Nanny State's arthritic grip contains common good


A Senate Enquiry has been begun into laws forbidding behaviour that might better be left to individual responsibility. It will cover such things as marijuana use, cycle helmets, vaccination and gun laws. On such issues there is a kaleidoscope of different opinions fiercely contested and often changing.  

Bicycle helmetCycle helmets are a case in point. A cyclist since my youth, I was intensely annoyed when campaigners first tried to enforce cycle helmets. I loved the wind rushing through my hair, and believed my safety could be left to my responsibility.

Others might have wondered if I overestimated my sense of responsibility. It was hardly compatible with the practice of never applying the brakes when going down hills on country roads, or with the view that traffic rules applied only to cars, and that lights at night were a mere design feature.

After helmets became compulsory I first wore them reluctantly. But I soon came to look on those who went helmet-less with the censorious envy reserved for those who enjoy illicit pleasures of which we have reluctantly deprived ourselves.

I became committed to cycle helmets after being called to minister to a family in a hospital emergency ward whose son's face was totally unmarked, but who had suffered catastrophic brain damage. By then I had also ceased to see myself as indestructible.

My history suggests that we are more likely to feel the arthritic grip of the nanny state when we are prevented from doing what we want to do, and also that our resistance to law can run together with an inflated estimate of our own sense of responsibility. A regulatory framework that assumes we can all be trusted to act as responsible, ethical adults would be based on a false presupposition. Moreover, even the highest sense of responsibility will not always protect us from the consequences of our decisions.

Those who claim unfettered individual freedom will argue they are content to accept any consequences of their action, and should not be hindered. But in practice they will often not bear the consequences. If I am seriously brain-damaged as a result of not wearing a helmet, it will not be I who suffer grief. It will be my family and friends. My workplace will suffer the loss caused by my breaking of commitments.   

Nor will I carry the costs of keeping me alive, sustaining, sheltering and supporting me. The state will underwrite these services. I may resent the impositions of the Nanny State, but I can rely on the ministrations of the Nurse State in my need.

No matter how strong our libertarian bent, most of us would be outraged if people who did not wear helmets were denied entrance to hospitals, received no medical care and were deprived of income support after an accident. We would insist such care be available regardless of their behaviour.

This suggests it is illusory to see human beings as self-reliant, self-made individuals who shape their own lives and so should be free to act as they please. We are shaped by our relationships and interdependence with other people. Even the freedom we enjoy depends on our relationships.

We did not invent our bicycles, build our roads, schools or hospitals, make contracts with other responsible adults for our own birth and education; we receive all these things as gifts. The way in which we act then should be appropriately regulated to secure the common good. And that good, of course, includes our personal freedom in the context of our relationships with others in society.   

That means in practice that restrictions on personal freedom need to be shown to serve the common good. So enquiries that consider particular restrictions are worthwhile. They should consider the costs and the benefits in human terms to the individual and to society of restrictions.

In some cases, such as restriction on gun ownership and use, the case for tight regulation is close to self-evident. But here, as in other cases, the case for and against regulation must be based on evidence.

The most pressing questions about the Nanny State arise not out of the tension between individual desire and the good of society as a whole, but between the protection of individuals and the encouragement of social relationships.  

Detailed regulation of the handling of food for example, has reduced death and illness. But some regulations have also limited the capacity of voluntary agencies to feed the poor, and the capacity of poor immigrant groups to share their food at school fetes and other social functions. They consequently lose the opportunity to make connections and to feel proud of what they can give back to society.

Individual freedom must be considered in its context of human relationships.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image: Shutterstock

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Existing comments

When I see an interesting headline, my interest is piqued. I do see the point being made in this article. The Nanny State, although we rail against its desire to be our guardian, is essential for our well-being. Without this overarching benevolence, our relationships would be poorer. Having this stolid back-up allows great freedom. Yea for the Nanny State!

Pam | 02 December 2015  

If the state has got the right to tell people to put on a helmet when they cycle so that the community does not have to bear the cost of care of any brain injury resulting from an accident, then it also has the right to demand that they put on a condom when they have sex to save the community the cost of raising any children that would otherwise not be supported. Where does this end? I cannot agree with Fr Hamilton's premise against individual responsibility. If we protect people from the folly of their choices then we will create a nation of fools. I believe that we should support those in need, even from their own foolishness, through charity. The state does not deal in charity. Charity implies that something is freely given. The state takes by force. Further to this, many people are happy to outsource their social responsibility to the state. They reason that they pay their taxes and so the state will use those taxes to fund agencies that deal with whatever social problems. Thus they are absolved from giving their own time. History is replete with examples of people helping the needy before the state stuck its nose in.

Gerald Lanigan | 02 December 2015  

The whole point of this article is based on the assumption that cycle helmets make cycling safer, and like many assumptions, it is wrong, and helmets don't make cycling safer. All the long term, large scale, reliable research shows clearly that, at best, helmets don't reduce risk, and at worst they increase it. This isn't a case of the nanny state introducing laws to make us safer, it's ill informed politicians making snap decisions without the evidence to support them. You can check the facts at

Richard Burton | 02 December 2015  

...and yea for you too , Pam.?

Patricia Taylor | 03 December 2015  

Andrew , You are so right. I suspect those who decry the so called 'nanny state' would be the first to complain if by their ill considered selfish behaviour or actions they needed help from it as a result of an unforseen and life changing calamity . Certainly your point about the awful consequences of misadventure on family and friends is a timely reminder that we need rules to govern our behaviour . The latest horror in California really makes me thankful for John Howard's unpopular ( in certain circles) implementation of his gun control legislation. Sometimes we need to be protected against ourselves!

Gavin | 03 December 2015  

I do hope that ethicists or sociologists or writers (such as Fr Hamilton) appear before the Senate Enquiry into Personal Responsibility. It's interesting that as members of the moneyed class delight in being able to afford a Nanny to look after their inconvenient children (in the sense they are not yet responsible for their own actions), the term Nanny State has a pejorative meaning. Primary school teachers try to instil into their students that every choice has consequences. It is a basic dictum for class discipline. It should be a basic principle for responsible adult living. Alas both children and adults want to be naughty; to test the limits of those in authority. Let them face the consequences.

Uncle Pat | 03 December 2015  

Should we be complaining against the law on seat belts in cars?

Elizaberh | 03 December 2015  

Hi Patricia, I am a very proud nanny. But I would be correct in stating that my family is not my fiefdom. In fact, I am the reader of stories, hand holder and vegemite sandwich maker. Amongst other things.

Pam | 03 December 2015  

We must be consistent here. Basing law on evidence is correct, implying bike helmets prevent brain damage is not.

misty eyed | 03 December 2015  

"Individual freedom must be considered in its context of human relationships."....... The lower forms of life are the truly 'Sovereign Beings'. They hatch from their eggs and go their own way, independent of their progenitors. Higher forms of life, such as mammals are more dependent, needing some help and training to survive. Humans need years of help and training to develop their full potential, as noted 400 years ago by John Donne's "No man is an Island..." The new fad of 'Sovereign Persons' who want to ignore Government laws and community conventions is a retrograde step. As social beings we need to find our place and play our part, no more and no less, in the great Human Body, the Human Race.

Robert Liddy | 03 December 2015  

I'd go along with Mr. Hamilton's assertion if bicycle helmets truly did prevent brain damage but the reality is they're only good for up to 20kph. If you get shunted by a car doing 60kph, it's goodnight nurse regardless of whether you wear a helmet or not. As stated in the recent Senate enquiry, the probability of a cyclist being injured is less than that of pedestrians or car passengers so why aren't they "forced" to wear helmets? More people of dying of obesity and lack of exercise than from cycling so getting more people on bicycles will save a *lot* more lives than are presently lost. The more cyclists on the road, the safer cycling will become. How do you get more people cycling? Get rid of the helmet law and increase cycling infrastructure. But government won't do that because then they'd have to admit they were wrong and besides cyclists don't pay taxes, right?

Fred | 03 December 2015  

Gee I don't know where people are getting their facts from on bike helmet effectiveness. What about this article:

Frank S | 03 December 2015  

All fair enough - an important little discussion. Much less important but intensely irritating is the nanny state I find myself in when travelling as a passenger (not a customer) on Sydney Trains (the latest name) for our city and suburban system. The never-ending nanny nagging tells me not put my bag on a seat, to leave the train if not feeling well, to mind the gap when leaving, to remember that police are about 24 hours a day (I occasionally see them), etc, etc, etc. At nearly 80, I may be in my second childhood but even I don't need this nonsense and nuisance - and neither does anyone else.

John Bunyan | 04 December 2015  

Cyclists should wear helmets because at some stage or other they will need to wear something on their heads to protect their scalps from magpies. if you're going to have to pay for magpie protection, you might as well upgrade that protection to something you can use all year round to protect yourself from anything, such as road surfaces, that may be inimical to the dermal integrity of scalps.

Roy Chen Yee | 09 December 2015  

To assert that helmets effect no value when bike-riding is totally false. There is a vast corpus that attests to safety advantages in wearing a helmet. Commentators ought complete a serious program of reading on the topic prior to expressing a view.

Paul | 15 January 2016  

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