John Humphrys - Should Governments Tell Us What’s Good for Us?

June 28, 2018, 12:49 PM UTC

It’s not unusual for governments to be accused of treating us all like children, preaching at us about what we should and shouldn’t be doing in our private lives.

The notion of the ‘nanny state’ was born of such complaints. But now a cabinet minister has joined the attack. Is she right or is it part of the job of government to tell us what we should and should not do in our own interests? 

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, has made the headlines with a pretty free-wheeling speech littered with teasing gibes against colleagues and berating some Cabinet ministers for believing it to be ‘macho’ to lobby for demanding extra cash for their departments. But she also had this to say:   ‘Government’s role should not be to tell us what our tastes should be. Too often we’re hearing about not drinking too much, eating too many doughnuts, drinking from disposable cups through plastic cups…’. Then, in a dig at her colleague, Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, she went on: ‘… or enjoying the warm glow of our wood-burning Goves – I mean stoves! I can see their point: there’s enough hot air and smoke at the environment department already.’

Ms Truss, a former environment secretary herself, obviously disapproves of the way Mr Gove is trying to protect the oceans from plastic waste and improve air quality from pollution caused by  burning  wood. But the main focus of her concern was the way government ministers and various regulatory bodies take responsibility for our individual health by laying down regulations or by simply preaching at us to change our ways.

The principled objection to this approach is quite simple. It is not the job of the government. We elect a government to be our servant not our nanny or guardian or supervisor. We are adults, not children. It’s our responsibility and ours alone to judge what’s best for us and to act on it. Mostly we do know what’s best and even if we don’t, we live in a free country and ought to be left to face the consequence of our actions rather than be protected from them. This is the classic libertarian approach and it is the one which Ms Truss clearly believes this government should adopt.

But there is another principled argument, on the other side. It goes like this. In  a modern society, the consequences of our own bad decisions are rarely visited on ourselves alone. Society more generally usually has to share in the business of clearing up our mess and governments, as the agents that do the clearing up, therefore have a stake in trying to stop the bad decisions in the first place.

Health is an obvious example of this. Public health policies, often of the sort that Ms Truss is criticising, are adopted as preventative measures so that the costs to society at large of irresponsible personal behaviour, are minimised. Obesity is one of the great scourges of our age. The nation is fatter than it has ever been and the health consequences are enormous.  If we can stop people eating too much of the wrong sort of food and take more exercise we can save the NHS billions because it won’t have to treat so many people with avoidable heart conditions and diabetes. If we can persuade them to drink less there will be other huge health benefits. So there are great benefits not just for the individuals concerned, but also for the rest of us.

It follows from this approach that because many people remain unaware of what might be harmful to them, it’s necessary for them to be given the information. And because governments have the resources and the metaphorical loud-hailer, it’s for governments to make sure the information is conveyed. Hence all the messaging which Ms Truss believes we are hearing ‘too often’.

But some of those who might concede the principled case that it is indeed part of a government’s role to fund public information campaigns in pursuit of public health goals nonetheless claim that the zeal with which it is done can often seem excessive even to the point of being misleading. They suspect that campaigners on behalf of public health are motivated as much by a form of Puritanism (famously defined by the American satirist, H L Mencken, as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy’) as by the need to give us the facts.

They cite the example of the effect of drink on our health. Listening to all the messaging about how drink is bad for us we could be forgiven for supposing, they argue, that only total abstinence from alcohol is the sure way to a healthy life. Yet the evidence is that moderate drinking is actually better for our health (in terms of the chances of developing heart disease and several other supposedly drink-related illnesses) than not drinking at all. Does that message get adequately conveyed, ask those who share Ms Truss’s objection to government hectoring over what we drink.

Her criticism was not restricted to messages from the health pulpit but also to actual regulations imposed by government in order to protect us from ourselves. Arguing for lower food standards (or, at least, different ones), she said: ‘Take burgers. I keep being told by excellent burger producers … that there are strict restrictions against selling medium rare. Why can’t I as a consumer decide, as I would be in most parts of the USA or France? Regulations against my tastes in burgers may seem a little trivial, but they are symptomatic of a broader malaise. Unnecessary red tape restricts business and consumer freedom, so I believe we should cut it wherever we can.’

To many campaigners on behalf of public health this remark will seem (for want of a better phrase) raw meat. In their eyes governments regulate far too little or too late in the face of what they regard as overwhelming evidence that business is allowed to get away with murder, almost literally. They cite the ability of business lobbies to thwart sensible government regulation, giving as examples the foot-dragging governments have shown in tackling the obesity epidemic by taking measures that would have harmed the food industry, or their resistance to minimum alcohol-pricing because of the effect on the drinks industry. In the wider field of mental health, they add, government has had to be dragged to impose restrictions on the betting industry’s use of fixed-odd betting terminals even in the face of all the evidence of the damage they can do to already vulnerable people.

Indeed some campaigners would go further and argue that one of the reasons there is so much government exhortation for us to lead healthier lives is precisely because it is so much easier and so much less controversial for government than taking direct, regulatory action.

Faced with these opposing view of what governments should or should not be doing, some have suggested there is a third way that involves neither hectoring nor regulating. Instead, it’s ‘nudging’. The idea here, born out of the study of behavioural economics, is that people’s behaviour can be altered by subtle, even imperceptible ‘nudges’ in the ‘right’ direction. If, for example, the items for sale at a supermarket check-out consist of fruit or nuts rather than sweets or fizzy drinks, then we’ll all find ourselves buying those rather than the things that will make us become fat and unhealthy.

Nudging may be a way to pursue public health goals without the need for the sort of nanny advice and intrusive regulation that Ms Truss and others object to. But there is an objection to it of its own. Its critics say it is underhand, almost insidious because we may not be aware that it is happening. Better the sort of regulation and public advice we can at least complain about.

What’s your view? Do you share Ms Truss’s complaint that we’re bombarded with government advice about how to live our lives? In principle, do you think it is the government’s job to pursue public health goals? Do you trust the advice that is given? Is there too much or too little regulation on matters such as whether burgers can be sold medium rare? And do you approve of the ‘nudge’ approach or do you favour a more direct and open one? Or should governments simply let us go to hell in a hand basket in any way we choose?

Let us know what you think.