What the Senate Nanny State Inquiry taught me about public health lobbyists

What the Senate Nanny State Inquiry taught me about public health lobbyists

What the Senate Nanny State Inquiry taught me about public health lobbyists

The Senate nanny state inquiry, which I chaired, has ended due to the election. Its seven short reports, available on the Parliament House website, make sobering and even disturbing reading.

Throughout the inquiry – during public hearings and in submissions – three things about Australian public health lobbyists came to worry me: a conceited arrogance in the face of evidence from overseas; a desire to make laws “for the greater good”, and the belief that “appropriate” intellectuals know better than the rest of us.

Combined, the three tendencies also revealed a growing confluence between nanny-statism and the police state.

Arrogance was particularly blatant with respect to e-cigarettes, football policing, and bicycle helmets. Australian lobbyists ignored findings from Public Health England, the NHS, and various UK and EU police forces. It didn’t seem to matter to them that other countries were just fine with people riding bikes without a helmet, singing rude songs at the football, or advertising e-cigs widely.

The public health lobby’s refusal to even listen was seriously embarrassing. I found myself apologising to witnesses from leading UK hospitals and universities.

Australia used to suffer from “the cultural cringe”, where anything from overseas was assumed to be better than the local product. This seems to have been over-corrected – we now have a reverse cultural cringe. When it comes to the nanny state, we think we’re so shit-hot we have nothing to learn.

Then there were calls for the enactment of legislation on the basis of “the greater good”, which was particularly glaring during the lockouts hearing. This represents utilitarianism of the crudest sort.

Utilitarianism is a serious and important part of the Western liberal political tradition. However, it has long been recognised – including by smarter utilitarians – that legislation focusing on good outcomes for the majority at the expense of the minority is a bad idea. It becomes possible, for example, to justify subjecting 10 per cent of the population to misery if gains to the 90 per cent remaining are greater than the misery inflicted on the 10 per cent.

By this logic, Sydney’s lockouts are defensible simply because there are more residents of Kings Cross who like lockouts than there are people – musicians, sex workers, and publicans – who have lost their jobs and businesses as a consequence.

Historically, some truly repellent activities – including slavery and genocide – have been excused on the basis of “the greatest good for the greatest number”. It has a long and dishonourable history and has no place in public policy development in a liberal democracy.

And, as I learned, it has its origins in the belief that our educated betters have a right to substitute their preferences for our own.

If we persist in thinking people cannot make simple decisions about how to protect their own head, what games to play, when to drink or what to eat, why then do we think they can do something as complicated as voting, which involves choosing between different political visions? If people are so thick, should they even be allowed to vote?

There are two points to be made here. First, those who would treat us like children and substitute their minds for ours ignore that suffrage has history. One of the arguments against extending the vote to women and working-class men was that they were not fit to make political choices because they spent their money on frivolities such as beer, cigarettes and lacy dresses.

Every time those in love with their own expertise seek to regulate what people buy or wear or put in their mouths, they gloss over the fact that the people who shop and the people who vote are the same people.

Secondly, simply because individuals can make poor decisions does not mean governments make better ones. There is abundant evidence they generally don’t, and because governments are so large, their bad decisions have far more expensive and destructive consequences: think of the failure of the State Banks of Victoria and South Australia in the ’90s, and the pink batts scandal.

Finally, while people may eat unhealthy food or have poor taste in entertainment, they can be skilled at exercising political choice. The reverse also applies. For decades, many intellectuals supported communism, a political system that amounted to little more than a licence to murder.

Chairing the nanny state Inquiry taught me that if we let other people think for us, we will never think for ourselves.

From the Australian Financial Review 13 May 2016.