The Nanny State: To What Extent Should People Be Protected From Their Own Stupidity?

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Australian laws often seem bent at protecting people from themselves and are amongst the most extreme in the world when it comes to ‘nanny states.’

But to what extent should people be protected from their own stupidity? And to what extent should the whole community be forced to adhere to laws which are really aimed at controlling the behaviour of a minority?

There seems to be regulations here for everything, and while some regulations are obviously essential – how far is too far?

We have laws stating that we must turn up to vote, lifeguards have the authority to tell us where not to swim at the beach, pools in private backyards must be fenced off, and you can even be fined for crossing the road incorrectly.

We need to put on a helmet to go for a bike ride, and need council permission to chop down a tree in our own backyard.

Tourist are often confused when served alcohol in plastic cups on a night out, being refused shots after midnight, or not allowed to buy more than a certain number of drinks at a time (even if for a group of people) due to restrictive regulations.

There are things many of us do on a daily basis that you may not even know were against the law.

One measure that has in recent times gained much publicity are the changes to laws imposing 1:30am lockouts and no serving of alcohol after 3am in Sydney have often raised complaints from party-goers about how only the minority of patrons cause problems, while the restrictions ruin the fun of the majority of people just out to have a good time.

But if all these restrictions could cause one less tragic death due to alcohol-induced violence, would it be worth it?

Gambling, referred to by some as the stupid tax, can ruin marriages, relationships, careers and lives. But does the harm of the few who have a serious addiction outweigh the free choice of the rest of the population to gamble responsibly?

The idea of grown ups being so restricted in personal choices, and the right to make bad choices can at times border on the ridiculous.

Many of these laws have an admirable purpose – they aim to decrease the harm suffered, and the impact and cost of this harm on the community at large. But they are also chipping away at personal autonomy.

If surveillance cameras were introduced into every single room in every single home across Australia, there is no doubt domestic violence would go down, dramatically. But such an invasion of privacy is unthinkable, and nor should it be ever considered a practical step to take.

But the question is even more complex when the indirect consequences of these decisions are taken into account. Even if an individual hurts no one but themself, the healthcare system will often come into the equation. The costs to the community can be huge. Road crashes cost the community a lot, for example a fatality is about $5.8 million and a serious injury is $471,000.

With the current healthcare shortage of beds, who wants to be in a queue behind a line of self-inflicted sufferers?

Where should the line be on personal freedom to make dumb decisions? Many such laws unnecessarily restrict the personal freedom of average Australians. As is the case with every law which must strike a balance between two different values or principles, the key test is proportionality.

The question that should be asked, with every law that has the potential to infringe on individual freedom should be: does the harm that this law may inflict outweigh the good that it will do? Is the law reasonably necessary to achieve this purpose?

Laws that penalise individuals who don’t wear seatbelts probably pass the test. It is not a major inconvenience to most people and is a relatively simple step to take to protect passengers. But laws which intrude a lot more into people’s lives, and perhaps even cause financial expenses in order to comply, are not so easy to justify.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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