The Responsibility Deal’s swing to authoritarianism is needless and worrying, says Kevin Hawkins

When does voluntarism become compulsion? For a government as committed to cutting red tape and shrinking the state as this one appears to be, the question is by no means academic.

Fear is by far the most powerful driver of regulation. As HL Mencken observed nearly a century ago: "The aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

The result has been a general craving for reassurance and safety, whether in the face of terrorism, global warming or personal health and the state has obliged. Unfortunately, the barriers that once stopped governments from controlling our personal lives have long since gone. No-one would argue, for example, that the state must try to protect its citizens from terrorists but when it seeks to micromanage everyday shopping and in-store promotions, it's time to call a halt.

Which brings us to the Responsibility Deal, up to now a voluntary "nudge" agreement between the industry and the Department of Health, but likely to become more authoritarian by the autumn. A House of Lords report is cited as the main influence on this shift towards more micromanagement. But their lordships have simply trotted out the same old nostrums peddled by alimentary reformers and neo-prohibitionists over the past decade.

Their claim that the DH has ignored scientific evidence begs the question, "Which evidence?". Over the past year or two, virtually every piece of conventional nutritional wisdom, eagerly propagated by the FSA and others, has been challenged. Far from reassuring consumers, science has done the opposite.

The only other reason for the DH's change of mood is said to be its wish to bring the medico-politicians and other health lobbyists back on board.

What for? Their script is nothing if not predictable. Obesity and alcohol abuse are both increasing; the industry's efforts to reverse these trends have failed because they will not sacrifice profits for health; so the government must regulate, otherwise the problem will get worse. We will be a nation of fatties and drunks. The evidence from the government's own surveys says otherwise but the obsession gathers pace. As Coleridge wrote: "In politics, what begins in fear usually ends in folly."

Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant