In Praise of the Nanny State

The so-called nanny state, or social welfare polity, has come in for much unfair criticism of late. Die-hard conservatives and rogue individuals have mounted a shameless and benighted campaign against the strenuous efforts of Western governments to guarantee the security and well-being of their citizens. It is depressing to observe, for example, how the troglodytes of the Right have objected to legislative actions and proposals intended to avert the imminence of global warming, such as the imposition of carbon taxes, the exploitation of biofuels, the switchover to mercury-filled light bulbs, the regulation of interior thermostats, and a tariff on air travel.

These objectors cite the obviously ephemeral "fact" that we have been enjoying a period of global cooling since 1995 and that many prognostications indicate this trend will continue into the indefinite future. They have not realized that there is a crucial distinction between weather and climate and that, although the weather may be growing colder, the climate is definitely heating up. Additionally, they like to raise the bugaboo of a looming velvet totalitarianism, claiming that we are well on the way to establishing a kind of bananny republic in which individual liberties are gradually being phased out and the cherished autonomy of the person is being surrendered to the overriding care of the paternal state.

All this, of course, is the worst sort of nonsense, an infallible sign of retrograde sensibilities that cannot come to terms with the undoubted progress of social enlightenment in an otherwise darkening world. They are blind to the merits of the new dispensation which has only the happiness of its constituents at heart and the laudable intention to protect them from themselves. They condemn the intrusion of experts, bureaucrats, policymakers, and the constabulary into the private lives of citizens, but fail utterly to understand the benign purpose of the state and its various local jurisdictions to manage the vicissitudes of existence and provide comfort to all and sundry.

Let us consider a few representative instances of the new disposition at work.

Anti-smoking decrees have undeniably been a great boon to public health, even though the number of furtive smokers in parking lots and doorways has leaped exponentially, the cigarette-smuggling trade has received an unanticipated boost, and many bars and restaurants have been forced to close their doors. But all good things come at a price. Gun control may have rendered law-abiding citizens yet more vulnerable to burglaries, house invasions, muggings, and unspecified threats from armed criminals, but it must be allowed that shooting mishaps in backyard sheds and rumpus rooms have markedly declined. Litigation in favor of people whose rights have been abused and who deserve remuneration for egregious suffering -- such as those who spill scalding cups of McDonald's coffee on their laps, get drunk at office parties and cripple themselves afterward, or desire sex-change operations defrayed from the public purse -- is surely to be commended.

And it gets better still. Parents may be prosecuted for disciplining their moppets and reprimanded by the courts for "grounding" their teenagers. Outside the home, school children are increasingly shielded from the prospect of injury and humiliation. In many schools across the country, rubber mats are placed under slides and jungle gyms to cushion a rough landing. Ball games are frowned upon lest a child be struck by an errant projectile. The invidious game of tag has at long last been abolished in various primary institutions to spare the poor child's feelings when he or she is designated as "it." Just as importantly, teachers are reprimanded for speaking sternly or issuing failing grades. The blow to a young person's self-esteem, it has been persuasively maintained, could well be terminal.

Such custodial measures are certainly preferable, for example, to the Gazan mode of upbringing and education in which kindergartners learn to fire Kalashnikovs before they can read. And our sheltering programs are clearly superior to the Taliban curriculum in which elementary school graduates acquire proficiency in the extravagant art of decapitation. Admittedly, our own young postulants are no match for their Gazan or Taliban counterparts and would immediately be routed in any future schoolyard scrum or alleyway donnybrook. Yet we may content ourselves in having projected an ideal model of comportment for a savage and indifferent world, despite the losses and casualties to be absorbed in later violent conflicts. Noblesse oblige.