Risen eyebrows, perplexed faces: some visitors at The Society Club on Cheshire Street in Shoreditch, London looked slightly confused at the sight of the city’s very first Nanny Store on April 20. For one day only, the student group Students for Liberty and the Consumer Choice Center took on themselves to ridicule the creeping interventionist nature of what is often referred to as the Nanny State: the overregulation of people’s habits.
Chocolate bars, cans of soda, crisps: all plain packaged and covered in warning labels such as “Chocolate seriously increases your risk of obesity,” the products sold at the student’s Nanny Store surely come off as patronizing. “I wouldn’t want to live in country where this would be real,” says one customer.
“It was our goal to start the Nanny State Store in London to mock the increasing level of lifestyle regulations being passed by all levels of government. Students For Liberty has done this successfully around the world, and we wanted to bring the fight to the UK,” says Alex Christakou, local coordinator with Students For Liberty
“The store is what every corner shop in the UK would look like if our finger-wagging public health tsars and policy wonks had their way,” says Consumer Choice Centre’s managing director and German health economist Frederik Roeder.
And indeed, what might have seemed grossly exaggerated 20 years ago now seems like overt government policy: the United Kingdom introduced legislation to implement plain packaging of tobacco products and many European countries have already established sugar taxes. Ten years ago, the French legislature (which now also bans ads for tanning beds and soda refills in restaurants) decided to force companies to put disclaimers under their ads for food and drinks, telling people to eat healthily and to exercise more.
Excessive alcohol duty is contributing to the relentless decline of the pub – the focal point of our communities’ social life. The government pioneered graphic warnings on cigarettes in 2008 and is currently stuck in a legal battle with tobacco companies over plain packaging. Only last month, it was reported that major chocolate producers are reducing the size of their bars by 20 percent to meet new government targets for sugar content.
The plain packaging legislation in particular can have severe unwanted consequences, as it eases the work of counterfeiters. In Australia, which introduced plain packaging for tobacco products in 2011, fake cigarettes have seen an increase of 60 percent within two years. In the United Kingdom, these counterfeit products generate almost $55 million a year.
Once given into the Nanny State logic, regulation of people’s personal habits can easily spin out of control. Instead of falling into the same trap of over-regulating that which should not be regulated, namely personal preferences, Europe should choose a policy that treats citizens as responsible adults. Adults can make informed choices about their own lives, and even if those choices might not be the most informed ones in the case of every individual, they remain superior to the uninformed choice of a privileged few at the top.
Students for Liberty’s #NoNanny activism is already extending all around Europe, with thousands of students waking up to the overprotection that their local governments (and the European Union) are trying to impose on them. The activists in the Nanny-Store in London were confident:
“The time of the Nanny-State is over, liberty rules!”
Bill Wirtz is a Young Voices Advocate and a Law student in France. He blogs in four languages and his articles have been published in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner and The American Conservative.