One of the most dangerous fallacies commonly encountered in democratic politics is the idea that there exists a non-ideological, objectively correct way to rule over people. This notion finds its most receptive amongst political elites, where it manifests as technocracy: the flattering, alluring, and poisonously undemocratic notion of government by ‘experts’.
I have touched on this subject a couple of times before when discussing the bizarre modern tendency to set judges on a pedestal and, by sincerely advocating the elevation of their opinions over the will of our elected representatives, treat them as if they had access to some sort of revealed truth. But advocates of judicial rule will have to up their game considerably if they are to match the achievements of the public health movement.
Public health is the most astonishingly effective technocratic project that I can think of in the modern world. It is a doctrine so broadly embedded in our ruling elite that most of them probably don’t realise that it is a doctrine at all. Bedecked in the vestments of science and “evidence based policy making”, it provides a 21st Century justification to very 19th Century attitudes towards the proper relationship between rulers and ruled. You can read more about how this is done in this IEA report.
In light of this week’s attempt to ban smoking in London parks (happily rejected by Boris Johnson) it is worth reminding ourselves both of the scope of the public health movement’s ambitions, for the sake of those who have been blasé about the targeting of smokers, and of its true nature as a political movement.
In this and a companion article I will attempt to set out first why the public health crusade was never going to stop end with smoking, and second why it is not justified in persecuting tobacco in any case.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that public health has no regard for individual choice. As a movement which measures its success largely in averaged outcomes and national statistics, its focus is not on minimising harm to third parties or helping individuals to make informed choices – although it will employ those arguments – but on controlling people to force its desired outcomes.
Boris’ quaint notion that there is no justification in preventing him lying on the grass with a cigar because he was harming nobody but himself will cut no ice with the public health movement. It’s bad for his health, so it should be stopped. Many, probably most, public health activists make no secret of their intention to prohibit tobacco.
But their ambitions are not limited to tobacco. Some months ago there was an outbreak of press hysterics about sugar, the ‘new nicotine’. This should have surprised nobody. There was always going to be a ‘new nicotine’, just as when sugar taxes have tripled the price of a Yorkie bar and we’re drinking cola from olive-green ‘plain cans’ with pictures of clogged arteries on them there would be a ‘new sugar’.
For years it has suited both sides of the public health debate to pick on cigarettes. Lovers of booze, food, or idleness could pretend that there was some particular wickedness in tobacco that warranted making a special case of it, whilst public health activists could establish useful precedents to wield against fresh targets when the time came.
Come that time has. There are already calls for sugar taxes, and along with calls for a ban on alcohol advertising it is not hard to envision the Coca Cola Santa appearing as strange a cultural phenomenon a generation hence as the Marlboro Man does today. Is it really less wicked or ridiculous, if you accept the logic, for Coca Cola to sponsor the Boris Bikes than for Marlboro to sponsor sports teams?
Proof of the sheer breadth of the public health movement’s ambitions can be found in Lord Darzi’s call for public spaces to be turned into what one writer describes as “theatres of health, where children only see physically beneficial activities”.
Of a piece with the smoking ban and other setbacks for freedom of expression, this marks the slow transformation of our public spaces from common areas where free people are expected to rub along and tolerate each other into government spaces where citizens must publicly conform to the state’s virtues, which now come flavoured with a slightly Fascistic* emphasis on physical vigour.
But this truly creepy authoritarianism is seldom called out as such because the root justification of the public health movement, the concept of “preventable death”, is a work of totalitarian genius. But that, as well examining the idea that physical health is more important than individual choice, is a subject for another time.
*Capital F, used accurately rather than pejoratively.
Edit: To be clear, arguments like “the NHS can’t afford to let you smoke” will be addressed in part two. I have not overlooked or avoided them, so please don’t feel compelled to make them in the comments.