You are here:   Modern Life > Reconsidering the Nanny State

It can be a little embarrassing to own up to having had a nanny in childhood. The admission suggests both privilege and regression - as if one's younger self was cursed with a particularly infantile nature, requiring the services of both a mother and a paid help. It's therefore only natural to find that among the more pejorative terms one politician can use to tar another is to accuse her of being in favour of a "nanny state". What right-minded adult would defend such an odious concept, with its associations of government as a suffocating creature, looming over the hedgerows of the land, attempting to tie up one's shoe-laces and hector one to tidy the toys before supper? Should we not be adults by now? What mature person would willingly own up to day dreaming of the guidance of a nanny?

Even without the pejorative tone, there's a long tradition in political theory of a desire to get nanny out of the picture - and ensure that politicians, instead of attempting to hug and berate citizens, concentrate on minor, -morally neutral goals such as locking up criminals and protecting the borders. It has been the guiding theme of liberal politics for more than 200 years that governments should restrict their roles to minimising the harm that people can do to one another rather than attempt to save souls. They should not speak of loving or redeeming them. They should leave them to find their own way in peace. The contemporary liberal state follows Isaiah Berlin's famous ideal of "negative liberty", whereby government interprets its role in the most cautionary terms: it is an entity that prevents the grossest sources of harm but stands back from projects designed for the salvation of its people.

Liberal politics finds its greatest apologist in John Stuart Mill, who in 1859 published On Liberty, a ringing plea that citizens should be left alone by governments, however well-meaning they were, and not be told how to lead their personal lives. Mill argued that though "the ancient commonwealths" felt themselves -entitled to hold "a deep interest in the whole bodily and mental discipline of every one of its citizens", the modern state should as far as possible stand back and let people govern themselves. Like a partner in a relationship who begs to be given space, Mill -ventured: "The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good, in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it ... The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant."

View Full Article
Mark Griffiths
November 12th, 2009
9:11 AM
Excellent article on the 'nanny' in the nanny state. Interesting to see that it is tagged with the term 'political correctness'. I've thought of writing a book about PC, applying a similar analysis to your own - essentially, that PC has become a mediated misrepresentation of what it actually is. Wouldn't we all want a world in which people respected one another and chose not to be divisive and cause offence? The answer seems obvious, but you wouldn't believe it from what is written by even intelligent commentators in the media and parrotted by 95% of people you might talk to about life, as the 'problem' of our world.

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.