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.

The state also provides for those who witness or experience profoundly disturbing events, dispatching teams of trained psychologists and grief counselors to succor those who cannot reasonably be expected to cope for themselves. One may be forgiven for wondering how our ancestors, destitute of such benefactions, dealt with tragedy. Perhaps they did not, relying instead on the unconscious mechanism of repression or reaction formation, which could only lead to adverse consequences in mental breakdown, resentment, the acting out of cruelty, and emotional instability. The current practice must qualify as a distinct improvement over the need to depend on anything so mercurial as inner resources, which are manifestly inadequate in the face of life's inevitable calamities.

I trust the reader will forgive a personal interjection. I am both delighted and proud to report that the police force in my hometown of Montreal, acting in the interests of public safety, recently handcuffed and fined an inveterate miscreant, a certain Ms. Bela Kosoian, for failing to grasp the rubber handrail on the subway's escalator. The force is to be praised for its timely intervention in preventing what may well have been a public disaster of inordinate proportions. The horrifying scenario of said Ms. Kosoian hurtling down the escalator steps and setting off a chain reaction resulting in the maiming, crushing, mutilation, and deaths of musing innocents beggars the imagination. Although there is no record of such a catastrophe having occurred before, the servants of the state must nevertheless ensure that its citizens are protected against the whims and eccentricities of wayward individuals.

To continue. We are well aware of the advantage of laws requiring us to buckle up when behind the wheel. Similarly, decrees being introduced against using a cellphone while operating a motor vehicle are plainly to be approved, but they are only a first step. Fiddling with the radio dials when driving at speed or in city traffic, as well as holding animated conversations with passengers, are no less distracting and hazardous and are indubitably a cause of much unnecessary distress. These unfortunate habits are certain to be addressed one day by our legislative benefactors who, it is to be hoped, will ban sound systems and install listening devices in cars to ensure conformable behavior.

One might also mention the various bylaws requiring bicyclists to wear helmets. Although such provisions may cut down on the breezy pleasures of cycling, inducing some riders to take up jogging instead, safety remains a paramount factor. Indeed, one may convincingly argue that these ordinances have not gone far enough, as has a certain newspaper letter-writer who contended that motorists, too, should be compelled to don helmets to reduce the trauma from automobile accidents -- an admirable proposition. After all, who could possibly object, upon due reflection, to the profit deriving from wearing upholstered headgear every time one enters a car? There is no disputing the benefits of such civic reforms which, when all is said and done, entail only minor inconveniences more than worth the trouble.

One might go even further and suggest that the state enact legislation making it equally mandatory for lovers to strap on helmets when engaged in sexual congress. One can vividly imagine the harm done when striking the headboard in a moment of swooning inattention or the danger of serious concussion when sexual partners thoughtlessly collide in the midst of their throes. Perhaps Kevlar vests would be in order, too. This is especially the case with married and common-law couples who have major responsibilities to attend to -- businesses, household affairs, and, of course, children -- and who must therefore do everything in their power to ward off the menace of incapacitation. But this is merely a suggestion that concerned lawmakers might consider in the future, notwithstanding the cavils and protestations that a regressive minority of obdurate throwbacks are sure to mount.

The above is only a random sampling of the blessings that accrue to the development of the nanny state, which constitutes a demonstrable advance over all previous forms of social and political organization. The world is a dangerous and mystifying place and we must be prepared for every exigency. As with some of our latest technological devices, we must have an app for everything. One shudders to think of the alternative.