How did “public morality” become “public health”?

For decades, so-called “Clean Living” advocates pushed for government crackdown on products such as tobacco, alcohol or even coffee. Now that moralising people on a spiritual basis has proven to be less effective, Nanny State proponents make the case for the same types of regulation, in the interest of “public health”. Are they really any different from their moralising precursors?

Early “Clean Living” advocates were hysterical

The beginning of the era of Clean Living was the popularisation of health concern into a behavioural concept. In the late 18th century, the perception arose that businesspeople who sold goods to consumers weren’t very concerned about the health of the latter. And while there are always reasonable concerns to be raised about the safety of any given product, early writers of “moral” lifestyles did not only care about health issues, but the implication of the action itself. Dietary reformers such as Sylvester Graham included the demonisation of sugar, spices and especially masturbation, which was considered to be a cause of insanity. This first movement arguing for “public morality” was active towards the middle of the 19th century

The Clean Living movements uniquely included being political, in that they advocated prohibition and general behavioural policy. What had begun in the 19th century would return at the beginning of the 20th century. The so-called progressive era of the Clean Living movements used the momentum created in their early days, and stigmatised the use of alcohol as immoral and dangerous, eventually leading to the 18th amendment of the Constitution. Along came anti-smoking regulations and bans on narcotics. Uniquely, they understood that mere moralising wasn’t enough to get the population on board. If they wanted to actually implement their ideas, they needed the powerful hand of the government.

Think about this: until the beginning of the 20th century activists had to convince lawmakers that legislating things like sugar, tea, tobacco, alcohol or sexual activity was a rightful thing to do. It wasn’t commonly accepted that anything needed to be done about these products, and the “it’s good for you” wasn’t an effective means of lobbying for these rules. They mastered the vocabulary of fear, associating insanity, moral decay, disease aso. with totally unrelated consumption of luxury goods, in order to engrain the idea that “social hygiene” was a goal to aspire to.

This twisted notion of hygiene was later picked up by no other than Adolf Hitler. Himself a convinced non-smoker, funded studies showing the dangers of smoking with his own money, and filled Nazi Germany with posters calling on the “Brother National Socialist” to remain healthy for his motherland. As a notorious ascetic, Hitler refrained from alcohol, tobacco and meat, and wanted to make the country in his image.

Be “aware”, don’t be a nanny

We could suppose that it’s to nobody’s surprise that “Clean Living” has made it back into mainstream language. “Clean Living” and “Clean Eating” fill the internet through blog posts and books about healthy living in the days of processed foods. Tips on how to avoid chemicals, go non-GMO or go full vegan: everything needs to be clean. When a CNN journalist asked on Twitter what this implies, she got answers like “eating fresh fruits and veggies” or “not eating anything artificial“. Whatever i supposed to be “artificial” seems to be up to everyone’s own interpretation.

Not to be misunderstood, I don’t insinuate that these particular people intent to continue the Clean Living of the past two centuries, or that their activism isn’t helpful to some people. People should eat healthy, no doubt about that. But people should also be allowed to enjoy themselves.

There seems to be a fine line between following the hashtag “#cleaneating”, and being supportive of rules that dictate which products should be allowed on the market. The century of health trends, in which we try to avoid a new chemical in our diets each week, coincides with the century which exceedingly cracks down on the exact products that we mentioned earlier.

Sin taxes on cigarettes and alcohol are so high in certain states and countries that they fuel a profitable black market, European countries like France tighten their regulation on prostitution and sugar and fatty foods come under fire from regulators. The New York Times finds it relevant to let columnists make the case for intrusive prohibitions, as it did on pornography.

Current public health advocates are moving in the same direction than the Clean Living movements back then. Every ban is followed up by an even stricter ban, regardless of the implications for personal liberty.

Can we still have fun please?

Since the 21st century is also the one in which everything is a right, ranging from a right to housing, welfare, or even the “right to be forgotten” on Google; what about the right to have fun? What about the admission that you are allowed to enjoy yourself, regardless of the fact that other people think you’re hurting yourself? Go out and drink, smoke, vape, gamble and have sex: and yes, be prepared to be responsible for your actions.

We understand that things are bad for us, and power to the people who make us aware of the health implications of certain products. Those same people also need to know that lifestyles are trade-offs, and not everyone is willing to live as an ascetic in the off-chance that he or she makes it to the 22nd century, when we have finally figured out immortality. Most people know that going out on the weekend, drinking a lot and staying up late, isn’t good for them. And yet, they enjoy themselves and hurt nobody but themselves in the process.

“Public morality” became “public health” for purely marketing reasons. That “public health” advocates aren’t religiously motivated or backed by less questionable scientific statements (even though the effectiveness of their policies should be doubted constantly as well), doesn’t make the impact on personal freedom less important.

We need to be unapologetic about the fact that we want to enjoy ourselves.

To that, we’ll cheer with more than just a non-alcohol beer.


This article was first published by The Conservative Online.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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