Nanny State

A rousing defence of freedom

Paul Sheehan wrote an exceptional op ed for the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week. He uses the piece to launch a full-bodied defence of freedom against the ever-growing Nanny State:

We are never going to be able to legislate recklessness or distractedness from the human condition, no matter how much legislation is passed, regulations imposed, regulators deployed, laws enforced, Orwellian cameras installed, or speed bumps inflicted.

Motorists are going to make mistakes, all manner of domestic accidents are going to take their toll, young women are going to get pregnant, young men are going to injure themselves, many people are going to binge or smoke or take drugs, and some children are going to be neglected. Crap happens.

As we become a culture of speed bumps, everything is imposed in our own interests, and the interest of an abstraction called public safety. Never acknowledged is the tax-funded self-justification of the political and bureaucratic class.

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An Australia Card for people with unpopular habits

When does the Nanny State become a civil liberties question? When public health activists call for the government to monitor, record, limit, and license consumption.

The University of Sydney’s Simon Chapman appeared in PLOS Medicine last week urging just that. Under his proposal, all smokers would have to pay for a smartcard licence, at cost that is neither “trivial nor astronomical”, to be renewed every year. Licence holders would have to swipe their smartcard every time they made a purchase. They would have a maximum daily purchase. The government would hold a large database on their activity, which, Chapman points out, “would be of great assistance to policy and program planners wanting to maximize cessation.” That database would be linked to their identity.

New smokers applying for a licence would “have to pass a knowledge of risk test” to “ensure that new smokers were making an informed choice”. These conditions could be varied over time: Chapman mentions one idea to slowly increase the minimum legal smoking age, but given the government would now have a deep set of data on tobacco use at the level of the individual, it is not hard to see how this program could expand. People could be given different limits. The maximum purchase could be ratcheted down as we approach what Chapman calls the “endgame”.

Chapman writes that his proposal would “invite reflection among smokers on why this exceptional policy had been introduced”.

It might invite some other reflections, too.

Of all the possible objections raised in his paper, Chapman does not tackle the most glaring: that it is an obscene idea to have the government monitor and control an individual’s free consumption. Until relatively recently, Nanny State advocates were able to hide behind a certain benevolent guise: they were nudging us to make health choices, not forcing us. When you raise the tax on a product, it creates an incentive to buy less of that product, not an order. This paper demonstrates that, at least in some public health circles, that guise was utterly fraudulent.

A licence for smokers – an Australia Card for people with unpopular habits – would be a clear threat to the privacy of those who chose to smoke and an attack on individual liberty.

The phrase used by public health activists is “tobacco control”. In this case it is not tobacco they are seeking to control, but people.

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Parents are the best e-Safety Commissioners

Tony Abbott today announced that a Coalition government would establish an “e-Safety Commissioner” to fight bullying through social media networks. The announcement was made during the release of a discussion paper on the issue:

The discussion paper said no changes would be imposed without consultation with industry, but Mr Abbott made his intentions clear.

“We do need an e-Safety Commissioner, we do need to see more social responsibilities from companies and we do need to have effective mechanisms so that cyber-bullying can be swiftly addressed and offensive material can be taken down.”

The discussion paper – “Enhancing Online Safety for Children” – proposes a “co-operative regulatory scheme” that would put in place a complaints procedure in relation to online material aimed at bullying children.

These are platitudes. The Coalition knows that enforcement is an issue here. The trans-national nature of the internet makes the implementation of any kind of legal framework very difficult and very expensive.

The proposal is also likely to do nothing but enforce existing laws. There are already criminal offences that cover cases where harassment and threats have occurred. And it’s the various state governments’ responsibility – not the Commonwealth – to ensure that police have adequate resources to effectively enforce these laws. All this would do is add another layer of unnecessary and ineffective government bureaucracy.

Bullying can have some awful effects. There’s no doubt about that. And we all want to make sure our kids don’t feel harassed or threatened, whether it’s at school or online. But the solutions to problems like these are for parents to take an active role in their child’s life. A government-appointed e-Safety Commissioner won’t put an end to bullying. The best chance we have against bullies is building strong family units and good communication between school teachers and parents.

An e-Safety Commissioner is a mere thought bubble.

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Public health movement strays into censorship

My Drum column this week talked about the ever-expanding ambition of the public health movement, which has now strayed from medicine to cultural studies.

Exhibit B: an academic paper (reported today in The Age) illustrates just how censorious public health can be.

This remarkable paper, published in the journal Tobacco Control (the title somewhat telegraphs its punches) purports to identify all the “pro-smoking” applications available for Apple and Android smartphones. They found 107 apps.

The researchers conclude that these apps violate the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control prohibition on advertising and promotion of tobacco products. Never mind that there’s no evidence to suggest that an application like “Smoke App II Lite” is actually commercial advertising. Nope: simply that it is broadcasting a message that the researchers do not approve of it, and therefore must be banned.

Let’s call this what it is: an outright proposal for censorship.

The researchers may not have realised quite the importance of some of the examples they cited. In order to demonstrate that Apple actually has the capacity to ban applications from its stores on a country-by-country basis, they list an application on Chinese politics that is banned in China (that is, political censorship) and “adult content” applications that are banned in Saudi Arabia, which has, as the paper says, “one of the most active internet censorship policies in the world.”

It gets worse: one of the examples of applications which the researchers would like banned is an explicitly political one. The Cigar Rights of America application focuses on (and I’ll quote directly from the paper again) “opposing restrictive smoking bans, opposing taxation of cigars, government regulation of cigars and policy measures relating to cigars.”

So that’s censorship of political views the researchers do not agree with. It’s hard to imagine something more illiberal – and as clear evidence as we should need of the peculiar political philosophy of public health activists.

In my book I argued that if many of the classic defences of free speech would have to include commercial speech, and – it follows – would have to include commercial speech of companies some people might disapprove of. (This argument somewhat irked Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, here.)

This latest Tobacco Control paper reminds us that the urge to censor commercial speech and the urge to political speech are not so different.

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