23 October 2007

The Giant of Excess

Attacking last week's Foresight report that claimed individuals could no longer be held responsible for obesity, a leading Government adviser, Professor Julian Le Grand, argues that a completely fresh approach is needed to reverse problems caused by the "excess consumption" of tobacco, of food, of alcohol, of illegal drugs, and of indoor leisure. Suggesting that the new "giant of excess" has arisen alongside the "five giants" identified by William Beveridge when he founded the welfare state — namely, those of want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness — Le Grand says that instead of requiring individuals to opt in to healthy schemes, they should have to opt out to make the unhealthy choice, for instance by being required to buy a smoking permit before being able to purchase cigarettes.

Such "libertarian paternalism" is certainly not as extreme as prohibition, yet it still smacks of Labour's nanny state, so is perhaps not quite as radical as the professor would have us believe. For instance, when I go to work, I do so to work. I would not want my company to be required to designate an hour in the working day as the "exercise hour" — I would rather continue exercising with my family out of work hours. Equally, requiring supermarkets to sell alcohol separately from groceries or restricting the sale of alcohol to off licences would simply inconvenience and annoy customers, not change their drinking habits. As for the idea of the Health Secretary sending parents details of their children's weight measurements at the ages of five and ten, I can not think this is going to make any difference to any family's eating and exercise habits.

What Le Grand's analysis misses is that the state itself has become our biggest giant to be tackled. A truly "completely fresh approach" would involve the Government meddling less and trusting people more. It would require the Government rediscovering for which areas it properly exists and returning responsibility for those in which it should never have made society irresponsible. Only then might we begin having an impact on the symptoms of our broken society.


The Stonemason said...

The biggest dependency in the UK is not upon drugs, smoking, food but upon the state and the NHS. There is a legitimate place for public welfare and public health care - just as there is for public education - but they have extended to such all encompassing size that they block the also legitimate roles and responsibilities of others, be they individuals, voluntary or social organisations.