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Who will save us from the well-intentioned do-gooders?

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”- C. S. Lewis

    Last week my colleague Ryan Bourne wrote on why, as Milton Friedman argued, policies must be judged by their outcomes, not their intentions. He referred specifically to the prospect of a compulsory Living Wage and calls for enforced equality of pay as examples of well-intentioned policy that can end up hurting those it purports to help.

    This phenomenon is not uncommon throughout public policy debate.  

    Today, road charity Brake has called for a ban on ‘hands-free’ phones from vehicles in the UK. They point to the fact that 98% of motorists were unable to divide their time on other tasks without it affecting their driving ability, increasing the likelihood of a crash.

    They start from the intention of increasing road safety. Will that be the outcome? In a time of ever-increasing smartphone use and out of office working, will people switch off their mobiles or ignore that call, or will they, having been convinced to ditch of the now superfluous hands free devices, just answer it?

    Brake are keen to inform us that more than 500,000 people had points on their licence for using a phone or being otherwise distracted. Rather than embrace technology that allows us to lessen the risks associated with using a phone – technology that will only become more advance with time – their response is instead to outlaw it, and inadvertently encourage more detrimental behaviour.

    Depressingly this is far from isolated in the world of do-gooders who know what is best for us.

    Campaigners seek to ban e-cigarettes because they may make smoking aesthetically acceptable again – despite the benefits a shift to using them could have for public health. The EU wish to outlaw 10 packs of cigarettes because youths tend to purchase them – regardless of evidence from countries telling us people tend to smoke more when forced to purchase packs of 20. Increases in alcohol taxation have pushed people away from pubs to supermarkets who can afford to sell at a lower price. Now punitive minimum pricing is proposed, despite scant evidence it would impact problem or habitual drinkers.

    Beyond the sphere of public health, there are those who passionately defend a leviathan BBC funded by a compulsory television tax to better ‘educate, inform and entertain’ people, blind to the fact the model is antiquated in an era of digital choice. Their intentions are honourable, their outcome is to prosecute over 3,000 people per week – about one in ten of all prosecutions in the UK – for refusal to hand over £145.50 per year.

    Or feminists, once of the ‘burn your bra’ mantra, who have gone full-circle to demand that women instead put their bra on. A dogma that once argued for liberation and a woman’s right to choose her destiny now argues for puritanism in banning page 3 and lads mags. The intention, to protect exploited women, the outcome, hatred of a woman’s right to choose how she uses her body, and often of the female form itself. 

    In The Liberal Mind, the great Professor Kenneth Minogue wrote that (modern) liberals are like St. George slaying dragons. They start out with honourable campaigns that need to be won. As they are victorious, they seek larger dragons to be slain. Eventually, with all the great beasts defeated, they hunt evermore for battles, unable to live without their dragons. Campaign groups often work like this. Having won victories on mobile phones, public smoking, and drinking, they continue to push for policies designed to restrict; their intentions may be good but their outcomes are often worse. In other areas, they may be unable to see their ways are antiquated or even come to argue against their own principles. 

    If this is how do-gooders seek to protect us, we should rightly be concerned which dragons they will turn their lance upon next.

    Lewis joined the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2011 with responsibility for social media and digital engagement.

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    Comments

    Anonymous - About 1609 days ago

    There is an interesting debate to be had regarding the issue of adult prostitution. There appears to be a growing body of opinion arguing in favour of the Swedish model under which those who pay for sex with consenting adults are criminalised. This belief is predicated on the belief that prostitution is, in and of itself exploitive and those who pay for sex are taking advantage of vunnerable people. J S Mill would, I am sure vigorously defended the liberty of consentiong adults to conduct themselves as they choose without societal or state intervention.

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