Commentary

In the Reign of Cotton Mather

This article originally appeared in Forbes on May 9, 2005.

This country’s laws are being rewritten by puritans, prigs and busybodies.

Earlier this year, when Major League Baseball questioned Congress’ right to hold public hearings on steroid use in the big leagues, Government Reform Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) and ranking minority member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) sent back a striking response. Davis and Waxman told baseball that the committee “may at any time conduct investigations of any matter.”

Any time. Any matter. And this from the congressional committee charged with curbing government excesses.

But “any time, any matter” jurisdiction is fast becoming the norm in Washington. Think Terry Schiavo and gay marriage. Think obesity, the “crisis” that has Congress poking around in your kid’s lunchbox and in your refrigerator. Think the drug war, which gives cops access to our medicine cabinets, doctors’ offices and hospices.

If you think the feds are bad, state governments are even worse. The Nanny State is descending, from 50 capitals.

The Internet is especially prone to nannyism. Utah tried to rein in Internet pornography earlier this year (last I checked, it hadn’t worked). Lawmakers in five states are supporting bills that would require online dating services to do background checks on members, a move one supporter says will save users “heartache.” A New Jersey lawmaker wants ESPN to pay for the harmful effects its televised poker tournaments have on young viewers. Her bill is conspicuously quiet on the New Jersey Lottery’s contribution to the problem.

Consider your pet. Surely Fido or Mittens is immune from government scrutiny, right? Nope. San Francisco passed a new building code earlier this year—for doghouses. In case you were considering a pair of double-Ds for your schipperke, West Hollywood, Calif. is considering a law that would ban cosmetic surgery for pets. And the state of California has banned genetically modified fish in your aquarium.

Lawmakers are also prone to banning trends they don’t understand, or just find icky. Wyoming is debating a regulation that would prohibit facial jewelry in the food service industry, an apparent attempt to keep the alternative girl’s eyebrow ring from dropping into your macchiato, even though its backers couldn’t cite a single such incident. A Texas lawmaker has introduced a bill that would outlaw “sexually suggestive” dance moves in cheerleading routines. California bans tanning beds for kids under 14, citing studies linking tanning beds to skin cancer. No word on whether they’ll bar kids from lying in the sun, too. And the U.S. Supreme Court recently let stand an Alabama ban on sex toys.

The all-time nanny might be New York State Democratic Assemblyman Felix Ortiz. In 2004 Ortiz introduced a law that would require every car sold in New York to come equipped with an ignition interlock device. Motorists would need to blow into a tube and pass an alcohol breath test before the car would start, then perform the test again every 20 to 40 minutes.

In just the first four months of 2005 Ortiz has introduced laws that would ban all cell phone use while driving (including hands-free); ban pornography from newsstands; force consumers to show two forms of identification when using a credit card; test all public school children for diabetes; ban expiration dates on retail gift certificates; ban alcohol billboard advertisements within a mile of every school and day care center; require nutritional labeling on restaurant menus; measure the fat of every public school student; and impose a “fat tax,” not just on junk food but also on “videogames, commercials and movies.”

Nanny statists are probably well intentioned, yet they’re obsessed with the number of lives this bill or that regulation might save. But a shorter life well lived is far preferable to a long, bland life lived solely to keep from dying. Of course, that’s just this writer’s opinion.

That’s the point. It ought to be our decision, not that of lawmaking busybodies and prigs who claim to know what’s best for us.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.