In the Washington Post today, Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania reviews Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America into a Nation of Children by David Harsanyi. She makes a point that I’ve thought a lot about in discussions of our growing “nanny state”:
But Americans were never as free as Harsanyi imagines….
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.
No free-marketer, Allen leaves out a few other attributes of 1960, like 90 percent income tax rates and rigid regulation of transportation, communications, and finance.
Open the newspaper on any random page, and you can find evidence of the growing tendency to meddle in our lives: seat-belt laws, smoking bans, trans-fat bans, potty parity, and on and on. But are those things worse than the older laws that Allen cites? And if you go back further than she did, you can find worse indignities: established churches, slavery, married women denied property rights. So while we should deplore the deprivations of freedom that Harsanyi explores, we should not necessarily conclude that we’re progressively less free.
Allen also complains that
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.”
That’s a good consequentialist reason to oppose the nanny state, but it’s not the best reason. The real reason that we should be free to make our own decisions about seat belts, smoking, and fatty foods is that we’re adults; that we’re endowed by our Creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to be free is to have moral autonomy and personal responsibility.
Still, any author should be thrilled to have the Washington Post recommend that we “read Harsanyi as a 21st-century John Stuart Mill.”