Ye gods. When I was I a kid I, like most of my contemporaries, would regularly get bladdered. And I don’t recall anyone thinking it should be government business. Instead - this was in the late 70s - government had weightier things on its plate like mass unemployment, double-digit inflation, class war and the possible collapse of capitalism.
Which raises the question. Could it be that New Labour’s nanny statism is, in part, a product of an economic boom?
There are four possible mechanisms here:
1. Displacement. There’s only so much governments can do. So if they are busy dealing with recession and its effects (or, what is the same thing, pretending to deal with them), they have less time to do other things. In good times, however, governments have to go looking for things to do - doing nothing, however sensible, is never an option - so they discover “problems” of teen drinking or obesity.
2. The tax squeeze. Insofar as nanny state policies cost money, anything that hits tax revenues limits the scope for such policies, if only by increasing public resistance to them; “they’re wasting our money on that??”
3. “Bad behaviour” is a product of good times. Insofar as kids get drunk more today than in my day, it’s not because they are worse behaved. It’s because they have more money; it was poverty that limited our drinking, not the fact that we were responsible citizens.
Similarly, rising obesity is partly a function of prosperity - a falling relative price of calories and increased numbers of working mothers.
4. The learning effect. Economic booms cause governments to exaggerate their ability - as the saying goes, everyone’s a genius in a bull market. So they pursue nannying policies. Recessions remind them that they are less in charge of events than they’d like to think. This should breed a scepticism about whether state intervention in our drinking or eating habits can actually succeed.
Now, I’m not claiming here that recessions are good for freedom generally. I’m persuaded by Benjamin Friedman that bad times cause people to become more mean-spirited which can lead to demands for repressive legislation, especially against those they perceive as threats. I’m not even sure the recession will necessarily roll back the nanny state; we shouldn’t under-rate the power of inertia.
I’m just wondering whether paternalism isn’t in part a product of boom times.