Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Nanny state cheerleaders

The Times Argus of Vermont ran a gag-inducing editorial calling on the state legislature to approve a law allowing the police to pull people over for not wearing their seat belts. In calling on Vermont lawmakers to take a so-brave stand against unbuckled drivers, the editorial board went beyond the issue at hand to make a remarkably obnoxious argument for the nanny state.

No one wants to live in a nanny state. But neither do we want to live in a state of ignorance. The ongoing adoption of public health laws designed to protect us from ourselves follows increased knowledge about what we are doing to ourselves. Laws prohibiting smoking in public places followed when evidence became widely known that people were poisoning themselves and others. Laws requiring us to buckle up make a simple point that, if we aren't wedded to our own stubbornness, we ought to accept... [T]he real reason for the Senate to augment the enforcement powers of the police with regard to seat belt use is to save the lives of those who might not otherwise take the commonsense action necessary to save themselves.

Translation: It's all right to allow people to make choices so long as they make the right choices. If they make the wrong choices, our enlightened political leaders should make decisions for them.

Bleecch. We've heard that nonsense before. Freedom is only for the righteous--with righteousness defined by whoever has the whip hand. It's a concept of freedom that blames the slave for his own bondage. "If only you were a better person, I wouldn't have to beat you so hard."

It's government as domineering mother, forbidding us to play with the other kids because we might get hurt.

Is there any more fundamental rejection of the whole concept of free choice?

For those who need a refresher (like certain editorial board members): The whole idea of freedom is that people have a right to make their own decisions--and then to bear the consequences of their choices. If you don't like seatbelts, don't wear them; but don't go crying to anybody else if you wind up as your own hood ornament.

The freedom to make decisions for ourselves--whether for good or ill--is what gives our lives value. We can use that freedom to make of our lives what we will.

Life without the freedom to make our own choices may be safer, but it isn't worth living.

The Times Argus may be a small newspaper in a sleepy state, but its finger-wagging editorial lies on the leading edge of pernicious for-your-own-good thinking. The May 2007 issue of Reason has a great piece by Jacob Sullum (not online yet, but keep checking) on the extent to which public health arguments are increasingly being bent to infringe on personal freedom. The reasoning is the same as in the excerpt above: People make bad choices that negatively affect their health, so the state should step in to take away their options. The nanny-staters are ready to substitute their preferences for our own in areas of life as personal as what we eat, what we watch on TV and the activities we permit our children to enjoy. And whether we wear seat belts, of course.

The world envisioned by nanny-staters like the Times Argus editorial board may well be one in which we all live a little longer, but I suspect each passing moment would be a joyless, low-fat, sensible one. We would soon be praying for a shot of whiskey and five minutes, helmet-less, on a motorcycle.



Blogger Oliver Drew said...

I agree that no-one wants to live in a nanny state - we're having the exact same arguments here in the UK at the moment.

I think however, that certain "nanny" legislation is reasonable (and necessary). The "No Smoking in public places" for instance is necessary for the people who don't smoke (remember, the smokers choose to poison themselves, while non-smokers do not choose not to smoke, they just don't do it).

I find, like most things in life, there's reason in all things.

Governments in general have forgotten that they are elected to serve the will of the people, not to dominate the people and tell them what to do.

April 26, 2007 4:29 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


Agreed that smoking in public places affects other people, but isn't accepting a smoky environment part of the condition that you implicitly agree to when you enter a pub or restaurant whose owner welcomes smokers? After all, you could always decide to take your business elsewhere.

I definitely agree with you that governments have forgotten that it's not their job to dominate the people.

April 26, 2007 6:56 AM  
Anonymous andrew said...

I think that what's lost in all of this (smoking bans) is the current definition of what entails a "public" place. It's an affront to liberty that restaurants and bars are considered as such under the law.

April 26, 2007 9:01 AM  
Anonymous A. Magnus said...

Anti-smoking laws were tenets of the Nazi party in Hitler's day. The rationale there was that individuals have an obligation to Germany (known as collectivism) to not smoke and indulge in things that make them less healthy and able to work for the state.

In other words, the pack animals don't get the high fat treats, only the leaders do. That is the logic of anti-smoking laws, and prohibition laws in general. Anyone who thinks the state can be trusted in these matters ought to talk to survivors of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge or the cultural Revolution.

April 27, 2007 12:44 PM  

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