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Thursday, 10 January 2013

Nanny knows best

It has been reported that Labour would like the government to introduce legal limits on the sugar, salt and fat content in food. Judging by their reaction, it would appear that the government is not exactly hostile to this idea.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham claimed that current voluntary agreements with the food industry were “not working” and that the obesity problem was “worsening”, while Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that: "This is not a problem we can just wish away. If we don't meet our targets and continue to make the progress that we have to make, then we would consider legislation.”
The comments made by these two politicians contain several telling phrases. Mr Burnham said that the "time has come for new thinking" particularly when it comes to foods aimed at children. He said: "I think parents need more help to make healthier choices for their children.” I’m not sure how Mr Burnham defines ‘help’, but I know now that he spells it l-e-g-i-s-l-a-t-i-o-n. Imposing further limits on food manufacturers does not ‘help’ parents; it merely imposes more conditions on food manufacturers. Legislation, in this case, can only be defined as ‘helpful’ if you think that it is your responsibility is to remove choices from people who are unable to act rationally and who might otherwise damage themselves. Legislation only counts as help if you believe that people are not capable of helping themselves, not capable of making informed decisions in their own interests.

Most of us would concede that it would be appropriate for a parent to remove the ‘choice’ of a 10-year old child to have unlimited internet access, unlimited fast food or unlimited late-night leisure time during school term, because the parent is best-placed to decide what is and what isn’t good for the child. But that is not the kind of relationship that should prevail between the state and the citizen. The very notion of legislating to ‘help’ people make more ‘responsible’ choices –that is, the choices you want them to make- is a perfect illustration of how the political class view those they are elected to represent.

It simply does not occur to our politicians that most parents are capable of saying: “No Johnny, you can't have another triple-decker bacon cheeseburger with extra chunky fries." They’d much rather introduce a law that ‘helps’ those hapless parents avoid the awkwardness of having to make an actual decision, like perhaps having to say ‘no’ to their child.

Health secretary Hunt said that the government was "making very good progress" in tackling childhood obesity, but added that “the reality is that supermarkets and the food manufacturers need to understand that we do reserve the right to legislate. This is not a problem we can just wish away ... if we don't get agreement, let's be absolutely clear, we will look at legislation.”

In case you didn’t pick up the subtlety of that message, I’ll translate. "If we don’t get agreement" means: "If you do not do as you’re told".

It is quite clear that for the professional political class, the answer to every perceived issue, problem or situation is always: more government action. Left unchecked and unchallenged, there is simply no area of private life into which they will not attempt to intrude. The more we acquiesce in this process, the greater our loss of personal freedoms.

Sadly, it seems that a lot of folk have come to accept that government legislation can somehow take the place of common sense. They argue that legislation is required because the food industry can’t be trusted to act responsibly. The darker and less palatable truth is that this legislation is being proposed because the politicians don’t trust us, the people, to act responsibly.

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