Russell Roberts at Café Hayek raises an interesting question: are defenders of freedom picking the right battles? Roberts says:
Their argument goes something like this: there are so many important issues to fight for, why fight over these nanny state issues? What's the big deal about mandatory seat belts or motorcycle helmets or the ban on trans fats. They basically do more good than harm, goes the argument, so why get worked up over something so trivial? Plus, they say, it turns off those who are skeptical about freedom. They think I'm crazy for getting excited over something so innocuous.
I disagree with these arguments. I think it is a big deal for many reasons. But before I make my case, I'd like to hear you make yours on either side of this issue. Is this kind of seemingly petty regulation worth fighting? Or should we just ignore it and save our breath and energy for more what are perhaps more important issues?
This is something well worth discussing.
First, I would dispute the notion that these sorts of nanny statist measures are in fact "petty." The right to eat or smoke what you want, or other rights to do as you will with your own body and health may not be as glamorous as free speech, but I would argue that they are far more important than people usually acknowledge, because they are pervasive in people's lives in a way that the sexier freedoms usually aren't for most people. The rights interfered with by nanny state laws, such as the right to consume what you want, are rights exercised (or infringed) virtually every single day of every person's life.
That aside, though, there is another point. Big oppressions don't arise from nowhere, especially in a country that still retains some tradition of a liberty; they pile up over time from "little" oppressions. Ten years ago, the sort of measures now being taken against unhealthy food were the stuff of parody; they were what conservatives and libertarians said, sometimes jokingly, would result from the attacks on tobacco. Now they are reality. They have been made possible by past precedent. Slippery slopes are very real in this area.
Past oppression serves as the justification for future oppression. In the golden age of eugenics, people like Oliver Wendell Holmes who wanted to justify things like forced sterilizations justified it by pointing to the existence of conscription- we've already established by accepting conscription that the state can demand the bodies of its citizens, so the legitimacy of forced sterilization for the good of the state naturally followed- it's just another sort of conscription, and often a less onerous form then the military kind. If the state can do A, why can't it do B, which is the same sort of thing as A?
We see the same sort of reasoning used by nanny statists all the time, though thankfully not (as of yet) on such extreme matters. We restrict tobacco advertising; why not advertising of unhealthy food to children? Dangerous drugs like heroin are restrictedl- why isn't tobacco? (Not making that one up.) If the state can do A, why can't it do B, which is the same sort of thing as A?
People hear this and think, "Well, A wasn't so bad." (Remember how people think that these issues are "petty" and "innocuous.") "So, why not B?" And the same thought process will apply for C, D, E, G, and F. The solution is to prevent A, so that the statists can't say, "… so why can't it do B?"
There is a related reason that is not logical or philosophical but psychological. People give up their liberty more readily in small steps than in not big jumps, because that's how beliefs in general usually shift. If the status quo in a particular area of life is little or no government interference, moving to heavy or total government control is a big jump- people will recoil from it, because they haven't been psychologically prepped for it. If the status quo is already a degree of government control, however, moving to even greater control is easier for people to swallow.The more statism we have, the more psychologically palatable an even greater degree of statism will seem. The first concession to the nanny state seems inconsequential- and each additional concession seems the same way, because the baseline of normality grows more and more statist. Again, the solution is to nip the problem in the bud.