An interesting letter in last week’s Mail by a Mister David Kendall of Prenton, (or should that be Preston?) the Wirral, about Elf and Safety and I am sure, I hope anyway, he wouldn’t mind my quoting him verbatim –
“I await with trepidation the Olympic torch arriving in this country as Health and Safety will clearly need to play a major part in this pageant. The route will have to be subjected to a risk assessment in case there are any steep hills, potholes or traffic issues. The torch bearers will have to take out insurance in case they should trip and burn themselves or any spectators. And all torch-bearers will have to be carefully vetted to ensure a fair mix of ethnic minorities, gays, lesbians, and trans-gendered people. We’ll be lucky if we get away without at least one claim for compensation for injury, hurt feelings, or other discrimination.”
A key assumption of modern politics is that we should be left alone to live as we like without being nagged, without fear of moral judgement. Freedom has become our supreme political virtue but we could do with a little bit of nudging says Alain de Boton in defence of the nanny state.
“It is not thought to be the government's task to promote a vision of how we should act towards one another or to send us to hear lectures about parenting, chivalry or politeness. Modern politics, on both left and right, is dominated by what we can call a libertarian ideology.
Sections of the public grow more or less apoplectic at the idea that governments might want to teach us anything. Even modest measures like trying to get people to eat less fatty food or drive less petrol-guzzling cars tends to provoke howls of protest that this is going simply too far.
It is a sign of this climate that the current government has almost given up all attempts to tell us anything. It seeks just to nudge us in extremely modest, quiet ways to donate our livers if we have a car crash or to file our tax returns on time. But that's about as far as it dares go.
All this concern with freedom can be traced back to thinkers like John Stuart Mill, who in his famous book, On Liberty of 1859, explained: "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.
The foibles of citizens should be placed beyond comment or criticism, for fear of turning government into that most reviled and unpalatable kind of authority in libertarian eyes - the nanny state.
Compare this with how religions handle things. Religions have always had much more directive ambitions, advancing far-reaching ideas about how members of a community should behave towards one another.
Consider Judaism, for example. Certain passages in the Jewish legal code, or Mishnah, have close parallels in modern law. There are familiar-sounding statutes about not stealing, breaking contracts or exacting disproportionate revenge on enemies during war.
However, a great many other decrees extend their reach dramatically far beyond what a libertarian political ideology would judge to be appropriate. The code is obsessed with the details of how we should behave with our families, our colleagues, strangers and even animals.
It dictates that we must never sit down to eat a meal before we have fed our goats and our camels, that we should ask our parents for permission when agreeing to go on a journey of more than one night's duration, that we should invite any widows in our communities for dinner every spring time and that we should beat our olive trees only once during the harvest so as to leave any remaining fruit to the fatherless and to the poor.
Such recommendations are capped by injunctions on how often to have sex, with men told of their duty before God to make love to their wives quite regularly, according to a timetable that aligns frequency with the scale of their professional commitments. "For men of independent means, every day. For labourers, twice a week. For donkey drivers, once a week. For camel drivers, once in thirty days. For sailors, once every six months."
In the modern world, there is so much that we would like to do but never end up doing, there are so many ways of behaving that we subscribe to in our hearts but ignore in our day-to-day lives. And perhaps most significantly, there are so few people around us who dare to exhort us to act well.”
All well and good but it doesn’t exonerate the do gooders of the nanny state for poking their noses in where not wanted. Think how many Quangos could go for a start and the government could stop exhorting us to feed our goats and camels.