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Artillery Row

The abnormality of nannying

Why do we assume that lost freedoms are universal?

I have the dubious pleasure of putting together the Nanny State Index every two years, which means running a fine-tooth comb through the regulations and taxation of thirty European countries. The latest edition was published this week. What always strikes me is the gulf between the most restrictive countries and the relatively laissez-faire ones. For all the EU’s efforts to standardise and harmonise, national governments have chosen they own paths. Norway and Lithuania dance to the beat of a different drum than Germany and the Czech Republic. What is normal in one part of Europe is almost unthinkable a few hundred miles away.

For example, in much of continental Europe it is considered no more than common sense that people who run bars and restaurants should be able to open them when they have paying customers and close them when they don’t. Many of these countries have a history of being ruled by governments that have been, to put it politely, a bit bossy, and yet the idea that the state should dictate when bar-owners call last orders would strike the people who live there as absurd. 

But in a dozen or more other European countries, including Finland, Ireland and the UK, the idea of publicans setting their own closing time seems dangerously subversive. Writing in 1944, George Orwell observed that in France “a café proprietor opens or shuts just as it suits him”, but that in England “we have had no such liberty for about a hundred years, and people are hardly able to imagine it”. It is now 20 years since the furore over Tony Blair’s relaxation of the licensing laws which supposedly heralded the start of the “24 hour drinking” that would be the road to ruin. Blair managed to push the reforms through despite huge opposition, but the myth that he created a libertarian free-for-all is exposed whenever the government gives pubs permission to open until 1am for a special occasion, most recently the Coronation

In most of Scandinavia, it is considered perfectly normal for the state to own all the off licences. In Norway and Sweden, it is normal to use snus, a smokeless tobacco product that hasn’t taken off in the rest of Europe because the EU banned it. Fourteen of the 27 EU member states have no such thing as wine duty. Wine is so integral to the Mediterranean lifestyle that when the Greek government tried to tax it, it was overruled by the high court for being unconstitutional. In Ireland and the UK, meanwhile, most people have no inkling that they give the government three or four pounds every time they buy a bottle of wine.

Not only does regulation vary wildly between countries, but the regulation is often unpredictable. Countries do not always conform to type. For example, the UK is uptight about alcohol in many respects and yet it has never had the kind of advertising restrictions that are common in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. A few countries ban it completely and even the French regulate it very heavily. Spain seems quite laid back about booze, with low taxes and liberal licensing laws, and yet it has only recently legalised spirits advertising on television, albeit in a very limited way. In a country where no one seems to bat an eyelid about hardcore pornography being shown on terrestrial television, whisky can only be advertised between 1am and 5am. Germany, meanwhile, has only just got round to banning cigarette advertising. 

Indispensable policies in some countries are regarded as almost preposterous in others

Policies that are assumed to be indispensable for protecting public health in some countries are regarded as almost preposterous in others. Freedoms that are so mundane as to go unnoticed in some parts of Europe would be portrayed as recklessly anarchic if they were proposed in others. Remember the outrage when it was rumoured that Liz Truss would repeal the sugar tax? People reacted as if it would turn the United Kingdom into some sort of pariah state. In fact, it would have brought us in line with Sweden, Italy, Denmark and countless other countries that function perfectly well without such paternalistic interventions. Norway had repealed its own sugar tax without any fanfare the previous year. 

Imagine if the UK repealed plain packaging for tobacco, relaxed its smoking ban, got rid of its marketing restrictions on so-called junk food and halved its taxes on alcohol. Would it become a Hogarthian nightmare, or would it simply be a bit more like Germany and Luxembourg where none of these restrictions are in force?

The whole nanny state enterprise relies on a parochial outlook. We assume that paternalistic policies are necessary because the public health industry tells us that they are and because we have got used to them. We assume that they work because why else would we have them? But if they worked, the countries at the top of the Nanny State Index league table would have longer life expectancy and better health outcomes than the countries at the bottom. They don’t. There isn’t any correlation whatsoever, and there never has been in all the years I’ve been working on it. It’s a Wizard of Oz illusion, and you only need to get on a plane to see that there are other options.

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