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An old wet nurse symbolising France as nanny-state and public health provider (colour photomechanical reproduction of a lithograph editorial cartoon by N. Dorville, 1901)

Nanny state is a term of British origin that conveys a view that a government or its policies are overprotective or interfering unduly with personal choice. [1] [2] The term likens such a government to the role that a nanny has in child rearing. An early use of the term comes from Conservative British Member of Parliament Iain Macleod who referred to "what I like to call the nanny state" in the 3 December 1965 edition of The Spectator. [3] [4]

The term was popularised by journalists Bernard Levin [5] and Auberon Waugh [6] and later by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Uses of term


The term has been used to describe the policies of both federal and state governments. Canadian journalist and magazine publisher Tyler Brûlé argued that Australian cities were becoming over-sanitised and the country was on the verge of becoming the world's dumbest nation. This was blamed on the removal of personal responsibility and the increase in the number and scope of health and safety laws. [7] Liberal Democrats senator David Leyonhjelm also used the term when launching an Australian Senate enquiry into laws and regulations that restrict personal choice "for the individual's own good". [8] The term has also been used to criticise mandatory bicycle helmet laws, gun control laws, prohibitions on alcohol in public places, plain packaging for cigarettes and pub/club lockout laws. [9]

New Zealand

The term was used by the New Zealand National Party to describe the policies of their political opponents, the Fifth Labour Government, who were in power from 1999 until 2008. [10] In turn, the child policies of the National Party's Paula Bennett were later given the 'nanny state' label by a Māori Community Law Service manager in 2012. [10] In 2017, the Queenstown-Lakes District Council's proposed restrictions on residents renting their rooms on the short term rental site, Airbnb, prompted criticism by the company, which described the move as "nanny-state". [11]


The city state of Singapore has a reputation as a nanny state, owing to the considerable number of government regulations and restrictions on its citizens' lives. [12] Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of the modern Singapore, observed: "If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one". [13] In an interview in the Straits Times in 1987, Lee said:

I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters–who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think. [14]

United Kingdom

In 1980, Lord Balfour of Inchrye strongly opposed the introduction of seatbelt legislation, saying it was "yet another state narrowing of individual freedom and individual responsibility". He worried that future intrusions of the "nanny state" would include restrictions on cigarettes, alcohol, and mandatory life jackets. [15]

In 2004, King's Fund, a think tank, conducted a survey of more than 1,000 people and found that most favoured policies that combatted behaviour such as eating a poor diet and public smoking – this was reported by the BBC as the public favouring a nanny state. [16] [17]

The British Labour Party politician Margaret Hodge has defended policies she acknowledged had been labelled as "nanny state", saying at a speech to the Institute for Public Policy Research on November 26, 2004, that "some may call it the nanny state but I call it a force for good". [18]

The "Soft Drinks Industry Levy", the UK's sugary drink tax proposed in 2016 and effective from 2018, was described by Member of Parliament Will Quince as "patronizing, regressive and the nanny state at its worst". [19]

United States

By the 2000s, the term entered use in the United States by some political commentators. The term was used in an at-large sense against the legislative tendencies of liberal political ideology such as in the banishment of smoking in public places or the enactment of mandatory bicycle helmet laws. [20] [21]

In 2012, a proposal by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to restrict the sale of soft drinks in venues, restaurants, and sidewalk carts to 16 ounces led to derision of the mayor as "Nanny Bloomberg." [22] [23]

David Harsanyi has used the term to describe food labeling regulations, the legal drinking age, and socially conservative government policies. [24]

Conversely, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research think tank used the term in 2006 to describe conservative policies that protect the income of the rich. [25]


In September 2021, the Washington Post editorial board decried "dictatorships" that "impose decisions about what people can see, hear and — to the extent the regimes can manage it — think." Xi Jinping, as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of the People's Republic of China, the board wrote, is "pushing the nanny state into people’s personal lives" with regulations on online gaming among the country's teenagers, as well as other matters. "Not many [parents]," the board argued, "want to cede parenting decisions to an authoritarian party-state." [26]


See also


  1. ^ "nanny, n.1 and adj". OED Online. Oxford University Press. December 2011. Retrieved 2 February 2012.
  2. ^ Wheeler, Brian (11 October 2018). "Are we living in a 'nanny state'?". BBC News. Retrieved 30 August 2020.
  3. ^ 70 m.p.h., The Spectator, 3 December 1965, p. 11.
  4. ^ "Nanny Knows Best . . . Sometimes". The Times. 4 October 2019. Retrieved 30 August 2020.
  5. ^ "Industry Documents Library".
  6. ^ "Industry Documents Library".
  7. ^ "Nanny state rules making Australia 'world's dumbest nation'". The Sydney Morning Herald. 2015-05-27. Retrieved 2015-08-26.
  8. ^ "David Leyonhjelm declares war on nanny state". The Australian. 2015-06-26. Retrieved 2015-08-26.
  9. ^ "Welcome to Australia: the world's most over-regulated nanny state". The Daily Telegraph. 2015-08-12. Retrieved 2015-08-26.
  10. ^ a b Collins, Simon (27 January 2012). "Child policy smacks of nanny state, says critic". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 26 January 2012.
  11. ^ Amanda Cropp (December 2017). "Auckland's big time 'commercial' Airbnb hosts could be pinged with higher council rates". Business Today.
  12. ^ Time for Singapore to Grow Up, Bloomberg News, March 29, 2015
  13. ^ Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore's 'founding father' dies in hospital aged 91 after suffering with pneumonia, Daily Mirror, 22 March 2015
  14. ^ 5 Quotes From Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, 23 March 2015
  15. ^ Wheeler, Brian (11 October 2018). "Are we living in a 'nanny state'?". BBC News.
  16. ^ "UK public wants a 'nanny state'". BBC News. 2004-06-28. Retrieved 2010-01-05.
  17. ^ "The Nanny State Debate: A Place Where Words Don't Do Justice" (PDF).
  18. ^ "'Nanny state' minister under fire". BBC News. 2004-11-26.
  19. ^ Neville, Sarah (17 March 2016). "UK tax on sugary drinks is 'nannying' and 'impractical'". Financial Times.
  20. ^ The Real Reason Behind Public Smoking Bans, PBS, July 8, 2013
  21. ^ "America's 'Nanny State' Laws". CNBC. 31 May 2012. Retrieved 30 October 2020.
  22. ^ James, Frank (May 31, 2012). "Bloomberg Becomes Nanny-State Epitome For Some, Giving Obama A Breather". NPR: it's all politics.
  23. ^ Grynbaum, Michael (May 31, 2012). "New York Plans to Ban Sale of Big Sizes of Sugary Drinks". New York Times. Retrieved 2 June 2012. The measures have led to occasional derision of the mayor as Nanny Bloomberg, by those who view the restrictions as infringements on personal freedom.
  24. ^ Harsanyi, David (2007). Nanny state: how food fascists, teetotaling do-gooders, priggish moralists, and other boneheaded bureaucrats are turning America into a nation of children. Random House, Inc. pp. 67–68. ISBN  978-0-7679-2432-0. OCLC  777893300.
  25. ^ Baker, Dean (2006). The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. Washington, D.C.: Center for Economic and Policy Research. ISBN  978-1-4116-9395-1. OCLC  71423207.
  26. ^ "China's nanny state grows ever more intrusive". The Washington Post.

Further reading