Bans on plastic straws, soda taxes, bans on diesel cars, the crackdown on smoking, restrictions on alcohol consumption: the list of restrictions on people’s personal freedoms is steadily increasing. But why is the Nanny State so popular?
Some of the latest inventions
Beware the plastic bag and the styrofoam container! That seems to be the theme in recent regulatory developments. The cities putting special taxes and bans on single-use plastic bags and which bar styrofoam food containers from restaurants is growing exponentially. In the case of single-use plastic bags, the evidence shows quite clearly that the conventional HDPE (High-density polyethylene) wins over alternative bags on its environmental impact. This is because the re-use rate of paper or cotton bags is far below the rate needed to break even with the plastic bag.
The story is the same for expanded polystyrene (EPS)—commonly known as styrofoam: cities such as Seattle, Washington D.C., Portland, Minneapolis, or San Francisco, have put bans on EPS products across the board, which has consequences for both producers, retailers, and consumers. When we compare polystyrene foam to paper cups, we find that paper uses more petroleum, more steam, more electric power, more cooling water, more wastewater, and more mass to landfill. The recycling opportunities of styrofoam are there: it shredded to be reused as ceiling insulation, or can be melted down and turned into pellets used to create harder plastic items, like toys or faux wood.
But the colorful ideas for new bans go further than just banning the product. The WHO is addressing the issue of marketing techniques towards children: the WHO, which has made the fight against non-communicable diseases (NCDs) a priority (those are, for instance, self-inflicted illnesses), writes in a2010 report on its Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health:
“Given that the effectiveness of marketing is a function of exposure and power, the overall policy objective should be to reduce both the exposure of children to, and power of, marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt.”
As a result, the WHO has been moving forward on the exact definition of what these restrictions should entail.
In 2012, the UN body further developed on its proposal to limit marketing to children, with a framework document on policy implementation. Here, the WHO gives an example of how the policy prescriptions could be implemented:
“Example: Eliminate all forms of marketing of any products to which a broad range of children are exposed, with a broad definition of what constitutes marketing directed to children.”
In a 2014 blog entry, the WHO quoted Amanda Long, Director-General of Consumers International, “a global consumer rights organization”: “Food companies spend billions of dollars developing marketing that really works”. Note that “consumer rights organization, in this case, means no right for the consumers, in this case parents, to chose what is good for their own children.
This is ultimately the message that recently adopted draft European Union Council proposals on marketing restrictions send. Ministers regard this is a consumer protection issue, as well as for the “reduction of health inequalities” and prevention policy. But all it really translates is a massive distrust in parenting. A proposal that makes the rounds at the moment is the banning of cartoon characters on breakfast cereal boxes, as it is already in place in Chile. The mere fact that there is already a country that has implemented the measure, will give the opportunity to “public health advocates” (I will continue to call them that until I am convinced that this is what they actually stand for), to twist the numbers until they’ll draft a report to call it a massive success.
The theory of the brainwashed consumer
The idea that the consumer needs a centralized authority telling him or her how to behave, derives from the fundamental idea that he or she is inept at making rational decisions. It is interesting to see how the topic is addressed, in the example of restrictions on marketing for products: parents are seen as influenced by their own children, who themselves have been brainwashed by companies. As marketing becomes synonymous with manipulation, manipulated consumers need someone to protect them.
The basic flaw is a misunderstanding between “manipulation” and “marketing”, two words which are not pointing to the same type of strategy. Governments seem to believe that all types of advertising mislead consumers about the product, when this is actually a more exceptional case. When Volkswagen manipulated their vehicles in order to show a lower emissions output, they were giving consumers false information about their product. When companies advertise health benefits of their products that cannot be proven, then they are intentionally misleading their customers. However, this is miles away from advertising a product as being cool, refreshing, comfortable, or trendy. Are we to define the mere fact that a product is being described by the producer as “good”, as manipulation?
But the idea of consumer protection remains important for governments because consumers have been taught to perceive themselves as victims. For this purpose, multiple European countries already have ministries for consumer protection. Much like the Ministry of Truth, it’s a question of who gets to decide how the consumer is really protected, instead of letting that decision up to the individual.
The Nanny State is popular because people have lost trust in their own abilities to make their own decisions for themselves, not because they have actually lost them. Governments feed on the idea of the irresponsible individual, because confident consumers won’t accept the mere existence of paternalism. If we want to defeat the Nanny State, we need not only oppose the individual policies that governments introduce, we also need to empower individuals to believe in their ability to act as responsible individuals.
This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.
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