Everyone has strict limits to how far they think the state can interfere with their lives. But everyone would set that bar in a different place – and few, if any, of us are rational or consistent on what the state should do. That leaves politicians and public officials to tread carefully, never knowing where the landmines of public opinion will say they have over-stepped the line. It is always unknown territory.
The old shout of 'Nanny state!' went up when health officials recently suggested safe drinking limits, with liver cirrhosis rates rising alarmingly. David Hockney still fires off outraged letters to the press about the smoking ban's infringement of his liberty. In the depths of the Telegraph and Spectator, old-world libertarians still regard the seat-belt law as a totemic example of state despotism.
The bizarre campaign against Gatso speed cameras lets loose an anarchic strain among otherwise law-abiding citizens who seem to think there is a UN human right to drive as fast as they like.
Yet some of these same anti-state people will be the first to call for government state action against even slightly suspected terrorists, against bad parents or 'hoodies' congregating noisily around a local supermarket. Litter louts, binge drinkers, people who fail to queue at bus stops, chewing-gum spitters, kids who shriek on buses all provoke calls for official action. So, incidentally, can the sight of women wearing full burkhas. 'Do something!' 'Something must be done!' So say the very same people who in theory want to shrink the state and diminish its powers.
Left and right
On the left, the tendency is to call for more state action. Let government provide the best public services, because only the state can buy for us the things that are most precious to our quality of life – health, education, safety in the streets, beautiful parks and open spaces. The things we can buy in shops out of our pockets are dross in comparison with the things we buy collectively. That requires the state to tax for good public purpose: tax does good.
But to the small-state right, taxation is theft, reaching into citizens' pockets to squander money that the individual will always spend more wisely. As for using tax to redistribute money and power between the rich and the poor, that amounts to stealing from the thrifty to give to the feckless. They point to the low-tax United States as the good society, while the left points north to the Nordics where high taxes pay for the best public services.
The time to act
Yet neither side is as consistent or rational as that suggests. The right, for instance, has instinctively demanded that the state act to stop people doing things that are 'immoral'. It calls on the law to step into people's private lives to stop them committing acts of homosexuality, viewing pornography or choosing abortion. At this, the pro-state left suddenly turns anti-state libertarian. Leave it to the individual to live their own private life! On these private moral matters governments have been cautiously pragmatic, not trail-blazers, leaving the law to private members' bills and free votes. Oppressive laws were abandoned only after public opinion firmly made it clear that divorce, abortion, homosexuality and (most) pornography had become an accepted part of society.
But in health, safety and public behaviour governments are obliged to give a lead, even if it is exceedingly difficult. When diabetes is soaring and today's children risk living shorter more unhealthy lives than their parents, the state has a duty to act. The NHS will pick up the cost, the country will sink embarrassingly in health league tables, and citizens do need protecting from themselves.
How to and how not to do it
The Conservatives, afraid of their own libertarian fanatics, have taken to praising economist Richard Thaler's 'Nudge' principal. The attraction of this theory is that the state need not use the sledge-hammer of the law but can lead, suggest and promote better habits in its people and companies. Maybe. The history of cigarette smoking suggests exhortation, scary reports, devastating facts and constant disapproval did effect a great culture change. The actual ban in public buildings only came long after the tipping point where smoking had become widely socially unacceptable. This slow approach took decades when hundreds of thousands died of smoking.
But the example of alcohol prohibition in 1920s America warned governments against trying any outright ban against anything too widely used. Mind you, that prohibition example has done no good in trying to breathe sanity into governmental attitudes to drugs.
Report after report around the world has shown the UN war on drugs imposed at America's command has not only failed, but has had a catastrophic consequence on crime across the developed world, while making producer states from Colombia to Afghanistan ungovernable through drug baron control. When the state tries to do the impossible against the grain of the widespread social use of cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, it opens the door to organised crime it cannot control. Medicalising the problem, prescribing and permitting licensed sale of the milder drugs would be the rational response, if the state were willing to confront the limits to its powers.
Those limits are everywhere. What on earth is government to do about obesity? Every fat person wants to be thin. No government programme could afford a fraction of the campaign waged by popular culture coercing us to be thin. Pick up any magazine, read a thousand diets, gaze on size zero stars, see fatties mocked in every cartoon, all to no avail. It seems the Western countries with least inequality have least obesity – the Nordics and the Netherlands – while the UK and US are most unequal and fattest.
There is plenty the state can do to make us share wealth and quality of life more fairly.
David Cameron himself once suggested we should move from GDP to a general well-being index as a measure of national success. If he meant it, everything might change. But the state would be firmly in the driving seat – and we would never agree on what 'wellbeing' is. One person's freedom is always someone else's oppression. The state can only do what it can, going with the grain of public opinion.
Polly Toynbee is a social and political commentator for The Guardian. Previously she was the BBC's Social Affairs editor. Her last book was Unjust Rewards, about inequality, co-written with David Walker. Before that she wrote Hard Work - Life in Low Pay Britain, in which she took minimum wage jobs. Together with David Walker, she is working on The Verdict - an audit of Labour's three terms in office.