Chris Dillow has an interesting explanation for the large increase in state nannying over the past decade: it gives the government a chance to justify its existence during times of prosperity when there's no obvious need for it to be messing around with the economy. Also, enforcing all these policies costs money which is in short supply when there's a recession on - and people with money to spend have more opportunity to do the foolish things that attract Nanny's tut-tuttery. Furthermore:
Economic booms cause governments to exaggerate their ability - as the saying goes, everyone’s a genius in a bull market. So they pursue nannying policies. Recessions remind them that they are less in charge of events than they’d like to think. This should breed a scepticism about whether state intervention in our drinking or eating habits can actually succeed.
I think there's a considerable amount of truth in that. There are other factors at work, though, too. One is the role of the media: the Today programme, newspapers, TV news bulletins and all the rest have a fixed amount of space to fill, and when there aren't any stories about job losses or banks collapsing the editors will turn to health crises, moral panics and social conundrums. Interviews with ministers follow a set pattern: a package sets up a problem, X; the minister is introduced and asked What is the Government doing about X? If a satisfactory answer is not forthcoming, the complaint from the Opposition is invariably "the Government isn't doing enough about X".
One of the oftenest heard clichés - from Government, pressure groups and experts alike - is to the effect that "doing nothing is not an option". But of course it is. Doing nothing is always an option. In most cases, doing nothing has worked perfectly well for hundreds of years.
To some extent, government activism on non-economic issues - exhorting people to live healthier lives, setting targets for schools, hospitals and the police, has filled the gap left by the loss of government power over the major economic questions. In the 1970s, the time of the last really bad recession, the major industries and utilities were nationalised, with boards appointed by the government and in many cases under fairly firm government control. The Thatcher government got rid of most of that, while other significant areas of political power have progressively been lost to Europe. Decisions once made by ministers have (often to spare ministerial blushes) been subcontracted to quangoes such as NICE. Yet government hasn't got any smaller; in fact, the less it controls the more officials it appears to need, just as the Royal Navy now has more admirals than ships. There are periodic efficiency drives, of course, but regulations are like the heads of the hydra: cut one out, and two appear in its place.
If the nanny state is a product of an excess of bureaucracy, I doubt it will disappear any time soon, however deep the recession. Indeed, as it becomes ever clearer that the government can't solve the economic crisis then the need for them to prove their worth in other ways may, if anything, increase. True, a collapse in tax revenues might eventually make the infrastructure of the nanny state unsustainable, but by that time technology might have taken up some of the slack.
Beyond the government's need to constantly to be doing something, and the media narrative of problems seeking solutions, there's also the fact that so many problems that once loomed large have effectively been solved. The outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe is a reminder of how deadly it once was in Britain, and of how many other diseases, from rickets and diptheria to typhoid and the bubonic plague, have virtually disappeared. Life for most people is much cleaner, safer and healthier than it ever was - but this hasn't been matched by a reduction in fear, or in the number of doctors. Just as there are far fewer fires than there ever used to be, but just as many firemen. Sorry, "fire-fighters". Without proper medical complaints to deal with, GPs are in the process of being remade as managers, implementing centrally determined targets for reductions in rates of smoking and cholesterol. Once upon a time, most people only visited the doctor if they were ill; now they want you to come in for endless tests and lectures about diet.
Indeed, it is a paradox of much nanny state legislation is that it only becomes truly oppressive at the point when the victory is almost won. When smoking was ubiquitous, and the health crisis it created thus presumably at its most severe, the measures taken to combat it were relatively slight: messages on the sides of fag packets, restrictions on TV advertising (which, rather charmingly, never applied to cigars or pipes, so that many of us have fond memories of those Hamlet adds with their subtle us of Bach). Now smoking levels are below 20%, instead of celebrating their success the anti-smoking lobby wish to pursue their routed opponents, dreaming up new measures to make life miserable for the hard core who continue to puff away in the full knowledge that they are doing themselves harm.
Today's outbreak of nannyism is linked to that great issue of our days, the obesity epidemic (or is it a timebomb?). Apparently a quarter of Britain's under-fives are overweight - and by the time they reach school it's too late to reverse the problem. An unfortunate development, certainly, but rather less apocalyptic than it is painted. Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer for England, said it was no exaggeration to describe soaring rates of obesity as an "impending crisis". Depends how you define "crisis", I suppose. Most people are well aware that obesity brings with it health risks and a multitude of other inconveniences, and are quite capable of losing weight if they set their minds to it. Some will need, or will request, help. But national obesity strategies are generally job-creation schemes for state busybodies.
Nevill Rigby on CIF (concentrating on the alarming conclusions of the Health Survey for Englant) wonders if "publishing the health survey to remind us of the sheer weight of numbers at this time of the year is necessary in order to prick the nation's collective conscience to forego second helpings of turkey, forfeit that extra dollop of double cream on the plum pudding, and go easy on the booze." He laments that "year after year this statistical stocktaking reproaches our increasing girth, our unrestrained drinking habits, and our innate unwillingness keep up with the keep fit fanatics." But if today's reports are indeed seasonally intended, they are merely the modern equivalent of Scrooge's bah-humbuggery. Rigby also warns that:
Once the festive cheer has subsided, the Department of Health's New Year resolution is to urge us all to join in its Change4Life campaign and take heed of the government's guidelines on healthy eating, exercise and alcohol consumption.
Can't wait. Government advice is all very well, but at the end of the day it's simply advice from experts employed by the government; it isn't necessarily better than any other expert advice. In any case, the real "timebomb" is demographic, not health-related. Yes, treating diabetes and heart disease costs money. And yes, it's more convenient for the government if everyone is obeying their lifestyle advice, working long hours and not worrying their little heads about politics. But - and despite the "obesity epidemic" - projections continue to show an aging, increasingly healthy, increasingly long-lived population. Arguably, overweight people who die young of heart attacks are doing everyone else a favour.