The former Nixon staffer Kevin
Phillips advanced the theory in one of his earlier books (his latest is American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money
in the 21st Century
) that the role of governments in economic markets has a
cyclical pattern. Periods of laissez faire are followed by years of regulation
then it all moves back to free markets unhindered by government controls. Free
market excesses lead again to intervention and so the process keeps

I found the argument persuasive
enough to have remembered it more than a quarter of a century later but I
thought there was a corollary in that government actions in social policy moved
in the opposite direction to their role in economic matters. Thus at a time when
politicians were not regulating business and markets they turned their attention
to controlling how individuals lived their lives.

That was certainly the case with
controls on tobacco. It was in the 1890s when capitalist robber barons were
running free that US governments first banned smoking in public places. Those
bans disappeared when the economy crashed and legislators turned their attention
to limiting corporate excesses in the cause of preventing a

The boom after World War I saw
politicians letting business rip as they turned to stopping people having a
drink. It took the Great Depression of the 1930s for the pendulum to swing and
end prohibition while giving government a major role again in matters

I do not pretend to have made a
major study of this theory of mine but I do recall that the abolition of
censorship in Australia coincided
with the period when government intervention in markets was at a
high point with the
then Country Party credo of protection for all. And today, when the free market
theories of economists are dominant, there is growing evidence of politicians
meddling more and more with individual freedoms.

Smokers were hit again with a return
of the very same restrictions as those in US states a hundred years previously.
The governing class, confronted with a smaller role in matters economic, is now
turning to attacking people for eating hamburgers. Despite alcohol consumption
being on the decline, the cries for warning labels and restrictions are
approaching temperance league levels.

And now it is s-x which is in the
sights of politicians. Big Brother John now wants to get rid of Big Brother on
television! “I think it is just a question of good taste”, Prime Minister
Howard told Macquarie Radio. “I don’t like heavy-handed regulation. The business
community is always saying to me: ‘Let us self-regulate.’ Well here’s a great
opportunity for Channel Ten to do a bit of self-regulation and get this stupid
program off the air.”

Yet the incident that Mr Howard was
talking about was not even seen on television and probably never will be. What
happened in the house on the Gold Coast at 4.17 the other morning could only be
seen by someone watching a blurry picture on the internet. Compared with other images that can
be accessed on the net, this Big Brother incident was very mild

Along with millions of other
Australians I don’t need the Prime Minister to tell me what is stupid. I see
enough politicians on television to make up my own mind about

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey