Christopher Snowdon on the Moral Argument for Choice & Personal Responsibility


Christopher Snowdon’s 2015 speech at the Palace of Westminster for the Conservatives for Liberty lobby evening: Forgive Us Our Trespasses: The Moral Case for Choice & Personal Responsibility 

When I think about personal liberty and the nanny state; I think of first and foremost of the so-called “public health” lobby. They seem to be the lynchpin of most of the lifestyle regulation that we undergo or they would like us to undergo these days.  I have been thinking increasingly that we will soon reach the moment when the public health lobby finally jumps the shark. When things get so entirely ridiculous that people start ignoring everything they say and some kind of backlash will start to build up.

For it must now be clear to everybody that this is endless; there is no way of appeasing these people. It’s not as if they’ll say: ‘Cigarette taxes are high enough now, so we’ll stop that war’ or ‘we’ve got enough places that people can’t smoke, so we can stop that war’, or ‘alcohol taxes are high enough’ or ‘we’ve restricted advertising of junk food and alcohol enough’.  It just pushes on and on and on with tedious predictability.

The claims that have been made have become so extreme and, again, so continuous.  There was a week last month where literally every single day there was another announcement about something that was going to give you cancer. It started off with the big WHO thing about bacon and sausages, they were now to be put in the same group as plutonium. Yes, literally, I’m not making that up. The following day it was ‘toast gives you cancer’. Then it went back to meat, particularly steak, where it was said that steak is so carcinogenic that even eating one per week was going to kill you.

The think tank Chatham House then called for a “meat tax”; an entirely predictable policy. They weren’t doing it, they said, on vegetarian grounds or even wholly on public health grounds, but of course on climate change grounds, and how awful it was that people didn’t know the damage that meat does, and the external costs, and blah, blah, blah…

All of the same arguments are applied to fizz drinks, and tobacco, and e-cigarettes; it’s all the same rhetoric. Time and time again, they say ‘okay, we haven’t go public support for this, but with a bit of momentum, if we educate them, we can get things moving and, of course, we will need government intervention such as taxation and restricted advertising’, and all the rest of it.

We also saw, and this wasn’t well reported at all, a report that said fruit juice was a gateway drug towards fizzy drinks. Apparently it engenders a taste for sweetness early on in a child’s life and this, naturally, leads them on to the hard stuff…. Like full sugar Coke.

There was article published in a journal last week that finally came out and said it. It was ‘the reasons why we should ban cigarettes’; so full prohibition is on the cards. It’s been bubbling up for a few years. I think we will see more and more people speaking openly about it and saying that the obvious conclusion to this crusade against smoking is to just to say ‘let’s ban tobacco’. Of course it is. It’s the logical conclusion to all of these crusades.  You can’t just say ‘smoking is terrible, it causes cancer, but we’ll just restrict the advertising’, it’s bound to lead, if they get enough successes, for a call for them to be banned entirely. If that’s the kind of person you are, why wouldn’t it?

There was ‘cheese is as addictive as Heroin’. I don’t know if you saw that one? Supposedly peer reviewed, solid scientific stuff. Earlier in the year there was the claim that there was ‘no link whatsoever’ between physical activity and obesity. No link whatsoever! A calorie is not a calorie, you cannot burn it off, therefore the only thing to do is regulate the fizzy drink industry, because they’re the real culprits. Nothing at all to do with people sat around all day long.

When we got to the point of “cheese as addictive as Heroin” and “toast causes cancer”, I thought that this might just burn itself out. I thought that maybe people on our side of the argument who want to see an end to this really only need to do is amplify what’s being said. It’s not like we even need to fisk it! Or critique it. We just say: ‘these people think that cheese is as addictive as Heroin and sausages are like Plutonium!” We just have to make sure that the general public know they are saying these things and that, of course, they want higher taxes and advertising bans and all the rest of it, and it should burn itself out, and perhaps all we need do is sit back and laugh.

I am, unfortunately, not convinced anymore that this is true. Because if you look at some of the kind of things that have happened in the last few years, in terms of legislation, and you look at some of the things that are in the pipeline; they were all things people laughed at initially. Plain packaging for cigarettes was considered a stupid and silly idea. People might not have had a strong view one way or another, but it was considered kind of silly and desperate; but that’s now going to be the law in this country.

In New York they’ve started banning people from smoking in their own houses, if it’s publicly funded housing. They claim it’s because second hand smoke literally goes through walls but actually it’s just naked paternalism. These things would’ve been considered ridiculous not so long ago.

In Brighton, and I happen to live not far from Brighton (because I’m a masochist), we’ve not only got a “voluntary” smoking ban on the beach, we’ve also got – thanks to Jamie Oliver and the Director of Public Health down there – we’ve also got a “voluntary” sugar tax. Okay, we can argue about whether that’s actually happening or not, considering it’s fictitious, it’s in the minds of a few councillors and Jamie Oliver, but these things are moving ahead; without very much resistance. Without the kind of resistance you might expect when somebody says ‘we’re going to have an imaginary ban on smoking on a beach’.

I find it risible, but clearly not everybody does. So I don’t think we can necessarily assume that, say, a sin tax on fruit juice because it’s a gateway to fizzy drinks is as ridiculous as it might sound. I certainly don’t think that some sort of restriction on red meat is as ridiculous as it sounds. All they have to do, bearing in mind this is a global crusade, is they just have to prey on weak and vulnerable health ministers somewhere, in some country in the world, and they will then “lead the way”.

It was Australia for plain packaging, it could be Ireland or Scotland, and we have our own health ministers who are very inexperienced and ambitious people who are very open to persuasion and getting their name in the paper. They just need one or two people who are prepared to do something, it doesn’t matter where it is. In Berkley, California, they introduced a soda tax. Apparently they are “leading the way” with that. Hungary have got a fat tax of some sort, a tax on confectionary… let’s follow Hungary! When have we ever, with the greatest of respect to the people of Hungary, when have we ever followed Hungary’s lead!?  Or Berkley California’s lead? Or even Australia’s lead?

That’s how it goes. Get someone to set the pace, they get lots of attention, and other politicians around the world say ‘they got a lot of attention by doing this’ and they can say ‘we’re being very brave, we’re standing up for health and standing up against industry!’ That’s how it spreads, regardless of how utterly ridiculous the ideas may be.

My message to you is: laugh, by all means, but there is a time to stop laughing and fight, or fight harder than we have done in the past. Because the dreams of these people, who let’s never forget are a small minority – albeit a state funded one – are something akin to a nightmare of anyone who believes in a free society.

Christopher Snowdon is Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @cjsnowdon

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty