The term “nanny state” actually dates to the 1960s, and that’s not surprising. It was about this time that government ran out of ideas for improving society — it didn’t really improve us, but it claimed to — and turned its attention to hectoring us about all the things we do to ourselves that it wants us not to do. That turns out to be just about everything.
The phrase “nanny state” captures the spirit of this push to regulate our consumption in all areas of life. But the phrase misses the mark when it comes to the methods themselves. Nannies are respectable market institutions. To be sure, if you hired a nanny with jackboots, Tasers and guns with real bullets who punished disobedience with jail and even death, that would be a closer approximation to what we are dealing with every day in the Land of the Free.
Of course, we would never hire a nanny like this. But then again, we never hired the government, either. It just presumes ownership over our bodies, property, businesses and lives and issues edicts about them every day. It is impossible to keep up with the outrages. Nothing is untouched by these people.
And it really does amount to a different style of government. If the government builds a dam, carves presidential profiles in a mountain, constructs a highway or sends some people to traipse around the moon, that affects you and me mostly in what we pay in taxes. These things don’t directly intrude into other choices we make. We are forced to pay for idiotic government programs, but the pain in the neck mostly starts and stops with the bills we are forced to pay.
The shift to the nanny state was really a change because it invites government right into our kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, backyards, garages, medicine cabinets, refrigerators and cubicles at work. Nothing is off-limits. What that means, in reality, is that there is no more freedom, since the idea of freedom is bound up with the right to make mistakes. We are not merely paying; we are obeying (or being told to obey) every minute of the day.
For all these reasons, I’m happy that someone bothered to attempt a nearly comprehensive chronicle. The wonderfully infuriating and deeply alarming book is Nanny State by David Harsanyi. And check out the subtitle: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America Into a Nation of Children.
“When exactly did we lose our right to be unhealthy, unsafe, immoral and politically incorrect?” the author asks. “What if I want to be fat, drunk, immoral or intolerably stupid?”
These are salient questions. No one asked us. It just happened bit by bit, over the course of half a century. Daily, this trend is ramping up. We think we live in a free country, and then we actually try to do something different, risky, wonderful, productive or whatever and suddenly discover that we are living in a legal minefield, all in the name of making us safer, better, more caring or whatever.
Everything is regulated allegedly for our own good, but there are gigantic problems. First, insofar as the dictates are actually good for us, these are often redundant with existing cultural and market trends (life insurance premiums have done more to cut smoking than all the government warnings). Second, they are universal regulations and allow no dissent and, therefore, violate human liberty (if someone wants to be bad, that’s their business). Third, much of what they dictate isn’t really good for us all (the attack on domestic water use has made our homes much dirtier).
As I read this book, I kept thinking about the irony of this whole trend:
- Government says it is making us safe. Meanwhile, the government’s wars kill tens of thousands and put Americans in harm’s way, and the domestic police state has never been so violent
- Government says that it is forcing us not to harm ourselves, but government threatens us with harm constantly with its guns, fines, courts and 10 million micro-coercions, not to mention its relentless looting of our bank accounts and purchasing power
- Government says it is making us polite and civil, but it unleashes an army of bureaucrats who are the very soul of rudeness, hence coarsening society in so many ways.
What’s also crazy is the high moral tone of all these rules and regulations. We are led to believe that not wearing seat belts is not just unwise, but completely immoral and evil. So it is with smoking, eating fatty foods, drinking raw milk, drinking a glass of wine before driving and telling an off-color joke. A civil religion of sorts has replaced traditional religion, and hectoring political dictates have crowded out traditional moral rules and norms that were self-policing.
The nanny state goes far beyond obvious issues such as smoking and eating, as Harsanyi points out. In New York, it is illegal to feed pigeons, sit on a milk crate in public, put a plastic frame around your license plate, take up a subway seat with a grocery bag, ride a bike without your feet on the pedals and other such outrages. All over the country, we are seeing bans on advertising, restrictions on happy hours and ladies’ nights and every manner of legal carrots and sticks used to force us to eat more carrots and look like sticks.
Nor is this restricted to the left or right alone. Everyone with power has an agenda on how to manipulate our lives and make us all better people, as he defines that phrase.
The book opens with a chapter called “Twinkie Fascists.” I’m thrilled by the phrase because I’m personally fed up with these invasive, coercive, pietistic demands concerning what we eat. It’s gone way too far. It is none of the government’s business. And the more the government attempts to legislate diets, the less Americans care to examine the issue of diets and health themselves.
But there is something else even more remarkable about this movement. The more it pushes, the more people themselves push back. I was at an Applebee’s restaurant the other night, fighting for a table. On my way to my spot, I passed by table after table at which people were eating gigantic portions of hamburgers, fries, greasy everything, followed with massive desserts washed down with larger-than-life beers and per-person portions that would have fed whole families a few decades ago. It’s crazy stuff. Yet I celebrate it all as acts of private defiance.
In fact, such defiance is all around us. We will not be controlled. Take a trip to the local playground and you will see the results of what Harsanyi chronicles in his chapter on “The Playground Despots.” Gone is anything metal. Seesaws, jungle gyms, sky-high swings are all replaced by plastic tubes and other things that are so safe that they are fun. This was not a market decision; it was imposed by government decree.
But observe how the kids use them. Instead of climbing through tubes or sitting contentedly in a sea of plastic balls, many kids balance themselves dangerously on top of the tubes on which they are not supposed to be, and hurling those plastic balls at each other in wicked war games. This is the way adolescent rebels deal with the nanny state: Just as the adults, they find their fun in acts of defiance.
Other acts of defiance are easy to document. Go to a local convenience store and ask the manager the main source of the store’s profitability. The answer will come quickly: cigarettes and beer. If that is not a testament to the utter failure of the nanny state, I don’t know what is. As for those stores in states where such sales are restricted, it’s a wonder they make money at all.
Not enough people have taken notice of the shift in government policy that took place in the 1960s. Harsanyi seems to believe that it stems from a tendency of public officials to treat us like children and themselves as parents. There is certainly truth in that, but I’m inclined to suspect a more-malevolent motive here. The state is even more geared toward removing choice in our lives and forbidding what we want and imposing what it wants. In other words, it is spreading misery, mostly because that’s all it has really ever been good at.
This is all a sign that public policy the world over has gone through an identity crisis of sorts. It is discovering the inner truth about itself — that it really is and has always been at war with our well-being. The only difference now is that it is reaching further into our lives, wrecking them at every turn and daring to try to convince us that we should be grateful for this.
Harsanyi’s book raises consciousness. That’s the first step to overthrowing the central plan for our lives and thereby taking back our rights and liberties.