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Nanny state is about personal intrusion, not public safety regulation

July 7, 2013

In an article on The Conversation website, the nanny state was endorsed by apparently 150 ways the nanny state is good for us. Examples cited were safety glass and balustrade heights, right down to the more intrusive mandatory pool fences and bicycle helmet laws. This is the latest tactic by nanny-staters: to conflate basic regulations in the name of public safety with laws and taxes imposed on individual freedom. Apparently, if you value personal freedom, that means you’re happy that people can die from bleeding to death or falling off a balcony. It’s a gross, and typically politically sly inference. Under attack is the nanny state definition itself. The debate can’t be won, so let’s redefine the term.

A response as posted on the website…

This article highlights a major problem with the Nanny State – it’s very definition. No one would argue that safe shower screens are good because they are protecting people that unknowingly would be in a dangerous situation. Same deal with heights for balcony railing. That’s “regulation”, and totally expected to be one of government’s main purposes. Such situations are falsely pooled as a nanny state action, when actually it’s basic governing.

The “SunSmart” campaign involves both regulation and education. Nutritional information on food is also education. That’s the limit of it. People still make a personal choice.

The true nanny state definition is far more sinister. It strips choice and freedom by threats of heavy sanctions like fines or by use of unjust taxes. Freedoms should only be constrained when consequences are against innocent people. Most obvious examples are motoring laws against speeding and drink-driving. That action can kill or harm others. So you need laws to regulate behaviour to ensure the general public is safe.

Smoking is where it begins to get murky. This is a legal activity. While taxing it could be justified given the direct impact on health costs by smokers, if you choose to smoke and are in a private environment, there should be no laws against that. If smoking is so bad, ban it. Even though I hate smoking, if a restaurant wants to allow smokers, it should. I just won’t go there. The situation is even more perverse when those against smoking seem on the trail of legalising marijuana and harder drugs. They’re also disturbingly quiet on alcohol – by far the most damaging drug in society. Maybe the “vested interests” agenda is rife here too – railing more against big, evil companies, not the individual smoking activity itself. Whereas pushes of hard drugs, these are the small people, and “victims” of society and evil capitalism, so our socialistic tendencies that run the nanny state, weigh in.

Swimming pool fences are also an intrusion. If I have no children, why do I need one? It’s my house. I’ll do as I please, as long as I’m not affecting anyone else (hence laws against loud noise). Ironically, if I go to the beach, there’s no fences there. Anyone can waltz into dangerous surf and drown. So why not mandatory life jackets for all beach goers? Oh, because the very nannies themselves would be affected, and they don’t want that. Also, imagine the voter backlash? Because the law would be on basic freedoms, such precedent of it revoked could potentially undermine other nanny laws. So the nanny state is more about being insidious, not principled.

Bans on sun beds reeks of hypocrisy. Nothing stops people still to go lie in the sun. How many skin cancers a year are caused by sun beds? If you’re against sun beds, you should be against people baking themselves stupid on our beaches.

The mandatory bicycle helmet law is the worst of the lot: insidious, discriminatory, hypocritical, unfair and creates negative consequences. Cycling makes up a tiny percentage of road head trauma (less than 3%), yet it’s the only activity targeted. The law makes cycling seem dangerous and oppressive when it’s actually safe and fun and should be promoted as such. Govts and advocates are lazy on true safety initiatives like separate infrastructure because they believe helmets are enough. Most of all, cycling is healthy so the last thing you want is to discourage it.

Australia’s cycling rates are appallingly low as our obesity rate is appallingly high and the helmet law is the reason. It’s better to have a cyclist out there helmet or not, than not at all. Even if you think wearing helmets is a “good idea”, since when is it a good idea for police to pull over a cyclist, hit them with a $180 fine and throw them in jail if they don’t pay? That’s the consequence of using legislation as government advocacy. You don’t persecute sun-bakers and shirtless people that cause 50,000 new cases of skin cancer a year and 2000 deaths. So why persecute a cyclist for no helmet who’s actually improving his health, not harming it? At worst, promotional campaigns, like SunSmart used for skin cancer awareness, is enough.

To really save lives and prevent injury on our roads, invoke helmet laws for motorists and pedestrians. The reason they don’t is, just like there’s no mandatory lifejacket law for beach goers, it begins to affect the very nanny staters themselves. So it’s a case of picking on the minority rather than being true to a principle.

For all the gibberish about health costs from potential cycling head injuries, sorry, cycling is the very least factor that’s stretching our health system. Then there’s also the vast costs saved by people actually being healthy. If you really want to save costs, mandatory helmets for all road users, ban sun-baking, ration alcohol purchases, enforce mandatory annual medical checks and fine people $100 for every unit outside their BMI, fine anyone $1000 admitted to a hospital drunk or with any injury inflicted by personal irresponsible behaviour. None of this will happen because everyone reading this knows it’s a gross intrusion of freedom. So be consistent, no matter how small the nanny state intrusion might seem.

Of the 150 items, I can barely spot a few that I classify as nanny state intrusion. How many of these are the IPA against, or is it just a scurrilous conclusion that they are against them all? While I’m not fully familiar with the extent of the IPA’s positions, it does seem a challenge to them is being made on a false premise. There’s a vast difference between regulations and education in the name of general public safety than sanctions like fines or even jail for someone minding their own business and harming no one else. I doubt any lobby group would be against safe shower screens and balcony railing. As for the freedom to jump into my own pool or ride a bike, that’s different. It’s my life, my choice. If I’m not affecting others, I should not be made a criminal for the activity.

Simon Chapman’s reply…

I’ve worked in public health since the mid 1970s. I can remember there being a struggle to get the safety glass standard into regulation. There was opposition — presumably from glass manufacturers who had stockpiles of shattering glass. There was STRONG opposition to random breath testing from the hotel industry.

Many things on my list we take for granted & the IPA will not dare say they oppose them because of how intergalactically out of touch they would sound. But these taken-for-granted “basic governing” laws as you call them, were nearly all opposed by interest groups. We forget that.

Swimming pool fences: children wander into private property, and houses get sold. We don’t make smoke alarms voluntary either — they are part of building standards and people protesting “but I’m very careful with fire ,.. why should I have to pay?” And we don’t make compulsory third party injury motor insurance voluntary for the same reason.

Much of your reasoning from then on is “if you can’t fix all of a problem, don’t fix any of it” using very silly reductios about fencing the entire coast line, getting everyone to wear helmets — even pedestrians — never heard that one before — living in cotton wool etc. I ride a bike, have had a colleague killed on a bike with a head injury and see the intrusion on my liberty as monumentally trivial. I am amazed at people who devote so much energy to this dopey, vain,self-absorbed cause. I suppose you object to wearing seat belts too? I’m afraid your ignorance about sun beds is very obvious see

Counter reply…

I’m not into debating each item; I’m not talking about definition of the Nanny State. There’s a vast difference between regulation or promotion in the interests of general public safety compared to intruding on a citizen’s private life by threats of heavy fines, taxes or even jail.

I also don’t care about the IPA. It seems the purpose of this article is a fixation to attack them, not a broad discussion about the extent of nanny state. For once I’d like to see an issue discussed on its merits rather than based on political ideology, even political bigotry.

Yes, look at safety glass. Such a common sense regulation that the whole world has adopted it. As for cycling helmet laws? After over 20 years of law, Australia and NZ are still the outcasts and jokes of the world, and also still some the most dangerous places to ride, with a horrendous anti-cycling culture and dreadful safety record to match. We didn’t mandate people wear to wear glass-proof suits and gloves did we? No, we made the environment safer. That should be the approach for cycling, not crasse legislation that adovcates “throw on this flimsy hat and you’re safe dicing with traffic on the roads”. Guess who also loves helmet laws? Helmet manufacturers and bike stores, not to mention local cycling lobby groups needing goverment endorsement. So the whole “vested interests” argument runs even more rampant here as those originally opposing safety glass.

Children wandering to private homes is an issue of poor parenting. They could just as easily being killed on the road if they are allowed to wander about. Within a house, a pool is probably the least and rarest danger in such cases anyway. There could be an open fire, a dog, electrical equipment lying about, anything. To make a home “child proof” it’s not just about pool fences, hence, you begin feeding into the emotional response and, more relevantly, hypocrisy when being so selective.

Third party insurance is, again, a public concern. We should not have people on our roads without cover.

From the ncbi article: “Sunbed use during adolescence and early adulthood is associated with increased risk of early-onset melanoma”? So is baking yourself stupid in the sun! The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Not to mention the true ignorance that the overwhelming bulk of skin cancers are caused by the sun.

Sorry, the point is you can fix those problems. I never said fence the coastline, I said mandatory lifejackets for beach goers. Or just ban beach swimming unless life-guards are present. Anyone using the roads, it’s so easy to see if no helmet is worn. The issue emerging here is numbers. Such private intrusions begin to affect the vast bulk of the community, including yourself, so the reasoning becomes “if I’m adversely affected, let’s not fix any of it”. That’s playing a game of discrimination, not principles.

Seatbelts don’t stop people riding in cars; helmet laws do stop people cycling. That’s the key difference, if you want to try a “private intrusion” test. I don’t object to doing anything. I don’t need a law to wear a seatbelt, just as I don’t need a law to wear a helmet. I’ve been wearing helmets before there was even a law, and would still wear one nearly all the time without a law, just as most cyclists would. The times I don’t, like skipping to the local shops or riding along the secluded beach paths, I wouldn’t, because it’s unnecessary, and I should have that choice. Notice also how seatbelt laws spread? Helmet laws don’t. There’s a reason, and we’re fatter, less healthy and made to suffer dangerous weak infrastructure, because of it. Since I don’t have a choice, I drive to a shopping centre and barely ride on weekends anymore. Since I don’t ride, friends and family won’t ride either.

For every anecdote of a cyclist claiming a helmet helped in a crash, I can give you 100 anecdotes of a motorist, pedestrian, worker or victim of street violence that would have been helped by wearing a helmet. Your regard to helmet being a minor intrusion is personal opinion and irrelevant. To many, as is evidenced by Australia’s appallingly low cycling rate, it is a gross intrusion. Worse, it’s a ridiculous intrusion resulting in $180 fines in Victoria. That’s the same as a speeding motorist. It’s obscene to suggest an action that is healthy and affecting no one and actually serving a public benefit is the moral equivalency of an action putting the public at risk. As I detailed earlier, why discriminate against cycling? Helmets would be a lesser intrusion for motorists – especially riding in air-conditioned comfort and easy storage of helmets in the car. Even for pedestrians – don’t leave home without one on your head. Don’t be a hypocrite, be principled.



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