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Is a nanny state really that bad?

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Andy Nelson / Staff / File

(Read caption) Some claim that occasional nannying from the state is alright, but guest blogger Anton Howes points out the flaws of that argument.

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The philosopher Alain de Botton claims that the nanny state isn't quite so bad. His argument is as follows: libertarians believe the state should restrict itself to preventing harm to others and not to doing things to us "for our own good". Libertarians therefore pity religious societies with strict moral codes. We too don't live in a free society because commercial advertising means we don't live in a "netural public space" in which every corporate advertisement would be balanced out by an opposite moralising one. De Botton then goes on to suggest that the way around this is to drop our apprehensions about losing liberty and accept that sometimes we really do want to be saved from ourselves. Given this, he asks what's so bad about occasional state nannying.

The glaring problem is that de Botton mistakenly conflates the state and society: most libertarians have no problem with nannies, only with the nanny state. There's nothing wrong with religion or moralisers in society, but there is a problem when they capture the state and use its ability to exercise legitimate violence to force the rest of society to follow their own personal morality.

Trying to achieve a "neutral public space" would involve the very illiberal measures of having to restrict an individual or society from advertising. It would be like legally gagging someone screaming in the street in order to scream the opposite message. Furthermore, this gagging and the promotion of the opposite message would have to be done with that person's money taken through taxation!

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