"All I want to do is go to the movies, have a soda and popcorn" says Michael Graham. But with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg banning supersized sodas and officials talking about extending the regulations to popcorn, conservatives like Graham are feeling nanny’s hot breath on the backs of their neck. Many are wondering what’s next.
Here in Australia the nanny state is blamed for restrictions on smoking, drinking, gambling and the Mexican wave. But as Chris Berg of the Institute of Public Affairs explains, it’s not just left wingers who like to engage in paternalism. Conservatives have been both enthusiastic censors and paternalistic colonialists.
In contrast to leftists and conservatives, libertarians present themselves as principled opponents of paternalism. But it turns out even libertarians can’t be counted on to defend your right to smoke, drink and snack yourself into an early grave.
Consider the situation of employees at Weyco, an insurance consulting firm in Michigan where company boss told his employees, "As of January 1st, 2005, anyone that has nicotine in their body will be fired".
Twenty employees quit smoking and the four who refused to take a breathalyzer test were fired. The boss, Howard Weyers, explained his position this way: "I pay the bills around here. So, I’m going to set the expectations".
Weyers insists that smoking is not a civil right. "Weyco is proud of its position on tobacco and wellness", he says. "For every smoker who quits because of it, many others — family members, friends, co-workers — will be thankful the person has chosen a healthier lifestyle."
Most libertarians have no objection to this kind of paternalism. If an employer decides to nanny his or her workforce, libertarians will explain that workers are free to seek employment elsewhere. And if they can’t find another job, then that’s just tough.
The key libertarian principle is freedom of contract. The government shouldn’t get in the way of contracts made by consenting adults. So if an employer wants to stipulate what employees do in their free time and workers choose to accept the contract, the government shouldn’t try to interfere.
In a libertarian utopia an employer would be free to implement their own version of the Northern Territory Intervention. As the only private sector employer in a remote Indigenous community, they might choose to pay their workers using a Basics Card that can only be used at a company store. Naturally the store would stock only healthy products like fresh fruit and vegetables. The employer might also regularly test workers for drugs and alcohol — not in order to prevent accidents at work — but in order to encourage workers to adopt a healthy lifestyle.
According to Friedrich Hayek’s definition, this would be coercion. In the Constitution of Liberty he defined coercion as "such control of the environment or circumstances of a person by another that, in order to avoid greater evil, he is forced to act not according to a coherent plan of his own but to serve the ends of another."
Libertarians object to coercion by governments. They strenuously object to coercion when it’s directed against employers or corporations trying to sell things like cigarettes, alcohol and junk food. But they don’t object to coercion when it’s part of the labour contract.
So it turns out libertarians don’t have a principled objection to nannying. In some cases, they’re all for it.