I looked at the headline for this piece at Minnesota “Progressive” Project – “Reflections on the upside of the “The Nanny State”” – and thought “oh, goodie – Grace Kelly is at it again”.
The first graf did nothing to shake the first impression:
Who’s afraid of nannies?Not me. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t help but love Julie Andrews in both of her nanny roles, as the high-flying Mary Poppins and the exuberant governess of the wealthy Von Trapp family in “The Sound of Music.”
Or maybe it’s because my youngest daughter actually is working this year as a nanny for an affluent New York City family.
I flipped, pro forma, to the bottom to confirm – and was just a little bit stunned to see it was actually the always-intelligent Dane Smith, former “Dean of Minnesota Political Reporters (although on any given day Pat Kessler and Bill Salisbury also qualify), who now runs “Growth and Justice”, a liberal think tank.
And I gotta confess – he usually does better than this:
Whatever the reason, I am not exactly fear-stricken when government bashers raise the specter of – hide under your beds now – “The Nanny State.”
That’s more fodder for my “Chanting Points Memo” series – the liberal meme that anyone who opposes big government and big taxes does it out of “fear”. You hear it everywhere – I saw a mainstream media commentator call the passage of Obamacare a “victory over fear”. Of all the left’s memes, it’s among the most cynical – a mass attempt to frame all dissent as irrational. It may make good political rhetoric; it’s a lousy way to run a civil society.
Smith goes on to list some of the blessings government brings – food and drug regulation, makign sure oil companies clean up their messes, public education…
…er, we’ll get back to that one.
And Smith – a self-described “former Republican”, although one of the Arne Carlson variety – isn’t completely blinkered:
Let’s concede that our democratic governments’ instinct to protect and serve, and to respond to every problem and highly publicized accident or failure, can be a bit much.
My own favorite example of overreach is from several years ago, when the Minnesota Legislature, worried about salmonella poisoning, tried to crack down on potluck dinners by prohibiting people from bringing certain kinds of homemade casseroles to the church brunch. Public outrage nipped that one in the bud, and personally, I’d risk my life for grandma’s hot dish.
The quibble, of course, is that government does do things that people need, want or, in some cases, get foisted on them, sometimes “for their own or society’s good”. Some of those things, most of agree on; a court system, a military to defend at the very least the nation’s borders (!), police and fire departments.
There are also regulations that everyone agrees on: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t do material harm to other people or their property.
But you don’t have to go too far before you start getting to “optional” territory, the stuff not eveyrone agrees on.
But we also need to seriously consider the alternatives to laws and regulations that protect the safety, health and welfare of real people. safeguard public health and safety, and reflect on the good that nannies do.
First, we need to remember that the nannying responses arise from repetitive, often outrageous, and sometimes lethal failures by individuals and the private sector to protect the common good.
And as a limited government advocate (Smith uses the term “Government Basher”, which is a tad pejorative), even I might agree that “repetitive, outrageous and lethal” might be good yardsticks for finding things that need regulating – especially things where I, a private citizen, would have to resort to outrageous and lethal means to get redress.
But we all know that the vast majority of government programs and regulations cover things that are dubiously outrageous, and are lethal only if the paperwork falls on someone. We are awash in regulations that cost vastly more, financially and morally, than they could possibly be worth. And some that are just plain insulting.
The 55mph speed limit jumps to mind; the interstate system was designed to be travelled safely at 80mph; drivers who are not comfortable at 80 (like me, who is just fine at 65) can feel free to stay in the right lane and keep it over 40. There were safety improvements – but mainly from the reduction in disparity in speeds, not the speed drop itself. And very little gas was directly saved by the cut in top speed – gas prices that promoted prudent conservati0n did.
And yet for most of us there is regulation that we can justify; the question is not “whether”, but “can we get the programs and regulation that society objectively needs, without having also to pay for every pet project and, worse, crusade that government and the special interests that pay for it want?
A majority of Americans and Minnesotans are thankful or at least understand the need for our governments’ nannying roles. Most reasonable people would not argue against governmental nannying that: makes us and our teenagers wear seat belts
Do I argue against it? No, but mainly due to pointlessness. A former Jeep driver, I put on my seatbelts as a matter of habit, and I make sure my kids do, and I resent government presuming I don’t.
and makes car manufacturers provide airbags
Perhaps, but I’d pay for them anyway.
tries to prevent oil companies and corporate polluters from destroying the oceans and other environments
Uh oh. Bad timing, Dane. Y’see, the bigger the “regulation”, the more temptation for government to tinker with it on behalf of the special interests to whom they report.
The current disaster in the Gulf is a great example of this; pressure from California environmentalists and Malibu property owners like Martin Sheen pressured government into “regulating” drilling out of existence along the California cost, despite huge reserves and shallow water in which disasters like Deepwater Horizon’s could be repaired easily and quickly. But no – the “regulation” (and similaar ones barring exploration and drilling in other easier-to-reach places) forced oil companies to look for oil in much, much deeper water, with its two-tons-per-square-inch water pressure and the staggering engineering problems that come with it under ideal circumstances, to say nothing of when trying to repair a disaster.
In other words, the root cause of the environmental disaster unfolding in Louisiana is…regulation!
teaches our children how to read
Regulations and nannying did that? I thought parents did that.
The principle behind our mostly good and effective governments is that while individual freedoms must be protected, the group is important too. The collective and democratic wisdom that prohibits littering – and collects taxes to clean up after those who do litter – overrules the wonderful feeling of freedom that comes from throwing your beer can out the window.
Right. We regulate bad behavior.
It’s just that the more fine-grained the behavior you try to regulate, the higher teh costs get while the less benefit you get for the money.
Great example: Drunk driving. Preventing people from driving at over .12 or .1 percent blood alcohol level (BAC) brought a huge wave of arrests (revenue!), and a distinct drop in drunk driving fatalities. Expanding the regulation – dropping the BAC limit to .08 – added to the costs (and, for government, revenues), without actually touching fatalities – because almost no fatalities and very very few accidents of any kind are caused by people with .08 BAC.
So, Dane Smith, let’s go back to your yardstick; if something is outrageous and lethal, there’s a case to be made for regulating it “for society’s good”; people driving with a .14 BAC are clearly a real danger, for example.
But when you start dropping BACs to .08, you’re not regulating the outrageous and lethal; you’re regulating the borderline-imprudent and generally-innocuous. At this point all you’re doing is raising revenues via your court system.
Government should not be a nanny – government should be a cop who prevents the “outrageous and lethal”, but sticks within the rules otherwise.
Someone whose main purpose is to extort money and serve the interests of her powerful friends isn’t a nanny; it’s a mobster.
By the way, Dane Smith – why are you writing for MPP? Did someone tell you “squander your credibility”, or what?