The British government recently unveiled plans for a massive crackdown on "excessive drinking," particularly among the middle class. It will include all of the familiar tactics of public health officials: dire new warnings on wine bottles, public awareness campaigns, scolding from men and women in lab coats.
But the public response has been a bit more strident than what we're used to over here. Boris Johnson, a member of Parliament and a conservative journalist, writes in The Telegraph: "I am told that the drinks industry is in two minds. Some say capitulate and agree to the 'voluntary' code; some say fight and force (the government) to try to bring forward legislation. I say fight, fight, fight. Fight against these insulting, ugly and otiose labels."
Sarah Vine, writing in The Times, is even more passionate, decrying a:
"... pernicious new Puritanism that is slowly squeezing the life and soul out of Britain. Ye gods, as my grandmother used to say, almost all the middle classes have left is their glass of wine in the evening. ... Because let's face it, this Government is doing its best to make our lives about as miserable as any pox-raddled Hogarthian whore's. Utter the word 'middle class' in Whitehall and watch their greedy little pimps' eyes light up with pound signs. Behold the British middle-classes a docile, law-abiding army of tax slaves. Hurrah, let's blow it all on some more social workers in Newcastle."
As blessedly entertaining as all this is, some might wonder why the Brits are so exercised about a bunch of warning labels. After all, political correctness has been worse over there for quite a while. Police have been known to arrest school kids for insulting their friends. All of England is preparing for a smoking ban that will include "smoking police" making raids on establishments violating the law. The streets of Old Blighty are festooned with hundreds of thousands of closed-circuit television cameras. And, whereas once these cameras were used for anti-terrorism, police in some jurisdictions have actually outfitted them with loudspeakers so they can, like the voice of G-d, tell pedestrians to pick up their litter and generally behave like good "tax slaves." You'd think warning labels on vino would seem as uncontroversial as adding green vegetables to the prison cafeteria menu.
One answer might be that this is merely the straw that breaks the camel's already strained back. Another might be rage at a late hit from the exiting government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Another might be that the Brits can take "nanny state" intrusions in the name of law and order, but if you go after their booze, it's time for a glorious revolution. Yet another might be that Britain's underclass seems increasingly unredeemable, and rather than give up on it, the government feels the need to ratchet up the infantilization of the many in order to fix the few.
All of these, and many other interpretations, have merit. But there's another explanation with some salience for Americans bemusedly or enviously watching Britain turn into a penal colony with whacky TV and a line of heredity wardens called monarchs.
Britain still subscribes to a system where health care is for the most part socialized. When the bureaucrat-priesthood of the National Health Service decides that a certain behavior is unacceptable, the consequences potentially involve more than scolding. For example, in 2005, Britain's health service started refusing certain surgeries for fat people. An official behind the decision conceded that one of the considerations was cost. Fat people would benefit from the surgery less, and so they deserved it less. As Tony Harrison, a British health-care expert, explained to the Toronto Sun at the time, "Rationing is a reality when funding is limited."
But it's impossible to distinguish such cost-cutting judgments from moral ones. The reasoning is obvious: Fat people, smokers and soon drinkers deserve less health care because they bring their problems on themselves. In short, they deserve it. This is a perfectly logical perspective, and if I were in charge of everybody's health care, I would probably resort to similar logic.
But I'm not in charge of everybody's health care. Nor should anyone else be. In a free market system, bad behavior will still have high costs personally and financially, but those costs are more likely to borne by you and you alone. The more you socialize the costs of personal liberty, the more license you give others to regulate it.
Universal health care, once again all the rage in the United States, is an invitation for scolds to become nannies. I think many Brits understand this all too well, which is one reason why they want to fight the scolds here and now.