Monday, July 20, 2015

The New Puritans and their vision of Utopia

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 15.)
New Zealanders are under siege, bombarded almost weekly with warnings that we’re killing ourselves, either by drinking too much, eating the wrong food or being too fond of sugar.
Last week a coterie of academics from Otago, Auckland and Oxford universities called for special taxes on fatty and salty foods and government subsidies on fruit and vegetables.

Luckily for them, they wouldn’t have to work out the nightmarish regulatory details such a proposal would entail, nor pay for the army of public servants that would be required to administer it. Not their problem.
A couple of weeks earlier, at a conference in Wellington, the head of preventive and social medicine at Otago University, who also happens to be a campaigner for stringent liquor controls, recited a slew of scary statistics linking alcohol consumption with cancer.

Professor Jennie Connor said that for women, cancer was the most common fatal consequence of drinking, accounting for 44 per cent of all alcohol-related deaths. In 2007, according to her figures, 243 cancer deaths were attributed to drinking.
And just to frighten people more, she said that about one-third of alcohol-related cancer deaths occurred among women who had fewer than two drinks a day.

In other words, forget all that reassuring stuff about drinking in moderation. There’s no “safe” level of consumption.
Now I admit I’m just a dumb layman, but loose phrases such as “attributed to drinking” and “related to drinking” arouse my journalist’s scepticism. They seem to fall short of a definitive statement that these women got cancer and died specifically as a result of drinking.

Besides, I wondered how doctors could be so sure that it was alcohol that caused these fatal cancers and not some other factor – or, more likely, combination of factors. How can they so confidently rule out genes, for example, or general diet and lifestyle?
And why don’t academic researchers also mention, just to prove they’re not ideologically biased, that many people drink in moderation throughout their lives and are still healthy in their 80s and 90s? That might present a slightly more balanced picture.

It would help, too, if the journalists reporting alarmist statements about diet and alcohol were a little less credulous. But we’re conditioned to defer to people with titles like “professor” and to assume they speak with Olympian authority and strict scientific neutrality. Their statements are generally reported unquestioningly.
Attempts by public health “experts” to scare us into changing our behaviour, and to bludgeon politicians into passing restrictive laws,  bear a striking similarity to the moral crusade waged by prohibitionists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Many of those earlier crusaders were driven by religious convictions, but it’s not religion that motivates today’s academics. There may be a quasi-religious intensity in the way they push their message, but their motives are more ideological than spiritual.
I suspect they have a vision of a perfect society, one that would be achievable if only people knew what was good for them. But ordinary people are greedy, stupid and blind to reason, so other solutions must be found – coercion by legislation, for example, and dissuasion from bad habits through the introduction of higher taxes on products like liquor, sugar and fatty foods, or restrictions on marketing, purchasing age and trading hours.

And their ideal of a Utopian society doesn’t always involve denying people things. It can also mean giving them something, whether they ask for it or not.
In one of the more extreme ideas to emerge from Dunedin-based academics, it was recently proposed that all teenage girls should be fitted with contraceptive implants or intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) before they become sexually active.

The purpose, its backers say, would be to reduce teenage pregnancy rates. But according to a study by another university, Waikato, these are coming down anyway, and have been since 2008.
Under the proposal, girls would automatically be given long-term contraceptives unless they chose to opt out – “in the same way as children are vaccinated,” as one of the idea’s backers helpfully put it. He didn’t say at what age he thought this should happen: 12, perhaps? 13?

This is a form of social control that reads like something out of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World. It would be another step in the creeping intrusion of the state into areas of life where people have traditionally made their own decisions.
The idea also has a moral dimension in that it suggests the liberated ideals of the swinging sixties are alive and well in the universities. By assuming that it’s normal for girls to become sexually active while young, it would effectively encourage them to do so. Liberals are very good at ignoring the damage done by the sexual revolution.

It’s tempting to dismiss the backers of such ideas as control freaks, but perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume their intentions are good.
My problem with such people is twofold. First, they believe that the perfect society is attainable only through the intervention of the state, and that this justifies laws that impinge heavily on individual choice. And second (which is closely related), they have no trust in the wisdom of ordinary people. They seem incapable of accepting that most of us are capable of behaving sensibly and in our own best interests without coercion or interference by governments and bureaucrats.


Mark Hubbard said...

Yes to your last paragraph, Karl, but I'd also go further in that these academics are also making (for us un-self-aware plebs) the equation that a long lived low calorie life is better than a happy one. They don't get to be arbiters of my happiness (nor the state).

*And* that aside, I love food and booze, a meal out with friends is just the best thing, but because of that I did get way too heavy. I'm 50 in October and I came to it myself, I didn't have to be told, my weight was adversely affecting my happiness, because I like to walk and kayak and, well, feel healthy. Thus if I didn't shift my weight by 50, I might never. So, by self-discipline, nine months ago I(we) decided - based on Mrs H's observations of some friends - to instil a mild brand of paleo (take out the sugar intake and the grains, but keep dairy). That, combined with curbing the booze over the week, has lead to me dropping 22 kgs. I'm from 105kg down to what I find for myself is a perfect weight of 83kgs. I feel great now, lots of energy, got my flat stomach back, et al. Note throughout we never stopped dining out, just implemented the diet at home, and now I'm at a good place, even at home I'm putting back in some grains, but watching the scales. I aim to live between 83 and upper limit, 86 kgs.

Which leads to an interesting point: our paleo diet is decried by these academics, and meat would be taxed by them even more out of reach than it already is. But it's a diet that worked for me, whereas restricting calories, etc, never did. In fact was hopeless. So it works for me (and Mrs H).

Over this time we've read a lot on food science, and these academics cannot claim to knowing it all, or being right. The science and data is not that exact.

Although I'm always at pains to point out the fact they might be wrong in the science is not why they should stop trying to use the state into bullying individuals to adopt their notion of diet - because tax can't do that, only self discipline, self-awareness, and self-responsibility can - but they should stop this approach because taxes on food choices are taxes on choice, period, and that's a philosophical attack on my volition (and hence liberty). They need to stop these constant attacks. Publish their science, surely, I love to read and get informed, but never bully me.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Karl

Your article raises some important questions around ‘what it means to be human’. There appears to be an implicit acknowledgement that something is ‘broken' in the human condition that results in ‘less than ideal’ outcomes for individuals and societies. Furthermore, many people and groups feel compelled to put this situation right.

These ‘less than ideal’ outcomes might be addressed by the malevolence of ISIS at one end of the spectrum through to the presumed benevolence of the ‘fat police’ at the other. Both groups identify different problems, both have different solutions, however the goal is the same – an earthly utopia wherein ‘right living’ dwells.

Here in the Western world we have largely given up on hoping for the ‘Kingdom of God’ to be established through the agency of the Gospel, and have set about achieving it by other means. Initially we trusted science to usher in a world free from sickness, disease and poverty. When that failed, we fell back on education to provide the needed social uplift. When the masses failed to respond appropriately we resorted to salvation through legislation; the ‘fat police’ being the latest manifestation of this quasi-religious ideology.

In a more recent and dangerous manifestation, we have moved beyond the mere insistence upon ‘correct behaviour’ to the requirement for ‘correct thought’. Nowhere was this more evident than the forced resignation of Brendan Elk as CEO of Mozilla because he held the view that marriage was between one man and one woman, an opinion that was publically upheld by President Obama during the term of his presidency, until his more recent epiphany. Conversely, no one is suggesting that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple should resign because his homosexuality would prevent him from working fairly and equitably with Christian employees.

While the fat police can be ignored, even ridiculed, the thought police are a more sinister proposition whose zeal matches the Islamic State for its intensity. While Brendan Elk was allowed to retain his head, they thought nothing of destroying his livelihood.

Jigsaw said...

But this is of course what socialists want- they dream of a utopia and believe that it will eventually come true-carefully ignoring of course all of the times it's been tried and has failed. They believe that humans can be tailored to fit the socialists ideal. Problem is of course that human are not uniform and the very diversity of the human race ensuring that it won't happen. It's no coincidence that the philosophy of the left often matches that of the religious community. Most annoying perhaps is the 'just be like me' attitude many have. I suspect that most new Zealanders are now well over Doug Selwood and rest and whatever they say is largely ignored. Thank good ness for that. Self control and being responsible for your own diet and other aspects of the way you live have no place in the left belief system.

Richard McGrath said...

Good point you make there, Brendan, about what it means to be human. In particular, we have the right to make mistakes - and we tend to learn from them, and make better choices in the future, if we have to wear the consequences.

Mark - well done with the weight loss. Earlier this year I followed an Atkins-style diet (low carbs), got regular exercise and lost 10 kg over a month. A lot of the previous hysteria over consumption of dietary fat has been exposed as completely wrong: fat in moderation is fine, in fact it's beneficial in terms of ensuring adequate intake of fat-soluble vitamins. So even the 'experts' re human sometimes!