Given the obsession with “elites” we’ve had lately from the press and politicians, it’s dismaying that, presented with a rare actual example — possibly the most perfect example — of elitist thinking, it meets groupthink rather than critical consideration.

As my esteemed colleague Guy Rundle correctly pointed out yesterday, the Grattan Institute’s proposal for a sugar tax this week — enthusiastically backed by Fairfax — is exactly the kind of elitist thinking that should now be sending up red flags given the populist surge rattling policymakers in Anglophone countries.

The case for a sugar tax — the Grattan report is only the latest call for such a tax, though, it should be said, it is the most coherent and well-argued — doesn’t have a whole lot of substance. In contrast to popular myths about an “obesity epidemic”, in fact obesity levels haven’t increased in recent years. What has increased instead is both life expectancy and our overall health, which mean Australians are among the healthiest and longest-lived people in the world. Nor is some “obesity epidemic” driving up health costs — growth in health costs for the last three years has been lower than over the last decade.

[Congratulations, Australia, you’re healthier than you think]

But pointing out the lack of a factual basis for such an intervention misses the point. Such paternalist interventions are more about an assertion of power by the middle-class public health lobby at the expense of low-income earners. The public health lobby has considerable resources (provided by taxpayers), a sympathetic media to amplify its message and progressive politicians to push its proposals. The low-income earners who make up the majority of the people targeted by proposed public health measures have little or no voice, are not consulted and are seen as unable to understand their own best interests; instead, middle-class bureaucrats and academics must make decisions for them.

The goal of such paternalism is a form of cloning: the transformation of low-income people with an unfortunate propensity to engage in disagreeable behaviours into acceptable imitations of public health lobbyists, academics and bureaucrats — healthy, well-balanced citizens who maximise their economic and reproductive value to capitalist society by refraining from engaging in behaviour deemed (currently) inappropriate.

That’s why a sugar tax is but one of an array of proposed measures from paternalists eager to reshape low income Australians into something more presentable. We already have a clumsy and inefficient GST exemption for fresh food (courtesy of Meg “Australia’s Nanny” Lees). Paternalist policies around income management and welfare cards have already been imposed on indigenous communities and there are plans to impose the same policies on other low-income earners. There’s the punitive tobacco tax designed to force smokers to quit, now bipartisan policy; various anti-alcohol lobby groups are pushing for an increase in alcohol taxes as well as measures to make it harder to purchase (the long-term goal being to make alcohol as socially unacceptable as tobacco); a South Australian public health lobbyist wants a junk food tax; the South Australian government has imposed a tax on all gambling occurring in the state.

But that’s the thing about nanny statism — it never stops. There’ll always be a new threat conjured up by lobbyists who make a living from researching and warning about health or social threats, partly because it keeps them employed, but also because it provides further opportunities for bureaucrats to impose controls. It’s like our endless rounds of counter-terror legislation, each one of which purportedly “gets the balance right” but which together ceaselessly advance state power at the expense of individuals.

[Sugar, oh, honey honey, I am the nanny state, and you’ve got me watching you]

While the mechanism may change, the same basic logic applies: the individual must be protected against her own judgement, because individual judgement is profoundly flawed. It’s here that the paternalists and Rundle, I think, agree, albeit from different perspectives — both feel that the concept of individual responsibility is a nonsense because individuals cannot hope to resist the blandishments of corporations devoting trillions of dollars to shaping and stimulating their needs and wants. However Rundle has a more rigorously systematic view, I suspect, in seeing individualism as a distraction from the core economic drivers of behaviour, a kind of neoliberal fiction that obscures how economic power shapes us.

But there’s nothing especially new about elites believing that the lower orders are too easily manipulated; indeed, it’s the oldest patriarchal myth — was not Eve, the original (and best) Other, the add-on to Adam, convinced by the serpent to consume that primitive sugar product, the apple of knowledge? Satan, who had a long career extending right up to recent centuries of tempting humanity, has now been replaced by the corporation as the great evil manipulating us, the beast who blandishments the public health industry alone is immune from, while the rest of us, sheeple all, succumb to its clever marketing, political lobbying and suborning of public debate.

[Hanson and the political business model of downward envy]

This ready dismissal of personal agency defies our own everyday experience: we learn from errors, adapt to new environments, mature, make decisions favouring long-term over short-term benefits, act selflessly — all despite apparently irresistible pressures from commercial interests. Recent corporate history is littered with examples of large, well-resourced corporations that failed to follow consumer trends, rather than successfully manipulating them (it’s a key reason why we no longer have a car industry, for example). But we refuse to extend our own experience of agency to others, preferring to see everyone else as fatally flawed and too easily swayed. It’s like how most drivers rate themselves above average, or how people believe alcohol consumption is getting worse while they themselves are drinking less (weirdly for people supposedly easily manipulated by corporations, Australians’ alcohol consumption has been falling steadily since the 1970s).

I must also disagree with Rundle on his preferred approach. Displaying an admirably consistent distaste for market-based approaches, he’d prefer direct regulation of Big Sugar’s products rather than price signals, which conjures the alluring image of a health bureaucrat in her office at Woden in Canberra issuing ukases about beverage cup sizes — and the inevitable gaming of such regulations that would follow.

Guy’s correct, though, in seeing this kind of progressive paternalism as feeding the populist resentment of perceived social controls — and the exploitation of that by right wingers (usually far more “elite” than any middle-class health academic) for their own gain. And those freedom lovers are happily silent as other, more important freedoms than the right to guzzle Coke all day are consistently curtailed — when they themselves are not the ones perpetrating those attacks. There are far worse forms of a nanny state than a sugar tax — and we’re already living in it courtesy of mass surveillance and terrorism laws.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW