Let Them Eat Gruel: The Government-Health-Security Complex Invades Your Kitchen - Spectator Blogs

5 January 2013

2:11 PM

5 January 2013

2:11 PM

Addressing the American people for the final time as President, Dwight Eisenhower warned that:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.

This may seem a long way from Andy Burnham’s suggestion that the government should regulate breakfast cereals and, of course, in one sense it is. Yet one of the features of our society is the steady accumulation of influence – and increasingly of power too – of what might be termed the Government-Health-Security Complex*.

Sometimes slippery slopes really do exist. Some folk warned that the public health industry – that is, the Government-Health-Security Complex – would never be satisfied with its battles against tobacco and alcohol and that it would, in time, launch fresh offensives against fast food, soft drinks, and all things salty an sweet. Don’t be silly, we were told. That’s different. Well, who looks stupid now?

Like so much else this is also, in the end, a question of power and class. The NHS – treated as some kind of secular religion – is to be used as a means of shaming the population (especially the bestial lower orders) into behaving in a more comely, acceptable fashion. The class prejudice inherent in all this is rarely far from the surface. The common people are revolting. Their pleasures must be taxed or, wherever possible, suppressed entirely (see extending the ban on smoking in working-class clubs for example).

And, always, the message is simple: the people – poor, lardy, wheezing, sods – are too stupid to make their own choices and it is government’s role to save them from themselves.


Which might be fine if there were any logical limit to this kind of good-natured coercion. But there is not. The battle never ceases. The “public health” campaigners simply move to the next stage of their campaign. First: ban tobacco advertising. Then ban smoking in public places. Then demand “plain packaging”. And when that fails to prevent some people from smoking? What next?

Defenders of the faith insist that Something Must Be Done and that “addressing” the causes of obesity will prove less expensive than dealing with the consequences of the supposed epidemic threatening our future. And perhaps they have a point. Yet does anyone suppose that regulating breakfast cereals or insisting upon better food labeling will really make any great difference? McDonalds, for instance, already supplies calorie information on its menus. And to what effect?

If you impose legal limits on the quantities of salt or sugar in foods purchased at the supermarket there seems no obvious reason why you should not also impose limits on the quantities of salt and sugar individuals may purchase to use in their own kitchens. After all, they may misuse these ingredients, not least by manufacturing their own, home-made “Frosties”.

None of this amounts to a partisan point. The Conservatives are just as bad as Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Like his predecessor, Jeremy Hunt has been captured by the Government-Health-Security Complex and is quite happy for the government to creep into your kitchen.

If all this were really about healthy living then the GHSC would not spend so much time telling us that we need to “address” these issues to save money. All these fatties, you see, will cost the NHS money we can ill-afford. But, actually, as it is essentially a national insurance pool there is a a libertarian (or one type of libertarian) defence of the NHS that, I think, should remind us that smokers and drinkers more than pay for themselves. Taxes on tobacco and alcohol are a kind of increased health-insurance premium.

It may be counterintuitive but it remains the case that there’s ample evidence supporting the notion that smokers and drinkers cost the health service less than their non-smoking, teetotal brethren.

This does not matter to the GHSC because it appreciates that, especially in the present miserly climate, the best way to “win” an argument is to persuade a sufficient number of people that they are paying for the ghastly behaviour of other people. Couple the “if it saves one life” strategy with the “if it saves one pound” approach and you have a powerful one-two punch that’s enough to persuade most people that Something Must Be Done.

Happily it doesn’t even matter whether that Something actually works. If it does then it merely demonstrates what more could be achieved by more stringent measures; if it doesn’t work then it demonstrates that even more stringent measures are required. Heads the Government-Health-Security Complex wins; tails it wins too.

Frosties and Coco Pops today. But don’t be fooled into thinking it will end there.

*I am indebted to Nicholas Blincoe for the grim term “health-security”.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice blog.

  • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

    “Something Must Be Done” the words that shall be engraved upon the sepulchre of Western civilisation forevermore.

  • Mark

    Yes indeed. Years ago I worked for Brighton Health Authority, where part of my training was to shadow their dieticians. And what a bunch of po-faced, lemon sucking health fascists they were too, endlessly droning on about what is or isn’t good for you, and how people must be ‘educated’ about what should pass their lips. I thought then that if these people were really given their head, what a miserable society they would seek to create from their idealised fantasy-world image. So do the right thing and tell them all to bugger off.

    • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

      You did do your part in supporting them though, Mark, didn’t you… as we all do via our taxes.

  • Colonel Mustard

    Much as it pains me to say it, Mr Massie, you are pretty much on the nail with this one. The problem with all these “initiatives” is that they roll and never stop and the barmy zealots promoting them have to keep extending their remit, to find ever more “sins” to ban, control and regulate. I have spent my whole life not seeking to ban anything anyone else does and don’t feel unfulfilled as a result. What ever is wrong with these people?

    The ultimate continuation of the anti-smoking lobby seeking to ban fake cigarettes is the banning of all visual media where smoking is depicted. Bye bye Bogie and hundreds of classic films!

  • The Wiganer

    Seems like there is a deal to be done here.
    The government stops treating me for all non-emergency ailments and I pay minimal NICS, alcohol and tobacco taxes.
    They can stop spending billiions on advertising and initiatives.I use some of the saving for a private health care plan and everyone is happy.
    I’m sure the senior folk in the NHS will agree to that.

  • Stuart Eels

    It’s 1984 nearly, I do wish that you would all stick to the point.

    • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

      We are well past 1984.

  • Pockets64

    We are going through that same mess here in the US. Back when they were legally mandating motorcycle helmets and car seat belts on the basis of the medical cost of an accident. We rebelled saying that we pay our own medical costs and it’s none of the government’s business. Now, the government is taking over the medical costs.
    When that is complete, they will claim the power to regulate everything we do from rising in the morning to when we go back to bed in the evening. And then some.

    • LordBlagger

      And whether you live or die.

      See the Liverpool Care Pathway for what happens.

      • Teacher

        I was in an antique shop the other day and ear-wigged a conversation in which a woman described how her mother was starved to death in a hospital – and water withheld from the old lady- and how the woman was unable to discharge her mother in time to save her life. NHS staff kept saying ‘She can leave tomorrow’ until it was too late. The mother had been put on the sinister LCP without the daughter being told and she only found out by accident. The poor woman was still distraught and felt guilty at allowing her mother to go into hospital at all as she felt sure the old woman would still be alive now had she not been admitted. A story for our time.

        • Pockets64

          At least a veterinarian would have given her the option of taking a sick pet home to die. This is horrible!

          • Teacher

            I know! True.

            • Pockets64

              I was given that option with a dog with parvo 6 years ago. The dog is still alive (and healthy). Who knows, maybe this woman could have had years more with her mother.
              But to the government, that’s just one more number dealt with.

    • TheOtherTurnipTaliban

      Sartre said man was doomed to freedom. Not so…

  • Nicholas Blincoe

    You’re welcome.

  • Spammo Twatbury

    I wish you wouldn’t undermine your argument by lumping smoking in with other harmful pursuits. If I eat 20 boxes of Frosties YOU don’t get fat. If I drink a whole bottle of tequila, YOU don’t get passive vomiting or liver disease. If I inject heroin into my eyeballs YOU don’t go blind.

    Tobacco is unique is that its users knowingly force it onto unwilling participants. (And don’t say “only inconsiderate ones”. Before it was banned I never once in 30 years had a stranger come up to me in a pub and say “Mind if I smoke three feet from you?”)

    The nanny state goes much too far sometimes. Being an apologist for smokers just makes it easy for them.

    • Pockets64

      They are going after smokeless tobacco and those electronic water vapor cigarettes, too.

      • Spammo Twatbury

        Are they? Link?

        • The Wiganer

          I can’t be bothered finding a link for you, but it was on BBC Radio 5 before Christmas that anti-smoking groups want to ban fake cigarettes in the workplace, on the grounds that it tempts people to try the real thing.

    • Adam Nixon

      Very right, Spammo. One assumes that Speccie readers go for freedom as the default position, to be restricted only when it does harm to others. Such as smoking does.

      • Colonel Mustard

        Does it? I thought that was infinitely debatable. There seems to be different views on the effects of passive smoking. But like “climate change” the most vociferous advocates always seem to be a “certain type”.

        • Spammo Twatbury

          Yes, there are different views on passive smoking. There are the views of doctors, and there are the views of idiots.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Really? In a long lifetime I cannot recall anyone “forcing” it on me. Better legislate against BO and farts in lifts – damned impertinent.

  • LB

    Far more simple.

    It’s the NHS saying give us more money. It’s the NHS that has the begging bowl out.

    Remember, the NHS’s own figures are that it kills 20-80,000 people a year.

    Cars kill 2,000.

  • Time Traveller

    And in the end, the cost will be far greater as those who know best limit our options for self-administered stress relief.

  • HJ777

    Just to add to this.

    I am also highly sceptical of government intervention and its efficacy (or rather lack of).

    However, many government actions have been directly damaging to public health in other ways. For example, the priority given to motorised road transport – which discriminates against physical activity.

    In the UK, being a cyclist or pedestrian is largely an unpleasant experience – which discourages it. Contrast this with countries like the Netherlands where there is good provision for both bicycles and pedestrians (28% of journeys in the Netherlands are by bike, compared to 2% here) – people there are more active in day-to-day life and are healthier as a result. Look at the disgusting food served in many public institutions here (schools, hospitals, etc.). Look at the sell-off of school playing fields (unlike in independent schools). Government is a cause of many of the problems.

    • LB

      Quite. Now look at what they do to solve this.

      Borris spends 140 million getting 5,000 bikes on the road.

      Do the maths. 140,000,000 / 5,000 = 28,000 per bike,

      • Ariel C. Nique

        Do the maths….properly. It’s a six-year deal that includes all the docking stations, repairs etc. The bikes themselves? Probably c. £120 each.

        • LordBlagger

          Nothing like excluding things is there.

          The cost of getting one bike on the road for 5 years is 28,000 pounds.

          Do you really think that’s a sensible use of money?

          I’m in the market for an Aston Martin by the way. I just can’t afford it. However, if Boris gives me a hand out, I’ll give him a kick back, I get the Aston, lots of people get employed. It’s a win all round right? Can’t be any losers.

        • LordBlagger

          Or think about it this way.

          Car – 5,000 pounds

          Petrol, insurance, road tax, maintenance – obviously for free. Nothing to do with the car whatsoever.

          Can I get you to pay for those extras? Or is it all part of the cost of the car.

          Boris spent 28,000 pounds getting each and every bike on the road.

    • Pockets64

      The larger the organization and more centralized the power, the less responsive it is to local needs. One size never fits all.

  • Plato

    Spot on.

  • HJ777

    “It may be counterintuitive but it remains the case that there’s ample evidence supporting the notion that smokers and drinkers cost the health service less than their non-smoking, teetotal brethren.”

    This entirely misses the point. If you’d read the whole article it clearly also says that:

    “The Dutch academics admitted their research did not look at the total costs of obesity and smoking, just the narrowly-prescribed health costs.”

    What is more, other, more comprehensive, studies have found just the opposite. This is because healthier people tend to live to an older age, but they also tend to suffer fewer long term chronic conditions.

    • Pockets64

      And if the government hadn’t decided to get in the middle of one maintaining and paying for one’s own health care, the entire discussion would be moot.