The U.S. Governess

By Anita L. Allen,
a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and an ethics columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger
Thursday, October 11, 2007


How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children

By David Harsanyi

Broadway. 291 pp. $24.95

David Harsanyi begins his book, "Nanny State," with a libertarian fairy tale that goes like this: Once upon a time, Americans were free. We were allowed to abuse ourselves, take unreasonable risks and offend people. We enjoyed a glorious right "to be unhealthy, unsafe, immoral, and politically incorrect." But along came meddlesome politicians, bureaucrats and activists who put an end to all that. Self-righteous "wardens of well-being" mistook free adults for helpless children. Beginning more than 20 years ago with mandatory-seat-belt laws designed "to save citizens from their own self-destructive stupidity," the "nannies" next went after our booze and cigarettes. Lately, they have attempted to put the nation on a low-sugar, no-trans-fat, small-portion diet.

But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines, and we are not now the "children" he peevishly fears we have become. Harsanyi finds it "inexplicable" that Americans have "allowed . . . worrywarts" to be their "parents." It seems to me, however, that Americans have historically accepted what he calls "overreaching government" as often as we've rejected it. Certainly measures aimed at improving character or public health and safety are nothing new to American society.

It is true that in 1960 U.S. automobile drivers did not have to wear seat belts. But overreaching rules of other sorts reigned supreme. Under "blue laws," most retail stores and virtually all liquor stores were closed on Sundays, presumably so everyone could stay sober and go to church. More profoundly, in 1960 married couples could not legally obtain birth control in Connecticut, mixed-race couples could not marry in Virginia, black kids in Georgia attended underfunded segregated public schools and homosexual sex was against the law.

If, as Harsanyi contends, we are "well-cared-for slaves" today because of campaigns against trans fats and smoking, what were we back in 1960? The civil, consumer, women's and gay rights movements were in their infancy. There was real inequality and political oppression. Moreover, corporate America's advertising had our parents fooled into thinking that tobacco smoke was refreshing and carbonated soda was good for digestion.

What "Nanny State" lacks in historical perspective it almost makes up for with a bevy of funny examples of government gone wrong. A Virginia town tried to ban baggy pants that expose boxers or thongs; tomato growers sought to prohibit the sale of tasty but ugly ripe tomatoes. "Nanny State" spares no one, belittling the mayor of New York for trying to legislate bathroom equality for men and women (the ladies have to stand in long, long lines) and the president of the United States for wanting to add moral Right and 'Rong to the three R's.

Harsanyi is unsympathetic to ordinary people who honestly do not know as much about the inherent dangers of consumer products as one might wish. "You can't legislate against stupid," he quips, while recounting the story of a man whose fast-food-loving teenage daughter ballooned to 290 pounds and who himself wound up in the emergency room for "medical ills caused by his diet." Harsanyi seems to favor treating citizens like conscientious adults, even if they do not, in fact, have the information and education needed for responsible choices.

Readers have to wait until the final pages of this book to learn exactly why Harsanyi thinks the nanny state is a bad thing. The nanny state creates a moral hazard, he claims. "People act more recklessly when (purported) risk is removed." Plus, "the rigidity of nanny regulations does not allow consumers to practice common sense and protect themselves." People lorded over by micromanaging public policies may never fully grow up, he argues. Constricted beginning in childhood by protective legislation premised on politicians' morals and manipulated social statistics, Americans are destined to lose their capacity for genuine personal responsibility. The nanny state also blurs the lines between public and private, and between serious welfare concerns and trivial moralism.

Unfortunately, Harsanyi offers no criteria for distinguishing sound public management from intrusive micromanagement. His sweeping rejection of nanny laws is generic: Surely not all of them are equally bad. How can we balance the need for freedom and privacy with the need for regulation and accountability? Practical limits have got to be set on government interference with personal liberty. But because the harm people do to themselves has an impact on others' wallets and welfare, some limits must also be set on individual conduct.

To make this book work, it helps to read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill. In "On Liberty " (1859), Mill condemned laws prohibiting gambling, polygamy and the use of drugs and alcohol. The "only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others," Mill wrote. "His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant." Lacking Mill's philosophical nuance, this is Harsanyi's message, too.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company