One of the reasons why the “nanny state” approach to politics is so insidious is that it is impossible to deny the relatively good intentions of those who advocate for it. They, after all, just want to make us all safer and healthier. If you oppose their measures, there’s a risk that you’ll sound like the kind of person who’s happy with, if not in favour of, avoidable deaths and illnesses. So if the public health lobby issues a demand slash recommendation for a regulation of the salt levels in people’s food, there are very few Irish politicians with the intellectual or ideological resources to stand up to them and say no:
A new report for the Irish Heart Foundation (IHF) has said that health authorities are not doing enough to prevent cardiovascular disease (CVD) and that a radical approach could save thousands of lives each year
It calls for mandatory limits on salt content of bread and processed foods, a complete online ban on marketing of high fat, sugar and salt food and drinks, plus an increase in the legal age of the sale of tobacco from 18 to 21.
The report for the IHF was prepared by Professor Ivan Perry and Kerrie Gallagher, School of Public Health, University College Cork.
But there are, in fact, at least three good reasons why the Government should say no. Here they are:
- It is not the Government’s job to look after your health, and it’s a dangerous precedent to set
Instinctively, some people will disagree with this. But, if you do, then you must live with the logical consequences. If the Government has a duty to keep you from getting heart disease, then where does that duty end? Taken to the extreme, is there a good reason why the Department of Health shouldn’t fit people with monitors to make sure that they are doing at least three hours of cardiac exercise per week? Should we all be required to keep a food diary, and submit it to our doctors?
On a more basic level, shouldn’t foods that are entirely bad for people be banned altogether? If there’s a case for regulating the salt content of bread, then there’s an obvious case for banning cakes and biscuits altogether. This is where this line of thinking, and the precedent set by it, ultimately ends.
Because I have news for you: Regulating the salt content of bread will not stop people dying from heart diseases. They will continue to die, because everybody must, ultimately, die from something. What happens then? Once you have set the precedent that Government may regulate foods in the service of reducing diseases, that precedent is set forever.
Why, for example, should food intake not be regulated entirely? It could probably be done, for example, by giving people a personal electronic rations card that limits the amount of sugary or salty food they could buy in a week. The technology is emerging to make things like that possible, and the more you empower people who would like to do it, the more reasonable ideas like that begin to sound.
Government should simply state that it is not their job to tell people what to eat. That line in the sand is defensible. No other line is.
- People have an inherent right to make their own choices, as we are told in every other aspect of life
There’s nothing particularly wrong with a Government information campaign, if it’s considered worthwhile, to highlight the fact that bread is salty. Doctors have a duty, if they have a patient in front of them, to tell them that eating bread is bad for them. But here’s the thing:
Patients have a right to ignore their doctors if they wish. That’s part of living in a free society, too. We already accept that, for example, patients have the right to decline medical treatment. Implicit in that is an accompanying right to decline medical advice.
Some people willingly do things that are bad for them because they enjoy those things. And it’s interesting that we accept that almost entirely in areas of life where the behaviours might be even more risky: To make an obvious point, promiscuous sexual behaviours are inherently risky, as the number of Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Ireland demonstrates. Government would never dream, in this day and age, of trying to regulate that behaviour. But they want you to stop eating salty bread? C’mon. We’re either adults, or we are not.
- It probably wouldn’t work anyway
One of the foundational blocks of conservatism, as an ideology, is the notion that human nature is unchanging. No matter how a society is governed, there will always be certain kinds of people. There will always be criminals. There will always, no matter how much technology advances, be those drawn to conspiracies. There will always be some smart people, and some not so smart people.
And there will always be those who prefer a salty diet. If they can’t get that salt in bread, they will get it elsewhere.
Liberalism (in the modern sense of the word) by contrast tends to think of humans as people who can be perfected and guided into being better. They believe that if you pass laws against salty diets, people will eat less salt and be healthier. It’s one of the reasons that such societies tend to be much less free, on average: Because liberals are wrong about human nature, they tend to double down again and again: If we could just regulate the people into healthy eating, they would be better. Therefore, there is no limit on the number of acceptable regulations.
But the problem is that it simply won’t work. Crisp sandwiches will become more popular. People will put more salt in their soup. Salt is a natural human craving, and it’s not going to go away because some doctors said it would be preferable if we ate less of it.
Liberals understand this, for some reason, when it comes to matters of sex. And not at all, when it comes to anything else.