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James O’Brien on why the ‘nanny state’ is nonsense

Every day, James O’Brien listens to people with unchallenged opinions on lightning-rod issues and dismantles their arguments live on air. He explains why he thinks ‘nanny state’ rhetoric is a divisive and dangerous school of thought.

James O'Brien

Fixed-odds betting terminals changed everything for me. I’ve never played one, though. This isn’t a tale of penury or bankruptcy brought on by addiction to what has become known as the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’. Rather, it is an account of how the gaming machines, which first appeared in British bookmakers in 2002, make a mockery of libertarian arguments against government intervention in the private lives and personal choices of citizens.

Libertarians are an increasingly populous tribe. Twitter, for example, groans under the weight of borderline sociopaths and assorted self-important weirdos who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’ or, even worse, ‘classically liberal’. Their uniting belief seems to be that because they are apparently capable of avoiding the dangerous consequences of unfettered ‘free choice’ – addiction, obesity, death, etc – governments should not spend money helping less educated, less disciplined and almost always less wealthy people do the same. It sits very comfortably with the weapons-grade free market position that nothing should ever be done in law to curtail the ability of businesses to make as much profit as possible. In many ways, these positions are two cheeks of the same backside and both use the pejorative ‘nanny state’ to malign the idea that lawmakers should ever endeavour to protect people from themselves and the multifarious pitfalls of modern life.


Twitter, for example, groans under the weight of borderline sociopaths and assorted self-important weirdos who describe themselves as ‘libertarian’ or, even worse, ‘classically liberal’

Like ‘virtue signalling’, a term which seeks to ridicule the ideas of altruism and generosity by suggesting that they are only ever undertaken in search of admiration, the phrase ‘nanny state’ seems to have first appeared in the pages of the right-wing Spectator magazine. Both terms seek to camouflage crass selfishness by dressing it up in pseudo-intellectual language, invariably informed by a resentment of tax revenues being spent on things of no immediate benefit to these particular taxpayers. And both conspire to create an environment in which you can be easily portrayed as a sandal-wearing, muesli-munching do-gooder if you think legal limits should be placed on either corporate greed or a person’s ability to do harm to themselves and their families. In the long term, of course, the happier, healthier and wealthier a population is, the less strain it will place on the public purse. But the long-term welfare of the entire population is traditionally of little interest to the parts of it keenest to see taxes cut and shareholder dividends soar.

Anyway, back to the bookies. The first thing you learn when you start speaking to people who have fallen under the spell of fixed-odds betting terminals, or FOBTs, is that they are nothing like traditional fruit machines. We are all familiar with the siren lure in the corner of the pub, where flashing lights and cartoon characters promise jackpots and fun. The FOBT is an altogether different beast. Middle-class British high streets increasingly seem to be populated exclusively by coffee shops, estate agents and chain restaurants. In the poorer parts of town, fast food joints and betting shops have assumed a comparable dominance. This has nothing to do with the popularity of horse racing or any other sport, as I used to innocently believe. In short, the revenues raised by a brace of fixed-odds betting terminals in each shop is invariably enough to pay staff and rent while leaving a tidy profit for the bookmaker’s shareholders.

They work so ‘well’ because they use some of the starkest teachings of behaviourist psychology. The ‘fixed odds’ element of the equation sees the punter make regular small wins as he plays, in pretty much the perfect proportion to ensure that he keeps playing. Next, the games’ designers ensure that the gap between wins never becomes big enough to sate his hunger for the next payout. And finally, with the psychological trap so perfectly set, you allow him to stake as much as £100 every twenty seconds. This combination of frequent wins, massive stakes and incredibly quick gameplay mean that these machines are designed to maximise the amount of time that people play for. And the more they play, the more they lose. In academic language, this process has become known as state-corporate harm maximisation.

The machines are deliberately located in the poorest parts of towns (there is a reason why they have been referred to as a ‘class-targeted form of gambling’). Granted, no one needs to cross the threshold of the bookmakers and, if they do, nobody is forcing you to put any money in one of these machines. Also, plenty of people will have done both without falling foul of any addictive behaviour or seeing their life savings drain away at a rate of knots. And yet, the point, as I have come to see it, is that the choice being exercised here is actually anything but free. Huge amounts of revenue and effort have been expended on creating a machine that is literally designed to maximise the harm it does to its users. Next to nothing has been spent on seeking to redress the balance, seeking not even to minimise the harm but merely to alleviate some of it.

In May 2018, the UK government acknowledged this when it pledged to make bookmakers reduce the maximum stake from £100 to £2. Shortly afterwards it was reported that, after pressure from the gambling industry, this would be delayed for two years. We shall have to wait and see. But the lesson FOBTs have taught me will remain in place, regardless of whether the legislation ever appears. It completely revolutionised my understanding of the term ‘free choice’ and, I think, my politics.

I remember making a rare foray into my student union at the London School of Economics. Oddly, for someone who loved debating at school and went on to make a career out of arguing with people, I wasn’t interested in student politics. Its most enthusiastic practitioners seemed either old and bitter beyond their years on the right, or angry about everything on the left. Plus ça change! On this occasion, the debate had something to do with abolishing unemployment benefit. Embarrassingly, I was on it at the time, having failed my first year exams, and so decided to chip in to the debate. Using myself as an example of someone who would have had to leave university if I’d not been able to access some sort of state support, I explained how I had already secured part-time work and would, on graduating, probably be a much more productive tax payer with a degree than I would have been without.

Being a stranger to the union’s traditions, I hopped off the stage and sat down in the middle of what turned out to be the university’s small band of hard right, free marketeers. ‘If you can’t afford to be here,’ spat one of them, with real disgust on his face, ‘you should get a proper job and leave.’ This, remember, was when everything university-related was still pretty much free, and decades before tuition fees became a political hot potato. It’s taken me years to realise that this was probably my first introduction to the ideological selfishness peculiar to a certain brand of Conservatism. 


Adherents to ‘classical liberalism’ also get to mask their own feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing by casting themselves as somehow inherently superior to other humans.

I was always taught to be grateful for what I had and to be mindful of those less fortunate. These lessons came mostly from Mum and Dad, but it’s possible that being educated in Catholic schools amplified these messages. That certainly contributed to the feelings of guilt that kick in when you do things you know to be wrong. For good or for ill, then, I grew up feeling lucky and blessed. Being adopted probably played a part, too. It happened when I was 28 days old and I’ve always been aware of it, but I wonder today whether it gives you an inner duality absent in most conventional family structures. As a boy, I thought a lot about the me who didn’t get adopted. That boy would have been raised in care or by a teenage single mother, shamed by the stigma of my existence in an Ireland still under the jackboot of the clergy. He would not have had my education or enjoyed the emotional and material security that came from being raised by two comfortably off, deeplyloving parents in a happy home. I hope my politics is selfless, but when I think about it this way I wonder whether there’s a degree of secondhand selfishness involved.

The philosopher John Rawls’ famous ‘veil of ignorance’ posits the idea that a just system can only be constructed by people completely ignorant of their position within it. In other words, you’re not going to endorse a system of law (or, by extension, of tax or government) that unfairly discriminates against a section of society you could conceivably be in yourself. I simplify outrageously, but my ‘veil of adoption’ makes me imagine that it’s me with a different backstory tempted by the get-rich-quick lies of a FOBT, or the temporary hit to my brain’s pleasure centre provided by a cigarette. Perhaps it’s fanciful, but I find it very easy to imagine the unadopted me falling foul of the myriad financial, medical and chemical bear traps laid by champions of state-corporate harm maximisation. And so, when it comes to the so-called ‘nanny state’, I cut my political cloth accordingly.

As with every other divisive and dangerous school of thought, from racism to homophobia and back again, adherents to ‘classical liberalism’ also get to mask their own feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing by casting themselves as somehow inherently superior to other humans. Loosely put, it posits the notion that all people are essentially selfish and calculating and that government is only needed to protect us from each other rather than from ourselves. Further, the influence of government or the state should extend no further than protecting a population from its feral, pre-society natural state. An essential prerequisite of fascism, the idea that a person’s ‘quality’ is somehow defined by their birth, gets employed here to attempt moral justification of epic inequality. If you can’t afford to go to university then you are obviously not university material and a university education would be wasted on you. The idea that superior I should not somehow see my taxes subsidising inferior you is thus easy to sustain. I suspect it’s also why so many right-wing inheritors of wealth and status cling so desperately to the notion that they have somehow ‘earned’ or ‘deserved’ their privilege, rather than arrived at it through dumb luck. Americans sum it up best when they talk of people who ‘were born on third base but go through life thinking they hit a triple’.

Proponents of ‘nanny state’ rhetoric – call them classical liberals, free marketeers or just plain selfish – generally fall into two categories. First, those ‘third basers’, the beneficiaries of entrenched and inherited inequality who seek to persuade themselves and others that these inequalities are not only justified but also somehow natural. This attempt to render in-built unfairness as ‘natural’, incidentally, explains why some of them end up flirting with eugenics. Second, the constituency of people on the wrong side of the inequality who support the structure in the almost always mistaken belief that they might somehow end up among the ‘winners’. They’re best described in another American adage, often wrongly attributed to John Steinbeck, which describes poor people who ‘see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.’

How To Be Right by James O’Brien is out now. See James live in conversation on 12 June 2019 at London's Shaw Theatre, get your tickets here.

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