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February 28, 2020 / Congau

Freedom in the “Nanny State”

It’s derogatively called the nanny state. Some, especially conservatives, detest the idea that the state should try to influence the behavior of its citizens by making it more difficult for them to engage in unhealthy practices. They are grown-ups, they say, and no one should tell them what is better for them; they know that themselves.

Well, let’s suppose they do, leaving aside the problem of false consciousness for a moment, do people always act according to what they think is best for them? Of course not. We often do things that we know are bad for us, don’t we? We eat too much and drink too much, smoke and do drugs, just to mention some health-related addictions. It’s not like we are in disagreement with the medical authorities about good and bad, but our action contradicts our knowledge. Addicts fight to get out of their bad habits and wish they were free. Why would it be wrong for the state to do its share to help them to be free?

The most typical way of doing this is to make unhealthy products artificially expensive, and even banning certain commodities wouldn’t necessarily be inconsistent with an idea of freedom.

Sure, making consumption more difficult for the abusers would impede the freedom of the moderate users, and that’s a legitimate concern, but the small freedom a controlled drinker or drug user enjoys hardly makes up for the slavery of an addict.

This is not to advocate any particular policy but only to say that a high degree of state involvement is not in principle contradictory to freedom. What may sometimes be the practical outcome is another concern. A total ban on alcohol, for example, could give freedom to potential alcoholics, but have an overall bad effect on society.

There will have to be a complicated balancing of practical measures. The road to freedom is not reducible to simple principles.

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