The Miserablism of Dan Hannan: Updated

I’m sure I’ve caught Sunny Hundal’s allergy to Dan Hannan, but his post on our snowy situation has really got my back up.

When the snow came to our part of the world yesterday, Mrs H sent me out with a shovel and brush to clear the pavement outside our house. Feeling public-spirited, I extended the strip of bare concrete slabs to the neighbours on either side.

While I was sweating over the broom, a thought occurred: if everyone were responsible for his own patch of pavement, the disruption caused by snow would be much diminished. Is our reliance on state intervention symptomatic of the sapping effects of big government?

Perhaps it because I’ve also always shared Giles Wilkes distaste for Miserabilists (Those crotchety old bastards, who assume everything used to be better in their day, well thank you very much but my day has lolcats, so there).

Anyway, it seems that Dan Hannan is seeking to promote the view that our “reliance” on the state – exemplified by our disinclination to clean our front gardens and our roads of snow – illustrates the “sapping effects of big government.”

Without getting into debates on how the Government actually affects our lives and how big it is, I think this entire article is built on a misrepresentation of what is going on.

First of all the idea that our behaviour would be radically different if we were not reliant on the sapping effect of big government overlooks many far more simple arguments. Why would people not clean up the front of their houses or their roads?

  • There is a general lack of snow shovels and grit.
  • There is an impending dusting of snow that night and probably more snow due Sunday.
  • Its was a snow day, this generally means a day of leisure. People value that.

But ultimately something else riles me about his picture of the “sapping effects of big government.”

People aren’t dependent kidults, if the snow has brought out one side of human nature above any other it is the sharing side. The side that approaches hitherto unspoken to neighbours to offer a garden spade or to push a snow ensconced car.

As occasionally misanthrope Anton Vowl tweeted earlier “Got stuck in snow earlier in my rubbish car. Man came out of his house with shovel, dug car out, gave me a push. People are nice really.”

Of course another way to look at this is as a demand to privatise not just the roads, but the footpaths too. As Sunder Katawala aptly put it, to draw attention to this post:

Rather confusingly, Hannan seems to want a centralised Big Government edict to enforce the social responsibility he wants to see

Indeed, as far as I can see such a process couldn’t work with some rather illiberal enforement. So often, it comes down to how someone wants the state to intervene, not whether they value large scale interventions or not.

What is important is that when the state intervenes it does so with a fair and just mandate, maintaining our roads seems to fit the bill pretty well.


Dan Hannan thinks I’ve taken on a somewhat vituperative tone. For those who are undecided if my displeasure is justified I would like to recommend Neil Robertson‘s post on the lovely British people in the snow.

The news that Dan reports that it’s against Health and Safety rules for some people to clear their snow is obviously disheartening. And does somewhat pooh pooh my previous derision.

But I wouldn’t call this a victory for Dan Hannan just yet, as I’ve said in the comments below, people have been clearing their own space regardless. And as Neil reports people have been acting as though this poorly drafted legislation doesn’t exist.

The existence of these Health and Safety guidelines doesn’t necessitate them having a large effect, as although the paths haven’t been cleared there appears little other evidence that the big state is the reason for this.


I apologise for referring to legislation in the above, Tim Worstall, more adept in legalese than myself, informs us that this is not “Health and Safety” gone mad, but part of our Common Law heritage.

Simply put, snow and ice are natural things, no one’s fault. But if you attempt to clear and don’t get it right then people might assume that it’s clear and then if and when they injure themselves you’re responsible. ‘Coz you didn’t clear it properly.

Yes, sure, you could pass a law changing this. But the Common Law is built on interlocking reasoning: who in hell knows what else you would change by changing just this little bit? As with Tony Blair doing away with the office of Lord Chancellor, it’s not as simple as just changing one little bit of the system.

Intriguing, and something which I hope Dan Hannan ruminates on as I will.


Rumination over, here’s something from Guardian article which mentions ice clearing (H/T Anton Vowl):

4. I’ve cleared the snow from our driveway. Am I opening myself up to a claim if someone slips?

This is an urban myth. If you do the reasonable thing and clear your drive, you are not opening yourself up to a possible claim, except in very exceptional circumstances.

“This is a common misconception,” McQuater says. “By clearing the snow from your paths, you do not invite any extra liability that wouldn’t have existed had you done nothing and left the snow on the ground. The only circumstance in which you might invite a claim was if you acted completely unreasonably, and somehow created a new latent hazard that had not existed before your actions.”

It seems that quite reasonably if you do a shitty job clearing up snow then you are liable for your shitty job. Eminently sensible in my view.


6 thoughts on “The Miserablism of Dan Hannan: Updated

  1. I think the point Hannan is making is that if you keep doing something for someone, then they expect you to do it for them. If you have to do it yourself, you get used to doing it yourself. Not everybody behaves in the same way but there is a general trend.

    Most people expect the council to clear the paths, so they don’t do it themselves. There are other factors at work, but “big government” or whatever you want to call it, is one of them.

    1. The more I’ve looked into it the more complicated it becomes. I’ll grant that, but I do think Dan Hannan is guilty of miserablism. A lot of people do clear their own space I’ve just walked past of lot of people myself so it seems that the effects of this “big government” aren’t even spread throughout the population. Which sort of damages his theory.

      The problem here is snow on paths and roads getting in everyone’s way. There’s lots of ways this could be cleared and it seems that Dan Hannan wants the state to step back and allow people to take responsibility for their paths etc.

      But it seems that this would invite freeriders and so on. So it makes sense to have the state take control of the public good of snow free roads etc.

      There’s also comparative advantage to think about, people aren’t that good at clearing snow, whereas the state has proved that it is. Local councils have been from good to awful but the central system of motorways etc seem to be running quite well.

      There’s also the fact that people don’t really expect councils to clear their paths, not residential paths in any case. So it seems unlikely the sapping effects of Government are the cause.

      Also, Next Left have quite a nice discussion on it here.

      This is odd tho Sweep away the snow and you might end up in court., I’m always sceptical that the regulation exists to stop people clearing snow – as its usually bad implementation not bad law that leads to “health and safety gone mad” stories – but this does seem like the state doing something very worrying.

    1. Oh god, I thought you were linking to Melanie Philips! We’ll have none of that here, odious cow.

      I’m not totally down with that other Mel’s point. Its not so much Tory versus New Lab. New Lab have a bad habit of managerialism but the Tories aren’t too different.

      The pulling together discussed can just as easily be claimed by the left unfortunately for her. I swear I read a post somewhere saying the exact opposite, that snow brings out the inner socialist in us all.

      Hey ho, generally snow is good. It might also be good from a party politics perpective for you. Economic production is definitely going to be slightly depressed by this and the first quarter economic report will be less impressive than otherwise, which will only strengthen your hand come election time.

      (and RE: Moaning: It’s a British hobby and a bonding exercise we’re all bloody good at.)

  2. You seem to be supporting Hannan’s point to me. He says we’d be better off getting up and doing this stuff and you say people are better off because they’re getting up and doing stuff.

    Your only disagreement seems to be about Big Government’s role. And, in fact, you seem to agree with him even on that. I can see why you’d prefer not to notice that while calling him names you are enforcing his argument. Difficult for you.

    1. Difficult for me? Not at all, there are lots of things which are best done by Government and things which are best done by individuals and some things which just don’t need doing.

      I think Mr Hannan is in danger of both creating a problem which doesn’t exist and seeking a solution for it in the wrong place.

      On an abstract level he is right. Without Big Government we would all have to clear a lot more snow, but I don’t think this is an efficient way of this, or a particularly fair way as there is such a risk of free riding.

      The impact of “big government” health and safety is just there to deal with people who do a bad job. If you make the walkway more dangerous you should be liable, because no one cares you meant to help, the are that you didn’t and they now have a broken wrist.

      Its hardly an example of big government, because its not big, just lining up people’s responsibilities. Just normal government.

      And I’m only calling him names a little bit. All part of the robust cut and thrust of politics.

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