Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Nanny knows best

Polly Toynbee in the Guardian: The nanny state is the good state. A nanny is what every well-off family hires if it can afford it. So why do the nanny-employing Tories use the word as an insult?

Unfortunately for Polly, the analogy is false, because unlike a State, a family does not employ nannies for other families. The State, on the other hand, employs nannies for everyone, irrespective of individual needs and wants. This is a strange type of nanny.

Furthermore, her example could be taken to undermine her argument if we define the function of a nanny as satisfying the desires of parents as clients. They want a nanny to look after their children - the functions involved here are unambiguous: cooking safe food, not abandoning the child...etc. Therefore, for a nanny state to be the good state, it would have to satisfy the desires of its citizens. Or in large, heterogeneous societies, the desires of as many people as possible. The State that most clearly fulfils this function is the minimal State because whilst it is far from perfect, it attempts to satisfy no more than those desires (police, law, security...) common to pretty much everyone. Here’s what I wrote in my thesis:

The liberal State cannot be neutral between all preferences ( Tomasi), but in minimising the need for the State to take sides, its relative amorality is everybody’s second-best preference (Barnett, pp. 303 – 308).

‘Everybody probably has more to gain from a system in which his decisions would not be interfered with by the decisions of other people than he has to lose by the fact that he could not interfere in turn with other people’s decisions’ (Leoni p. 164).

Leoni's argument, powerful as I might find it, is unconvincing without empirical evidence, and for that evidence, see Thomas Sowell's latest book which proves what harm affirmative action has caused all over the world. Other similar examples here and here.
I am not saying nanny does not know best, only that the spheres in which nanny does know best, are for the most part no larger than a family, and certainly far smaller than a State with hundreds of millions of citizens.

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