Saturday, July 28, 2007


Is good Government like Good Parenting?

I was debating with my son recently about the 'nanny state', the idea of which he is very much opposed to on the grounds that the state has no right to intrude into the personal realm. I argued however, that good government is a bit like good parenting: both aim to encourage good behaviour and to achieve prosperity or otherwise happiness for their respective objects. More precisely:

1 Children have inbuilt rebellious tendencies, as do voters. It follows that like good parenting, government should avoid being overbearing if possible: persuasion is of the essence. An arrogant government alienates the public in no time at all.

2. As with rules for children, government always works best when citizens have been properly prepared. For example, the smoking ban is a good example of effective preparation as it seems to have been accepted, more or less, without cavil. The introduction of Poll Tax, on the other hand, generated riots in central London.

3.It follows that rules should be reasonable/sensible ones: the two above examples also illustrate that when they are not, prior consent is impossible. By the same token, any attempt to insist children go to bed at, say, 6.0pm, is likely to be met with furious refusals.

4. Of course, in both instances rules must be applied consistently without exception, favours or discrimination. Any deviation from this rule creates chaos both in families and polities.

The parenting analogy however, implies excessive intrusion. Perhaps the criterion here should be the prevention of harm to others: e.g.children should be prevented from bullying their fellows just adults should be. It is when harm to oneself is involved that problems arise. Parents naturally step in to prevent their children harming themselves- playing with sharp objects for example- but libertarians argue that adults should be allowed to inflict harm on themselves should they so decide: drugs, dangerous sports and the like.

This is when cost to taxpayers becomes a factor. Both drinking and smoking cost us billions in medical cost so should both be discouraged? Gambling also breaks up families and causes untold misery to growing children, so should it also be discouraged? Possibly not, but there seems a good case for not actively encouraging any of them. To conclude, possibly the major reason for being wary of pushing my comparison is that it might encourage politicians to vie for the 'parenting' role. No-one wants to see a Big Brother installed in Number 10 and I seem to recall that the coterie of Conservative politicians around Thatcher used to refer to her a 'Mother', to which I respond: 'pass the sick bag'.

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