One of the key duties of the state is to protect its citizens. In modern times, however, it has become ever more popular for governments, under the guise of “protecting“ their citizenry “for their own good,” to pass all sorts of laws and regulations beyond that, taking away free choice from individuals. The absurdities go deeper when you think that you are mature (and old) enough to fight and die for your country, while at the same time not being old enough to make a conscious decision whether to drink and smoke or not. Sadly, this is the question no politician ever thinks to ask.
To “help” us become healthier and “choose” more wisely, the silver bullets governments use are increased taxation, advertising prohibition, selling restrictions and, in worst case, outright bans on certain products. This approach comes from a belief that the increased costs levied on the products in question will automatically decrease its consumption. Unfortunately, this belief tends to cause more harm than good.
To get a better understanding of the best and worst places to eat, drink, smoke and vape freely, the Brussels-based EPICENTER, led by Christopher Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs and with partners from all across Europe – including our Austrians friends from the Hayek Institute – have once more released the so-called Nanny State Index.
The Nordic-Baltic countries rank highest in the 2021 edition of the index when it comes to nanny state policies. On the other hand, Germany is the most consumer-friendly country, ranking lowest in all four categories of the index (food & soft drinks, alcohol, and nicotine), making it “the only country in the EU that could be described as smoker-friendly.” Although overall things are getting worse, not everything is bleak. “A few countries legalized home delivery for alcoholic drinks. Some countries, such as the UK, allowed more bars to serve drinks on the street. But, overall, the pandemic gave the nanny statists an opportunity to ruthlessly exploit.”
Alas, what we need to realize when looking at the overall situation, we see a constant expansion of the nanny state, and in turn increased prices at the cost of less freedom. So the question that needs to be asked is: who’s to blame? The EU is, of course, far from perfect. However, most of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of national governments. Although bans on menthol cigarettes are EU policy, it cannot be held accountable for the regressive taxation, draconian smoking bans, and excessive regulation of alcohol and food which play a bigger role in curbing our freedom and consumer choice.
Sadly, the benevolent busybodies don’t take into consideration that one cannot regulate or legislate morality, and a teenager’s life might be the best example of them all. Teenagers don’t have much money at their disposal, nor is alcohol legal for them. In many countries, the same goes for cigarettes. And yet, they still drink and smoke. Because the marginal propensity to spend on alcohol and cigarettes rises with higher income, teenagers consume relatively low-quality alcohol and cigarettes. Rising prices only shift the consumption from more expensive and higher quality to cheaper spirits and smokes. Thus, a policy intended to lower consumption leads the way for the exact opposite effect amongst one of the most vulnerable groups in society. Going back full circle, not only does it not solve the “problem’, increased taxation and nanny state policies may even further exacerbate it.
The policy categories comprising the index, just like any other policy, should be in the public interest. When it comes to ‘vices’, a tax policy that goes beyond covering the external costs of the consumption of the vice crosses the line where public interest meets tyranny. If lowering consumption of certain vices is indeed in the public interest, instead of focusing on things that can hardly be controlled, let alone measured, the EU and the domestic governments should change their approach. They should focus their energy on providing consumers with more information on the harmful effects of (over-)consumption, In essence, allow consumers to choose freely, while at the same time helping them make the best choices for themselves.