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Nannies Come Home to Roost

Denver Post columnist and Nanny State author David Harsanyi discusses the tyranny of the busybodies with TAS.

By 9.26.07

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Sinclair Lewis's bumper sticker friendly maxim, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross," may be all the rage these days, yet from my New York City perch it seems more likely fascism will come weighed down with studies by self-congratulatory "public interest" groups and carrying a sign reading, "It's for the children!" Few grasp this new paradigm quite as well as Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi, whose wonderful, essential new book, Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America Into a Nation of Children provides not only perhaps the authoritative account of the bipartisan conspiracy to institute a "low-grade, feel-good tyranny that has downgraded freedom to a mere annoyance," but also one of the most stirring battle cries for a "second American Revolution" to counter it. "In an ideal world," Harsanyi writes, "karma would decree that these irritating and dangerous activists be taken behind the woodshed by a dozen minutemen re-enactors for a momentous ass-kicking." Harsanyi was kind enough to discuss Nanny State with TAS last week.

TAS: Global Warming and Peak Oil doomsdayers have a certain perverse fondness for trumpeting the latest "point of no return." We have only ten years to regulate this or fifteen years to phase out that in order to avert future catastrophe and the subsequent end of all good things. Of course, the goalposts shift, as they necessarily must when doomsday fails to arrive. Still, I wonder if you believe there is a point of no return with regard to the Nanny State?

Harsanyi: Who's left to stop it? I don't anticipate scores of elected officials defending my choice to suck down nicotine, or to drink irresponsibly or to consume scrumptious trans-fatty treats. Of course, the underlying argument would be a defense personal freedom and choice, but most politicians are too cowardly to take on the forces of political correctness. And once nanny laws are instituted there is little way back -- at least, in the foreseeable future. Not that it matters very much, anyway, as the country is trending towards more paternalistic government from the city council to the president. On the micro-level we have council members demanding "health zones" and on a macro level we'll soon all be involuntarily signing up a socialized health-care plan. The point of no return was probably reached the day government told Americans they were too stupid to buckle up on their own. The proper response would have included no more than two pointed words and a middling finger. Instead, elected officials took it as a cue to begin mollycoddling an entire nation.

I'm sure you've covered many of the issues in Nanny State in your work as a columnist. When did you come to the conclusion there were enough anecdotes to fill an entire book? Did anything you uncovered during your research particularly mortify you?

Despite living my whole life in some of the country's more liberal of areas (New York, Washington, D.C. and Denver), I've always been bothered by governmental excess and intrusion. Perhaps it had something to do with my parents, who had defected from Communist Hungary and instilled, um, an...enthusiastic understanding of what it means to be free. Subjective as it may be, I view this stuff as an issue of common sense. Whenever I wrote a column on the Nanny State for the Denver Post it generated a lot of reader mail -- both supportive and antagonistic. We all know the left is more inclined to believe that government can be a force of good, or help an individual become a better person. And still I was surprised by how many liberal readers are sick of overprotective government. When I realized that there weren't really any mainstream books bringing together all these low-level confrontations over individual choice, I thought I'd give it a shot.

On one hand, you describe "nannyism" as "anathema to the spirit of the American people." Yet you also acknowledge, "The fact that politicians, bureaucrats, and activists long to be our parents is not new. What is inexplicable, though, is the swiftness with which Americans have allowed these worrywarts to take on the job." If, as a collective, we're so willing to hand over personal autonomy to social engineers, can nannyism really still be classified as "anathema" to our spirit?

In fairness, the average person tends to be far less idealistic than a political observer or true believer. Most Americans, for example, are annoyed by passive smoke. The more philosophical issue of property rights or economic incentives and overall paternalism is the furthest thing from their mind. They want to enjoy dinner without reeking of smoke when they get home. For some, it's a surrender of convenience. Sadly, many of us have bought into the idea that we have the "right" not be irritated or inconvenienced -- even on someone else's property. This is a collective shift in our mindset that explains a small part of the Nanny State. What scares me the most about nannyists, though, is their disdain for free will -- which I still hope is "anathema" to our spirit. Nannies are constantly trying to persuade America that a corporation can hypnotize consumers into engaging in activities that hurt them. The nanny doesn't believe you or I have the willpower to withstand the lure of, say, Taco Bell. And they certainly they don't believe any consumer actually chooses Taco Bell. Some reviews of Nanny State have taken me to task for failing to delve into the intense and nefarious power of marketing dollars. They still don't get it. I'm a man with a king-sized addictive personality. If I can resist a Big Mac, anyone can.

The problem is each citizen has a pet issue. It may be a smoking ban. Or the need to coerce the obese to stop stuffing their faces. And when you add all of those up we have the nanny state. While all these piddling intrusions can be separately viewed as non-threatening, once you bundle them together we have a movement with the potential to inflict tremendous damage on our basic freedoms.

You discuss in Nanny State the glee with which "both political parties now habitually take advantage of nannyism to further their own special interests." There is clearly a bipartisan agreement to expand government power. Is there still a significant constituency for the kind of individual responsibility necessary for true personal freedom? Or has this game become all about protecting the rights of the few of us who would prefer not to be swallowed up by the leviathan?

Perhaps the most portentous sign of Nanny State rising can found via Republicans. Not only have many of them taken implausible strides in centralizing and expanding government, but they've also co-opted the rhetoric and reasoning of nannyism. On issues of paternalism, I don't see much difference between Hilary Clinton and former Arkansas Governor/health nut Mike Huckabee or Texas governor Rick Perry. And until recently, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg -- who, as far as I can see, has no ideological position other than paternalism -- was calling himself a Republican. In the end, we elect these people so it's our responsibility to un-elect them when they fail to represent our interests. On the nanny-state issue, it's typically a local problem. And how many of your neighbors -- the ones grousing about the world -- actually know the name of their city council person or state senator? I'll take a stab at my neighborhood, using wholly anecdotal evidence, and say around 20 -- by which I mean 20 actual people, not percent.

The subtitle of your book warns the forces of nannyism are "turning us into a nation of children." While reading your chapter "The Playground Despots," however, it occurred to me that children are -- whether standing up against nannies to save dodgeball, tag or the First Amendment -- actually among the only freedom fighters left in this country. Is it fair, then, to lump children in with "boneheaded bureaucrats" and all the rest?

That's a great point. And I hope I didn't dump kids in with the rest of these saccharine do-gooders. What struck me most about the way we treat children is how most of it is so unnecessary. Kids are healthier than ever. Parents are more informed than ever. Both have more choices than ever. Yet, there seems to be an enhanced negativity about the future of kids. The point I try to make in the book, is that government, or in this case, local school boards and administrators, have become hyper risk averse. It's an unnatural, over-the-top risk aversion. The vagaries of life always include some level of risk. And though our natural instinct, for most part, is to avoid perilous situations, nannies believe government can do it for us on an everyday level. That belief leads to banning the game of tag and a playground featuring a "no running" sign.

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