Skip to content

The Nanny State

December 7, 2010

In the first chapter of “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, it states,

“Over himself, over his own body the individual is sovereign.”

Mill believes that the individual should have the freedom to do with his body as he sees fit, as long as it does not become a nuisance to the rest of society. The rest of society does not have a right to infringe the liberty of the individual even if it believes it is for “his own good, either physical or moral.” But what would Mill think of today’s government?

Today, the US government likes to boast that it is the freest, if only one of the freest nations in the world, and many of these freedoms are enshrined in the constitution. The First Amendment alone protects five freedoms such as freedom of speech. But this blog entry will not focus on Mill’s freedom of speech but rather self-harm and the freedom to do so.

The US government creates substantial amounts of laws that limit freedom or as some may say “nanny” us because they are protecting us. Mill considers the nanny state to be the paternalism of the state, he would disagree with even the most benevolent despot but today we consider the “nanny” state to be the role of government responsibility in assigning economic and social goods. This blog will only look at the paternalism of the state.

Examples of the “nanny state” range from one extreme, such as snorting cocaine, all the way to smaller problems such as making it illegal to ride a motorbike without wearing a helmet and wearing seat belts while in a car. If you just take the latter example, riding the motorbike, it sounds quite reasonable. I would be very surprised if anyone reading this blog did not realize the dangers that go along with riding motorbikes without a helmet at fast speeds or even at slow ones, and some of us may also agree that by enforcing a law to make everyone wear helmets we are making the rider safer. But wouldn’t a rider also be safer if they didn’t ride a motorbike at all? It’s still possible to hurt yourself on a motorbike while wearing all the necessary protective gear, in fact you could very well be thrown off the motorbike, wouldn’t it be safer to ban motorbikes all together? Surely we would all be safer if we drove cars because there are seat-belts and airbags but there are about 43,000 deaths per year related to car accidents even if we eliminate the 40% alcohol related deaths in car accidents, there are still 25,800 deaths per year. I don’t know about you but I’m thinking of staying home from now on.

But isn’t that unreasonable? Surely we would all be safer if we stayed at home, provided nobody runs there car into my house. Well I could build a big wall around my house, and I can make sure there are no pointy edges on any of my furniture because I could very easily fall and hurt myself on a sharp edge. Well, wait a minute! I want to enjoy life; I want to go skydiving or scuba diving with sharks. I want to be free to drink alcohol, perhaps even a four loco, in reasonable amounts, do you?

For a lighthearted look at the nanny state I have also added a video from, and their winner of Nanny of the Month for November 2010.

  1. rhampton27 permalink
    December 7, 2010 3:35 PM

    I found this article very interesting. I think that the right of the government to ensure safety and promote morality does walk a very fine line. On one hand, the argument that people should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they cause no harm to others seems to be a reasonable stance. People desire personal liberty, and as the writer of this blog states, “I want to enjoy life”, pointing out the fact that freedom of action is what makes life worth living to them. This freedom of action is consistent with Mill’s principles. But on the other hand, how can we enjoy life if we are dead? The argument can be made that government regulation is necessary for the protection of its people. Maybe there are in fact people out there that don’t understand the importance of helmets when riding motorcycles. Shouldn’t the government help these people by governing their safety? While I personally enjoy my liberties, I believe that there are some things that people need guidance over in order to promote their own safety. While focusing on safety may reflect a more Hobbesian philosophy, i think that the right balance in government may actually be one that promotes liberty and safety.

  2. Benjamin Di Pietro permalink
    December 7, 2010 6:22 PM

    From the video, it seems (to me at least) that there is a huge difference between a satanic convention and the lingerie football league. While the satanists may not be as widely accepted in our country, their opinions and views are still granted under the laws. However, by not wanted to create a league (that seems to be deeming towards women) the government is attempting to but restrictions on the use of entertainment, and this in turn is not taking away anyone’s right to free speech or religion.

  3. Andrew Laing permalink
    December 7, 2010 7:02 PM

    The progression of the nanny state comes from congressmen and popular support for regulation. it seems that if a lawmaker does not wish to regulate than he does not have the welfare of the people in mind. laws such as seatbelt and helmet regulations are examples of creating crimes that have no victim. Additionally, if cars and motorcyclists didn’t have these mandated safety features i bet they would (to some degree) drive more carefully. I doubt that if there weren’t any red lights, that everyone would crash and die. Mill is correct in his assertion that we own our own bodies, any policy contrary is a slippery slope to the government telling us which way to wipe. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” – Ben Franklin

  4. Zach Kudman permalink
    December 7, 2010 9:55 PM

    The government walks a very fine line between protecting individual freedoms without allowing individuals to harm themselves or the general population. The “nanny state” is therefore charged with the task of deciding when the actions of an individual place too great a burden on society to be allowed to continue unhindered. As Mill argues for in his writing, the actions of an individual “crosses the line” when their deeds cease solely concerning themselves and instead begin to affect others. The example that Mill provides is the drunken police officer. It is not a crime, he sates, for a police officer to be drunk within his own home. It is only when that officer is on duty, where their drunken state endangers society and prevents the individual from performing their job well, that drunkenness becomes an issue.

    Despite this, it is also important to keep in mind the point that many people do not accurately weigh the consequences of their potential actions. If individuals were presented with the full dangers of their prospective actions, perhaps they would reconsider. The government, therefore, has to speculate as to whether people are reasonable and rational in formulating decisions. This, I believe, is the primary cause of confusion and the main reason that there is sometimes tension between the government and citizens. The job of the government is very difficult and thankless but it is also necessary.

  5. chris070310 permalink
    December 7, 2010 10:52 PM

    This article is very controversial because by government ruling they allow us freedom to a certain point. The government only allows what the majority believes in by voting and changing state laws. Therefore, by letting the majority rule, they determine how people should use their freedom. No it is not fair, and yes sometimes it may be the wrong decision, but at the end of the day if we voted these politicians into office, then we have given them the power to make our decisions for us. with that being said the government doesn’t make our decisions, we do!

  6. johnkeller91 permalink
    December 7, 2010 11:48 PM

    In your opening sentence, you stated that “Mill believes that the individual should have the freedom to do with his body as he sees fit, as long as it does not become a nuisance to the rest of society.” (joshhend). Basically the helmet law is good legislation because causing injury or death to yourself is actually a burden to society, which would be considered a nuisance. Say for example, a motorcycle rider who wasn’t wearing a helmet crashed and put himself into a coma, that individual would place undue stress on our hospitals and healthcare system. Therefore, the idea of freedom to harm oneself is not actually a freedom at all. The injury of any person can negatively affect others in society in countless ways.

  7. arimark91 permalink
    December 8, 2010 12:00 AM

    While reading this my mind went a little off topic and I started to think about what Locke would think about all of this. While Locke would agree that the motorcycle is a person’s own property, he would also does not believe in suicide. Some would say that not wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle is basically asking to die. I think he would support the fact that people have to wear helmets. I just thought it would be interesting to bring another political theorist’s views into play.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: