NS Essay - When it comes to family, sex, food and booze, people hate being told what to do

Ministers should ignore the "nanny state" taunts. They may face opposition at first but, as drink-dr

In SW1, everyone is talking about responsibility. The Prime Minister peppers his speeches, especially those on health issues, with a call for greater individ- ual responsibility. Michael Howard declares that "there is no freedom without responsibility" and promises to protect the British people from being "nannied or over-governed". At Christmas, Malcolm Wicks, the minister for pensions, urged young people to spend less money on "alcohol, CDs and DVDs" in order to save responsibly for their retirement. Once we had a minister for fun; now we have one against it.

Drinking, eating, exercise, driving, sex: all in need, it seems, of a good dose of responsibility. Corporations proclaim it, ministers exhort it, and social commentators bewail its absence. In a few weeks, the government's Strategy Unit will issue a report on the topic. Derek Wanless's review of health spending will follow, pointing out that large swathes of the NHS are treating "lifestyle diseases" that result from smoking, poor diets and lack of exercise.

Labour triangulated the responsibility debate in employment and penal policy a decade ago. The New Deal, explicitly based on the marriage of rights and responsibilities, demands authentic efforts to seek work in return for assistance and benefits. David Blunkett's scheme to make offenders pay into a fund for the victims of crime is the direct descendant of "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime".

But it is now clear that in many other areas of civic life and government policy, the degree to which individuals both take on and live up to their responsibilities is becoming increasingly important. Health, parenting and saving are the three most pressing issues. If people don't look after their own health, children or retirement, the state can do precious little except pick up a few of the pieces.

It is therefore territory that no government - or, at least, no responsible government - can avoid. The debate does not necessarily fall along party lines: there are plenty of social conservatives on both sides of the Commons who are worried about declining levels of responsibility. Some Downing Street people are terrified even to discuss the issue for fear of leaving themselves open to the "nanny state" charge. It is to the government's credit, then, that it is enjoining the debate - and it will be a good test of the media's responsibility when they come to respond.

But the argument is not a simple one of pointing to examples of irresponsibility and urging stronger moral fibre. For some things, many people simply refuse to accept responsibility. For example, three-quarters of us think it is the state's responsibility to "provide a decent standard of living for the old", an attitude that helps explain many people's paltry pension provision. Here, the government - in my view rightly - wants to send a message that we should recognise far more individual responsibility than we do.

In other areas, people readily acknowledge responsibility but fail to live up to it. While clearly (and rightly) expecting the state to care for the sick, the majority of us believe it is an individual's responsibility to eat a balanced diet and take exercise. The tennis-playing Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said recently that "far too many people are doing far too little activity" and must "take more responsibility for their own well-being". Fair enough - except that most of us already know we should go running and cut out the cookies. The trouble is, we don't. Weakness of will and short-term time horizons are part of the problem: "I know I shouldn't, but . . . " Surrounded by opportunities for a lazy lifestyle, most of us follow Oscar Wilde's dictum that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.

These areas are less about responsibility than about behaviour change - and Labour policy wonks need to be careful not to confuse the two. People are perfectly capable of making choices that they know to be irresponsible. The challenge is to ensure that the context within which choices are made maximises the chances of a good outcome: in R H Tawney's terms, to make "the better choice the easier choice". Policy can tilt incentives - by taxing cigarettes and giving tax breaks to health clubs, for example. But it can also encourage the growth of what the Oxford don Avner Offer calls "commitment vehicles" - mechanisms that help people to lock themselves into patterns of behaviour which they want to pursue but often lack the self-discipline to manage alone.

At a trivial level, running buddies perform this function. They turn up at the door, ready to go, when you would otherwise jog to the sofa. On a larger scale, the education and health systems can offer commitment vehicles, through contracts or action plans. School-pupil contracts do appear to raise standards, simply by increasing the sense of commitment to the goals agreed to. People frequently join savings plans with penalties for early withdrawal as a way to force themselves to put money aside. And some alcoholics take a drug that will make them violently ill if they touch a drink. These "pre-commitment" devices are modern equivalents of Ulysses ordering his sailors to tie him to the mast to avoid the lure of the Sirens' song and telling them: "If I beg you to release me, you must tighten and add to my bonds."

While there are some areas where we are happy for the government to enforce strict standards, these are typically those in which other people are put at risk - such as from drink-driving or dangerous dogs. And resistance to compulsion in fiscal areas, such as pensions, is fairly weak. When it comes to family, sex, food, booze and exercise, however, adverse reaction to Whitehall wisdom is guaranteed. There is no denying that people often hate being told what to do. Charles Lamb, ordered by his doctor to walk on an empty stomach every day, replied: "But whose stomach?" And at the end of a recent long morning of earnest Cabinet Office presentations on the evils of alcohol, smoking and fatty foods, the allure of a steak and chips lunch followed by an afternoon spent with a bottle of brandy and fine cigars in a large armchair was, for some of those attending, too great to resist.

These are the areas where the Tories will focus their attacks. Who are Labour ministers to tell us what to consume or how to raise our kids? Leave people alone to make their own choices, for which they are responsible! The view in government circles is that only in areas where there is a clear majority in favour of action should ministers put their heads above the parapet. This is too cautious. Despite visceral contrarianism and political risk, the government should keep going, for two reasons.

First, individuals often dislike their own preferences - most smokers, for example, wish they didn't want to smoke. In these circumstances, aggressive intervention can bring about changes in behaviour which many people wanted to make all along. Research by Jonathan Gruber at Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that in US states with high tobacco taxes, smokers not only smoke less but are also much happier than in states with lower taxes. This is an example, as Gruber points out, of taxes being used to "distort" consumption away from forms that the consumers themselves want to reduce.

Second, policy-makers need to recognise their own role in shaping attitudes. Ninety-five per cent of the population now support the compulsory wearing of seat belts, a dramatic shift from the popular opposition to the law when it was introduced 30 years ago. Similarly, there is now overwhelming support not only for existing laws on drink-driving but for a complete ban. Again, this is an area where public opinion trailed policy and therefore where considerable political courage was required.

The politics of individual responsibility are made harder by the social distribution of the problems at hand. It is all too easy to categorise the group which is most likely to smoke, eat badly, exercise little and save least: the poor. (Alcohol is something of an exception, in part because of cost.) Poverty makes it harder to live well; that is why we call it poverty. Once lifestyle issues become entangled with class, the political waters become dangerous indeed. But a centre-left government, in particular, has to be concerned about the impact of these class differences in lifestyle. Half the total class inequalities in health stem from differential rates of smoking. Reducing tobacco consumption among poorer people is not, therefore, bourgeois evangelism - it is central to an egalitarian health policy.

This is not to call for a full-blooded paternalistic assault on all our weaknesses and wickedness. The muscular right-wing philosophy of individual responsibility fails because it assumes that everyone is a heroic rationalist, and the instinctive statism of the left fails because it assumes that everyone is a helpless pawn. The trick is to find middle ways in which we can talk about the way we live without sounding like a selfish Nozick or a sanctimonious Nanny.

A social democratic engagement with responsibility has to be based on a recognition that responsibility does not necessarily sit in one place. To say that parents are responsible for raising their children is not to say that others do not share in this responsibility: schools, family, neighbours, community and state. The very notion of parenting classes sends shivers down all liberal spines. But the hard truth is that they work - antisocial behaviour drops and school performance improves among the children of parents who attend.

One of the dangers of the current emphasis on individual responsibility is that it masks the responsibility of others. Professor Susan Hurley of Warwick University grapples with this question in a forthcoming article on media violence in Philosophical Studies. She calls it an "ecological approach to responsibility". If we know that playing and watching violent games and films are associated with violent actions - which we do - is it plausible to say that because the individual is responsible, no one else is? Just because a sex criminal is responsible and should be locked up, does this mean pornographers or even the Sun have no responsibility? (Note to Rebekah Wade: read Hurley's article.)

At the same time as it was a mistake for those on the left to claim that poverty meant criminals were not responsible for their crimes, it would also be a mistake to claim that McDonald's is not responsible for the impact of its pro- ducts simply because individuals are responsible for their decisions to eat there. Hurley suggests that "it is a serious mistake to assume that if an individual agent is responsible for what he does, and rightly held responsible for harmful effects of his action, then no further questions arise about how others might also be responsible and how those harmful effects can most effectively, and should, be avoided . . . Responsibility for certain effects is not exclusive; nor is there a fixed quantity of it, which once allocated to an individual agent is somehow used up."

Debates about responsibility often feel like pass-the-parcel, with everyone passing the responsibility parcel around so that it doesn't blow up in their face. In obesity discussions, the left blames big bad business for cajoling us into eating and drinking rubbish, the right blames individuals for lacking discipline and everyone blames the government for doing too much or too little. This debate, along with many others on savings and debt and physical fitness, would be transformed by the adoption of an ecological approach to responsibility.

The area of corporate ethics and "corporate social responsibility", vogue and vague in business circles for some years, is another example. The only firms I want to be ruthless in profit-seeking are the ones in which my pension fund invests. Firms themselves are often willing to act "responsibly" in all areas except those most directly related to their activities. McDonald's is lauded for its community relations and employment policies. But asked recently about the obesity crisis in the US, the chief executive's reply was blunt: "Not our problem."

Firms are scared of litigation, especially in the US. But even on these grounds they are being short-sighted: look at the way the alcohol industry has used a very limited acceptance of responsibility for the effects of alcohol abuse as a shield against both lawsuits and regulation. A firm that denies even a scintilla of responsibility for the impact of its products - hamburgers, violent video games or pornography - has no claim to any kind of responsibility at all.

It is clear why businesses, and the political right, will promote the idea that responsibility sticks to individuals, thereby absolving others of blame. But there is a danger that some progressives will fall into a similar trap and start attributing responsibility for all the actions that they, in their wisdom, would like people to take. An example is the act of voting. Politicians and political operatives are very worried about falling turnouts, fearing a loss of legitimacy. Hence the growing interest in compulsory voting, which already exists in other nations including Australia. The view is that people have not only a right but also a responsibility to vote, and that if they fail to meet this responsibility, coercion is justified. This is a bogus argument, amounting to the removal of my liberal right to choose not to exercise my democratic one. Rights do not always equal responsibilities.

The final danger of the rush to proclaim individual responsibility is perhaps the greatest one of all. While it is certainly true that greater individual responsibility in a number of areas would make for a better society, there are others where the greater responsibility required is not to oneself but to others. Attitudes towards tax-funded redistribution have, if anything, hardened since 1997. Community solidarity has withered in many areas, not least the poorest. The reporting of crime is falling. Road speeds are climbing, along with road rage. And there is little sign of a clamour for large increases in overseas aid, despite rising global inequality.

It is vital that the centre left engages with the difficult politics of individual responsibility. But we must never forget that progressive societies need people to take responsibility not only for themselves but also for their neighbours and communities, for the disadvantaged in their own country and across the globe, for the well-being of those in their workplace, and for the health of the environment for the sake of generations to come. Push individual responsibility too far and we risk ending up with mere individualism.

richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk