Commentary

Nanny State Makes Poor Babysitter for Americans

This article appeared on Foxnews.com, May 24, 2006.
Recently, the Economist ran a cover story on what the magazine called “soft paternalism.” The article focused on the emerging idea among some public policy thinkers that too many Americans make “bad” decisions. Thus, we need government to nudge us in the right direction, be it through sin or vice taxes, public relations campaigns, or in some cases, outright prohibitions.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks recently added to the discussion, noting that today’s Republican party has abandoned the allegiance to freedom and liberty it forged in the Goldwater-Reagan era, and instead embraced a kind of moral and order-imposing authoritarianism aimed at provided moral guardrails for an unsteady populace — a trend that Brooks, incidentally, embraces.

It’s largely the Republicans have vamped up the Drug War, and who have regretfully expanded it even into doctor’s offices, where drug warriors now decide what courses of treatment are and aren’t acceptable. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez recently stated that under his watch, eradicating pornography will be a priority on par with fighting terrorism. And several members of Congress are now pushing to expand FCC regulation to include cable TV, satellite radio, and perhaps even the Internet, all in an effort to protect Americans from bad words and dirty pictures.

Nanny Statism is commonly thought to be the province of the left. And with good reason. The public health movement that has taken on obesity and alcohol and given us seat belt laws and smoking bans has always carried with it whiffs of socialism. But the right is no better. If leftists don’t trust Americans to make our own decisions about what we eat, what we drink, or whether or not to smoke tobacco, conservatives don’t trust us to make up our own minds about what transpires in our bedrooms, what music we listen to, what television we watch, what we consume from the Internet, and whether or not we should smoke marijuana.

I’ve discussed before why I think the left’s constant cries of looming healthcare catastrophes caused by our bad habits are misguided: We’re healthier than we’ve ever been. Though our bellies may sag a bit over our beltlines, life expectancy is at an all-time high in America, and our two biggest killers — heart disease and cancer — are in swift decline.

But what about those Nanny Statists on the right? Is the “coarsening” of American culture really having all of the ill social effects conservatives say it is? The data overwhelmingly suggests not. Nearly every social indicator is trending in a direction we ought to find comforting.

For example: Teen pregnancy is down. According to the Department of Justice, juvenile crime, crimes against children, the incidence of rape, as well as overall crime, is down.

Divorce is down. Teens are waiting longer to have sex. High school dropout rates are down. Unemployment remains low. Over the past decade, the roverall rate of abortion has largely declined.

If Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Internet porn, and violent video games are indeed inducing a nationwide slouch toward Gomorra, it’s difficult to discern from those statistics.

What’s most intriguing is that all of these trends have been taking place since at least the mid-1990s—a time period during which technology has given us more freedom to indulge in sin and vice than ever before, and an era in which Americans have become markedly less judgmental.

For example, the last 15 years have seen an increase in tolerance for gay lifestyles, with shows like Will & Grace gaining mainstream acceptance, and the gay marriage movement scoring notable victories in states like Massachusetts. The 1990s also saw the rise of the Internet, which has given Americans private, unfettered access to gambling and pornography; enabled the anonymous purchase of alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs; and given even the oddest and most bizarre of subcultures the opportunity to find others just like them, and to create communities.

The 1990s also saw the rise of gangsta’ rap, violent video games, Howard Stern, and South Park.

Of course, I’m not arguing that all of this so-called trash culture caused the positive trends I pointed out earlier (though some have made that case). Rather, I think it shows that when given maximum personal freedom and abundance of options — even options others seem to believe are “bad” for us — most of us do just fine. We don’t need all-knowing politicians and lifestyle cops guiding our hand.

Interestingly enough, the one statistic that bucks the trends outlined above is drug use. Drug use among adults is up fairly dramatically over the last twenty years. But drug use is one area of personal liberty the government has gotten more aggressive about policing. Which to me suggests that government efforts to control our decisions not only stifle individual freedom, they aren’t very effective.

Even with drug use, there’s evidence that Americans are behaving responsibly. Though recreational use is up among adults, it’s actually down over the same period among people under 18. So while people old enough to make their own decisions about their lives might be more likely to relax with the occasional joint, they’re also making more of an effort to steer their kids clear of what are clearly adult activities.

Where large numbers of Americans have historically made bad decisions, those decisions tend to have been influenced by government. The dramatic, 30-year rise in fatherless babies among the poor, for example, corresponded with a social welfare system that inadvertently incentivized single motherhood. The current methamphetamine trend would likely have never happened had Americans had access to safer, more conventional amphetamines.

In 2004, the conservative magazine City Journal reported on a series of polls showing that when it comes to issues of vice, personal behavior, and morality, Americans aged 30 and under are more conservative than several prior generations. Yet they’re also more tolerant of other lifestyles, less judgmental, and heavy consumers of the pop culture conservative opinion leaders tell us is so corrupting.

If you believe that Americans are incapable of making good decisions for themselves, and that government must consequently police our lives to make sure we’re on a firm moral foundation, you’ll probably find that dichotomy troubling. For those of us who believe in putting a premium on personal freedom, it’s no dichotomy at all. It makes perfect sense.

Radley Balko, policy analyst, specializes in “nanny state” and consumer choice issues, including alcohol and tobacco control, drug prohibition, obesity, and civil liberties.