your pocket-money until its paid for). In other words, we can distinguish between legislation and public health campaigns. The first is Nannyish. The second is not.
Does the state have a duty to save us from ourselves? Not necessarily, though I do believe it has a duty to inform us how to stay out of trouble. If the government has dutifully told us that smoking will kill us, that we’d be really smart not to share needles when we’re shooting up, that an hour on the football field is better than an hour in front of Match of the Day, then their job is largely done. It follows that if we go ahead and do stupid things anyway, the state doesn’t have a responsibility to pick up the pieces. But as voters, we don’t buy that. We still want the NHS to treat lung cancer in smokers and make obesity drugs more easily available. The government knows it will end up picking up the tab for most human stupidity; you can hardly blame it for getting overzealous about trying to control the stupidity.
Perhaps we need to think about a regime of progressive intolerance, a sort of Three Strikes and You’re Out campaign. The idea is planted in me not by the US administration but by a little book of quotations called “Nanny says”. My all-time favourite: “Once is funny, twice is silly, and three times is to bed with a smack“.