Restriction is not empowerment

When I was in Year 5, Jamie Oliver confiscated our turkey twizzlers and re-vamped school dinners to stop us from getting fat. We learned about the food pyramid, about good fats and bad fats, and about the importance of a balanced diet. PE was compulsory and we learned about calories, kinetic energy, how to exercise safely. In PSHE we learned that around one in three cigarette smokers will die from smoking. We learned how harmful alcohol was for both physical and mental health. We had Talk To Frank, a government service which gave us the low-down on all the dangers of drugs. Which is why it’s always confusing to me when every new public health proposal is veiled in the language of empowerment.

If the goal was empowerment, then we hit that long ago. Empowering people to make their own decisions necessarily means understanding that some people will make different choices even when faced with the same circumstance. An empowered person is not forced into any particular choice but may exercise their own agency to make their own decisions as they see fit.

Removing these choices, placing barriers to them, or otherwise nudging, cajoling, and strong-arming people away from certain choices, is the opposite of empowerment. It’s telling people that they are not free to make their own choices, or that, if left to their own devices, they’ll make the wrong choices. The reality is that, when it comes to health, most people are making informed decisions which align with what they want to do.

You can make an argument that people cannot be trusted to make their own decisions, but it is not a particularly liberal argument and I’d hope this party would not entertain that at all.

At the heart of most discourse on public health is the idea that people are unable to make good choices about the most fundamental parts of their life: what they eat, how much exercise they do, and what leisure activities they engage in. When those principles are stripped bare, we rightly see this as an authoritarian and controlling argument, antithetical to liberalism and antithetical to the idea of empowering individuals to make their own decisions. But, for some reason, public health discourse abounds in liberal spheres. If only we made junk food a little less visible in public, if only alcohol was a little more expensive, if only cigarettes were a little more difficult to access, so the theory goes, we’d see measurable improvements in public health.

What is lost entirely in this argument is that these are free decisions made by individuals exercising their own liberty. When we try and weigh our actions against healthcare budgets or official statistics we lose sight of the point of living. Someone who enjoys a glass of wine on a lunch break isn’t engaging in irrational or harmful behaviour; this is a proportionate and rational course of action for a person living in a free society. This spontaneous, free, and autonomous decision-making cannot be accounted for in modelling or statistics, and that’s why it is so often left out of the conversation entirely when, in reality, it is the entire point of the conversation.

We’re told that we need to curtail our behaviour in order to protect the NHS, but there is no other public service in any other country which demands this level of deference and behavioural change. If we take this to its logical conclusion we’d levy a tax on obesity and give tax breaks to gym-goers. These suggestions are absurd, but they are no more absurd than the idea that our lives should be methodically planned to involve as little burden to the health service as possible.

We regulate and punish behaviour that is harmful to others, such as smoking indoors and drink-driving. We rightly regulate vaping, tobacco, and alcohol so they cannot be sold to under-18s. If these laws are being poorly enforced or if these products are being abused, we should enforce the laws already on the books instead of going after manufacturers and law-abiding people who enjoy the occasional pint, cigarette, or burger.

The Conservative Party constantly tries to draw a parallel between us and the Labour Party, and public health is an area in which we can make a concerted, principled, liberal stand in contrast to the amorphous, technocratic, centre-left urge to be seen Doing Something. Individual liberty is precious. We should have very good grounds for infringing on it.

* Ciaran Morrissey is a councillor in Sunderland and the prospective parliamentary candidate for Washington and Sunderland West.

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24 Comments

  • Andrew Emmerson 7th Sep '23 - 12:58pm

    Excellent piece Comrade.

    The problem so we often see is these issues are described in terms of consumers being helpless against advertising and vice, they are never ready attribute agency to people who make what they percieve to be risky or poor decisions in full knowledge of the consequences.

    We absolutely should stand for making sure people’s decisions are informed, but where there are not clearly articulated immediate dangers then we should be more much relaxed about people living their lives as they see fit. We are not Nanny, Mother, Grandma, or any other m/paternalistic body and we should actively seek to get away from that.

  • Simon Robinson 7th Sep '23 - 4:26pm

    This article is well argued – but seems to be advocating what I would consider to be closer to libertarianism than liberalism.

    Of course in an ideal World, it would seem nice for people to do whatever they want, free from any societal constraints. But in the real World, people’s actions frequently impact others. To take just one example – @Ciaran – you cite obesity. But the reality is, the NHS spends a huge amount of money treating people who would probably not have required treatment if they’d been more willing through their lives to follow advice about exercise and not overeating. That harms others by tying up NHS resources, thereby adding to waiting lists for everyone else. Knowing that, is it really wise to, in the name of letting people make their own choices, make no attempt to encourage or incentivise people to live healthily?

    There will always be a conflict between giving people absolute liberty to do whatever they feel like, versus recognising that we are all part of a shared community in which our freedom is at least somewhat restricted by our responsibility to others. And that means, we have to make value judgements about where the balance lies in each situation.

  • Not sure that a party which stands on a platform of “the majority of you don’t know what’s best for you, vote for us and we will tax all the things you love that we disapprove of because we know best” is going to win over floating voters.

  • Nonconformistradical 7th Sep '23 - 6:01pm

    I agree with Simon Robinson. However….

    @Ciaran
    “At the heart of most discourse on public health is the idea that people are unable to make good choices about the most fundamental parts of their life: what they eat, how much exercise they do, and what leisure activities they engage in.”
    If you are poor you may not be able to afford to make good choices about food. A lot of people are in that position – if they weren’t struggling we wouldn’t have food banks.

    Poor people who are in work may be working long hours just to try to make ends meet – they may not have much time or energy for healthy exercise.

    Life isn’t as simple as you imply. It’s a lot easier for some of us to make those choices than it is for others.

  • Maybe the liberal response is to ask whether everyone has equal access to the same choices? What alternatives to Turkey twizzlers were on offer to Year 5 Ciaran?

    It’s a straw man argument to say that everyone should be empowered to make their own lifestyle choices unless the full range of choices are available to all, regardless of how much time you have available and how much disposable income you have.

    I know some liberals disagree with me, but I’m quite relaxed about ‘sin taxes’. In excess, some things do inevitably have a cost to society in terms of the burden on the NHS and criminal justice system, and tragically often also impact loved ones too. If you drink in moderation, the cost to you of alcohol taxes is modest, but drink to excess and the cost is greater but so is the likely cost of treating the eventual health issues.

  • @Nick Baird “Maybe the liberal response is to ask whether everyone has equal access to the same choices? ” – I’d change that to ‘adequate access’. ‘equal access’ is unrealistic because we live in and (hopefully) support a market economy. That always means that some people will work hard or innovate with clever ideas, be rewarded for doing so, and therefore have much more money and therefore more choices available than other people – and that’s a good thing: We just need to make sure there is some floor in living standards that people don’t slip below.

    But either way, the fact that a minority might not be able to afford healthy choices doesn’t change that we should still seek to incentivise people to make healthy choices – because there are still a lot of people who do choose to ignore health advice that they could follow. (Or are we going to argue for example that people who drive half a mile in a gas guzzler to their local shop are doing so because they can’t afford the cost of walking? Or that people who live on takeaway pizzas are doing so because they can’t afford to buy food at their local supermarket 😉 )

  • Mohammed Amin 7th Sep ’23 – 3:44pm:
    …and in due course a tax on beef which would help both people’s health and would help with climate change given the methane emissions of beef cattle.

    While methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas, it’s absorption spectrum is already near saturation being eclipsed by water vapour, so any increase would have a trivial effect on surface temperature. It has an atmospheric half-life of less than nine years. Physicists William van Wijngaarden and Will Happer calculated theoretical absorption curves for all five greenhouse gases in the earth’s real atmosphere and found that the trace gases make a negligible contribution. Their results agree with the radiation data from satellite observations. Here is an accessible presentation of their work…

    ‘“Methane – The Irrelevant Green-House Gas” Dr Thomas P Sheahen’ [September 2022]:

  • Martin Gray 7th Sep '23 - 9:46pm

    Good article ….Next year we have the online gambling bill …A proposed monthly outlay of over £150 pm would require the same documentation supplied to the Bookie as I gave when applying for a mortgage – utterly ridiculous….Of course no such restrictions on the course on the high st…What next legislation to stop blokes blowing £300 on a boozy weekend or splashing out £500 on a Stone Island coat – how people spend their money is up to them …..I can sense vapes being targeted next …We all might as well sit at home doing wordsearch evey evening…Nanny state we know best – the complete opposite of what liberalism should be

  • Steve Trevethan 8th Sep '23 - 8:28am

    Might freedom be better considered when differentiated?
    * Freedom to
    * Freedom from
    * Freedom under the law
    * Freedom within a reasonably efficient and equitable society
    Might it be appropriate for our party to discuss and present « Freedom » in such a more complex and more realistic way?

    P S You might find President F D Roosevelt’s « Four Freedoms » interesting and relevant.

  • Paul Barker 8th Sep '23 - 9:39am

    This is confusing Liberalism with Libertarianism.
    The big thing I notice when food shopping is that the Crap is mostly cheaper. For the very Poor “Choosing” to buy healthier but more expensive is not a genuinely “Free” choice.

    “Nudging” people towards better Health seems eminently Liberal to me.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 8th Sep '23 - 9:52am

    I remember that some time in the 90’s when I was a councillor and it was the early days of mobile phone masts, People were very worried and frightened about the effects of them. I held a public meeting in a room in a pub next to where the mast was going to go.
    A man with a fag in his hand outside a window and a pint in the other shouting ” ***** Government, tell us what to do all the time, don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat this or that, don’t have sex, then they ******* well make us have something outside our houses that will kill us and our kids”.
    Now that was an exaggeration of course, but it struck a chord with me about how useless it is, as well as wrong, to dictate from above. Advice needs to be alongside people not from above.
    I must say Stockton through a succession of community partnerships and such tried a lot of approaches, more recently of the alongside type. We have one of the biggest disparities in health in the country here, but every “campaign” seems to lead to the healthier and better off (like where we live) improving their health, and the poorer staying where they are.
    I think the answer in part anyway is in raising people’s aspirations. “why bother”, “I’ll die soon anyway” are words I often heard. In some places and many situations what hope is there?

  • Martin Gray 8th Sep '23 - 10:17am

    @Paul….Let’s reopen the sure start centers – many of which were closed during the coalition …
    In the 70’s people growing up on very little income – you don’t see the obesity on the high street as you do now … Ultimately if a child is too obese to carry out sporting activities – or has poor dental hygiene, that is poor parenting … Something surestart was trying to address + a whole range of issues for those on lower incomes …

  • Jenny Barnes 8th Sep '23 - 11:13am

    “people who live on takeaway pizzas are doing so because they can’t afford to buy food at their local supermarket 😉 )”
    There was a time when I lived on takeaway pizza. Working in Hackney, living in Surrey, long hours at work & a time consuming Journey. I had just time to grab a Pizza & coffee on my way home at Waterloo station, eat it on the train, go home, fall into bed, get up crack of dawn and do it all again.

  • I would say this article is definitely Liberal and not Libertarian. There is a worrying trend towards repackaging core Liberal ideas like personal freedom of choice as “Libertarian” whilst also claiming that statism and interventionism are “if anything actually Liberalism”, thus eroding Liberalism as a distinct ideology.

  • James Fowler 9th Sep '23 - 6:21pm

    I agree with you Marco.

  • Lee_Thacker 9th Sep '23 - 7:56pm

    Simon R is right that liberals and Liberals have always supported free market capitalism. After all we not socialists or Marxists. However, I think we would question whether the free market simply rewards those who work hard and innovate. There are other reasons why people might not succeed such as disinterested parents, a poor education, racism and health problems including mental illness. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the history and policy platforms of the Liberal Party in the 20th century.

    The state has a role to play in helping us to live healthier lives. Whilst Ciaran is right to say we don’t give tax breaks to gym goers we do offer tax breaks to people who purchase bicycles to cycle to their work place. My former health insurance company actually DID offer incentives to people who went to the gym.

    A French woman once told me that she put on weight whilst an exchange student in the United Kingdom. She ate the same food brands. It was just that the British versions had more sugar in them. An American told me how difficult it was to understand nutrition labels on British food products. Is it too much to expect the state to encourage food producers to lower sugar content and make nutrition labels more understandable?

  • Nonconformistradical 9th Sep '23 - 8:27pm

    “It was just that the British versions had more sugar in them.”
    I recall buying a packet of Kelloggs cornflakes in the USA a long time ago – they were so sweet as to be completely unpalatable to me. Yuck!

  • I don’t know whether Mr Morrissy and others of like mind have taken the opportunity to read and digest Duncan Brack’s article on the New Liberalism, although it appears that they haven’t. They would be well advised to do so :

    Liberal History Group
    https://liberalhistory.org.uk › journal-articles › the-ne…
    Introduction to Liberal history. In the first of a new series of short introductory articles, Duncan Brack reviews the New Liberalism, an important …………………
    The New Liberalism – Journal of Liberal History, Liberal History Group, https://liberalhistory.org.uk › history ›

    Duncan Brack, a freelance writer and a researcher, is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History, and has also co-edited the Dictionary of Liberal thought.

  • Lee_Thacker 10th Sep '23 - 3:03pm

    Just read the article David Raw recommended from the Liberal Democrat History Group website. I am sure there are others describing the history of policy and strategy under 20th century leaders.

    With all due respect to the author, I don’t think this article is very good. That is not because I disagree with what is written. I left wondering what Ciaran actually wants in terms of concrete policy terms – the end of nutrition labels on food products? the abolition of speed limits? looser planning regulations for the construction of new houses? Weaker employment laws? Compulsory private health insurance?

    Perhaps he could put forward policy motions for a conference on what he wants to achieve . If he is successful I will know not to renew my membership and to vote for the Greens or Plaid Cymru at the next general election.

    We had a number of members with attitudes similar to Ciaran’s just before and during the coalition. Anyone remember Mark Littlewood and Darren Grimes?

  • When it comes to over-weaning state power, Lord Acton is often quoted “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority”.
    He made some other aposite observations “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”
    There was a time when there would be uproar on the labour benches of any tax increases on beer and cigarettes (as opposed to cigars and champagne) as an attack on the simple pleasures of the working classes. A spoof 1974 article reported violent clashes in Dublin over a 12 pint driving limit 1974: ‘Violent Clashes In Dublin As 12 Pint Driving Limit Put In Place
    According to the most recent NHS health survey, around two-thirds of English population aged 16 or over are overweight or obese.
    I agree with the author that the principal responsibility for maintaining health lies with individual and lifestyle choices; but the state has an important role both in public education and ensuring that harmful products are not being offered to the public unwittingly. What constitutes harmful comes back to Lord Acton’s dictum about the the tyranny of the majority.
    Tastes change over time. There are very few snuff users or pipe smokers today and a dwindling band of tobacco users . A natural decline over time is preferable to outright prohibitions except where it constitutes a danger to others like drinking 12 pints of beer and driving a car

  • @ Geoffrey Gavin John- I believe that Ciaran did address these issues in his argument. He said that regulation was acceptable to prevent harm to other people. However there is a relentless push to always go further with more intervention without there being a proper evidence base. I would personally cut alcohol duties to revitalise pubs.

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