The Daddy State

Here’s my talk from the recent Battle of Ideas festival session — Kindergarten culture: why does government treat us like children? — which some readers may find interesting. Some context: it begins with a reference to the proposal to ban smoking in public parks in Britain.


The assumption in arguments to ban smoking is that smoker and non-smokers cannot negotiate between themselves. The no smoking sign when it is required by law then, is functionally equivalent to a no thinking sign.

I can see why some people might find that claim far-fetched. It’s not a huge inconvenience to say, ‘you have to go over there to smoke’. Smoking is smelly, after all.

Banning things like smoking may seem trivial, but underpinning the banning is a fundamental shift in political culture that can be seen more broadly, operating at different levels of society, finding different expression in various aspects of public and private life.

My interest is in debates about the environment, and the political ideas which underpin those debates. I don’t think it’s enough to take the interventions we’re talking about – that treat adults as children — at face value, as face-value treatments of real problems.

For example: I wasn’t surprised to see that Alan Johnson MP had written an article in the Guardian called ‘If I were king for a day, I would ban coca cola’. That company, he believes, forces people to drink sugary pop. “My power allows me to save adults from themselves”, he said “to push them towards healthier beverages such as rooibos tea and mango juice”.

When Sir Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society was asked by Prospect magazine what he would do if he ruled the world. He said that “Only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely”.

REES: “Space-ship Earth is hurtling through space. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their entire life-support system is vulnerable to break-downs. But there is no ‘captain’ —no authority to safeguard the planet’s future.”

So I believe the premise of both Rees and Johnson’s positions is roughly the same: if we’re not even capable of deciding what to drink, how can we possibly take part in big decisions about the environment, or the management of the economy?

If it were only Martin Rees or Alan Johnson saying it, it would be easier to take their arguments at face value. But every political institution seems to be making the same order of claim.

On Rees’s view, democracy is not a sufficiently capable captain of “spaceship earth. It’s not enough for Rees that we should decide who the captain should be, and what his standing orders are. The public are simply not competent to make that choice. They lack the knowledge, expertise, and intelligence to make choices about their government.

What I think is going on here in political terms is that rather than seeking a mandate from the public, political authority increasingly turns to researchers, doctors, scientists and special interest groups. It is from them we get the claim that sugar is like crack cocaine, and that the planet is like a spaceship without a captain, careering towards its doomsday.

Researchers are commissioned to identify risks – even the most theoretical risks – give power to arguments for something to be done, and for new political organisations to see that something is done.

Nicholas Stern for example, author of the Stern Report on the economics of climate change, which set the ground for much UK climate policy, claims that ‘policy making is usually about risk-management’.

Stern gives the game away. Back when people were mostly able to manage their own exposure to risk, “policy makers’ used to be called ‘politicians’, and policy-making was called politics.

But politics has been hollowed out in this new political settlement and debates descend to the parent-child or doctor-patient metaphors because these are the zero-level of dependent relationships. And this is all about creating dependent relationships, rather than relationships based on assent, or consent, by willing, engaged subjects.

In conclusion then, I don’t think we should take the attempt to eliminate risks from public and private life at face value. Risk Society, as it was conceived by Ulrich Beck and Blair’s favourite sociologist, Anthony Giddens has been used as a political instrument, not to mitigate risk.

That’s not to say that risks do not exist. They certainly do. But under the logic of Risk Society, the more the ordinary adult’s faculties are diminished, so the greater the risk they are exposed to appears to be, and so the greater the imperative for the government to intervene becomes.

4 thoughts on “The Daddy State”

  1. The whole aim of practical politics is to make people dependent on the government and in a democracy preferably you political party. The best way to do this is through perceived problems or even better still a crisis. If there are none then they must be invented, for only then will the populace clamor to be led to safety thus giving you control.

    And control when all is said and done is the name of the game. There are untold example throughout history from which to draw this conclusion.

    Politicians who are not looking for power and control are a very rare breed indeed.

  2. I intensely detest others making risk decisions for me, I wear a seatbelt or a helmet on my motorcycle, but detest being told I have to by law, it is my choice, and will not involve harm to others, so I should be free to choose, I think if you have designated non smoking areas, you should also have designated smoking areas.
    Actually I never drink soda’s but would protest loudly if anyone tried to ban them.
    I have no objection to people advising me on what is healthy or safe, and as long as they do not try and coerse me into following their advise.

  3. Because smoke operates through Brownian motion, it really is not adequate to have designated smoking areas near non-smoking areas unless they are contained and filtered.

    The freedom to smoke should not affect my freedom not to breathe secondary smoke. The idea of “negotiation” between smokers and non-smokers is risible if they are strangers. What does a non-smoker do if told to “eff off” ?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *