Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | It's in our interests to be nannied

The problem with critics of the nanny state is that they mistakenly equate non-interference by government with freedom...To maximise our freedom, therefore, we should be interested in creating a society in which we have the maximum power to make choices for ourselves. That may require us to limit the extent to which influences that are corrosive to freedom are allowed to operate.

According to the conventional wisdom, and political rhetoric from the right, conservative policies that restrict government "interference" maximize individual freedom while liberal policies trade off individual freedom for other goods.

Personally I hadn't noticed this, in fact it seems clear to me that it's the other way around. Without government support for schools and student loans I couldn't have gotten the education that provided a real choice of careers for me. Without the enforcement of equal opportunity and affirmative action regulations my range of options in the labor market would have limited to "women's jobs": teaching, typing, waitressing, cashiering and the "helping professions."

Without government interference I would now likely be trapped in 2 square feet of space for 8 hours a day operating a cash register or sitting at a computer terminal keying in data while my supervisor monitored every keystroke. Most women's jobs are like that--restricted mobility, interminable repetition and close supervision with few possibilities for achievement or advancement. I don't see how that counts as freedom.

Freedom, in the most basic sense, means the absence of physical constraint--not being trapped in a small space behind a check out counter or in a carrel answering phones. It means the chance to organize my own activities and more broadly, the available of a wide range of options from which I can choose, making trade-offs in accordance with my preferences. Government interference restricts the options of a few people while increasing the net freedom overall by liberating us from the constraints imposed on us by customs and traditions, the policies of non-government organizations, and the restrictions to our liberty that come from the unchosen circumstances of our lives.


MDBritt said...

I've just discovered your blog (via B&W) and am quite happy to have done so! Please take the following in the spirit of discussion and not of criticism...

You say: "Government interference restricts the options of a few people while increasing the net freedom overall"

Wouldn't it be better to say: "*Wise* government interference *CAN* restrict..." There are certainly government actions whose result, taken as a whole, is simply a restriction of the people for the benefit of a chosen few (usually the leadership).

More ominously, this isn't nearly enough: almost any law - no matter how knuckle-dragging and reactionary can be cast as "increasing choice overall" by framing it within the proponent's world view: "women shouldn't be demeaned by being forced into roles that God forbade them" or some such claptrap. So I'd propose that we need something more, a framework within which real freedom-promoting policies can be distinguished from policies that use "freedom" as mere window-dressing (Pangle gets into this a bit in his discussions of Marxist critiques of freedom).

The entirety of my movement rightward over the years (I started much as you did) has been because I've lost my initial assumption that government intervention would in fact promote this kind of general welfare. Not that I oppose all such intervention - equal opportunity laws, for example, have been wonderfully liberating - but I'm less sanguine about the motivations, experience and wisdom of people who often find themselves in a position to influence our lives via politics.

Again, thanks for posting! If interested, you can visit my blog as well at

H. E. said...

No one wants to claim that all government interference is good or that more government is in and of itself better than less.

The suggestion is just that (1) some government interference is necessary to promote individual freedom because custom, tradition and the policies of families, firms, social groups and other non-government institutions, and unchosen characteristics like class, sex, and economic status severely restrict individuals' freedom and that (2) policies associated with political liberalism, e.g. the enforcement of equal opportunity and affirmative action policies, state-provided education, and income transfers expand individual freedom on net.

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