One lamentable feature of the contemporary West is the ruthless efficiency of the nanny state. It works overnight. You wake up, slouch over your coffee and corn flakes, and read of the new Bad Thing that must be stopped Right Now. In Britain, the latest activity slated for oblivion is smoking in public parks. Readers, I’m sure, do not need to be reminded that parks are outdoor places; the traditional excuse of “secondhand smoke” does not appear to apply (although it is possible to find “studies” on the dangers of “thirdhand smoke”).
Nevertheless, British officials moved quickly. In September 2013, the mayor of London, alleged conservative Boris Johnson, ordered a “major review of health in the capital,” according to The Independent. The results are already in: Lord Darzi, Britain’s former health minister and the appointed chair of Johnson’s special commission, has said smoking needs to be banned in London’s parks and public squares. There is news that “councils throughout England are also understood to be analysing how the proposals could be applied locally, paving the way for potentially the biggest crackdown on smoking since the Smoke Free legislation of 2007.”
Compare this swiftness of action where personal freedom is concerned with the sclerosis of “public service” in general. For Americans, the classic example of bureaucratic torture is the Department of Motor Vehicles, the initialism “DMV” being an instant punchline to anyone over school age. Other government bodies—the Postal Service, the TSA—elicit our chuckles and grumbles as well. It is no different for our friends across the Atlantic. I don’t know whether “NHS” produces the same degree of cynical amusement as “DMV,” but the reasons for any displeasure are the same.
Ordinary Britons know in their viscera that despite the official pretense of a “debate” over the latest smoking ban—”studies” and “reviews” and such—the outcome is preordained. There’s nothing about UK politics that would suggest any serious concern with preserving their liberty. Within the past year the British people have seen domestic terrorists behead a soldier, drummer Lee Rigby, in the broadest of London daylight. They’ve seen foreign terrorists—actually, domestic terrorists on holiday abroad—make snuff films of themselves beheading journalists and aid workers in the sands of Mesopotamia. They’ve discovered that police in Rotherham, a town in northern England, sat by for years while a child sex abuse ring ran efficiently under their noses. (It was the fear of being labeled “racist” that created their reluctance, the perpetrators being men of Pakistani heritage.) And yet the official reactions to these wicked events were nothing like as swift or absolute or moralistic as when tobacco enters the discussion.
It is now a given in Western civilization that “law” refers to restrictions against those least in need of them. It is not criminals but users of incandescent light bulbs who must contend with the power of the state. As I said, it all happens very quickly. Smoking has acquired a taboo that was inconceivable even a decade ago. That cigarettes are obviously unhealthy for you has only made this taboo easier to impose. But there’s a ratchet effect at work here: with each restriction against the clearly unhealthy comes a restriction, not long after, against the less clearly unhealthy.
Consider the steady campaign against electronic cigarettes. Nearly every day another city or county or school district or business has banned or restricted these devices. Type “e-cigarettes” into a search engine and you will see the paternalists at work all over the world.
Electronic cigarettes are odd targets for extinction. They emit no actual smoke; the “smoker” is inhaling and exhaling a flavored water vapor that contains a bit of nicotine—or none at all, depending on the brand. This is “smoking” only in a simulated, metaphorical sense. There is no tobacco and thus no odor, no tar, and no carbon monoxide. Even if they are not completely safe—what is?—what marginal health benefit could we possibly enjoy by stamping them out?
But paternalists are concerned with symbolism as much as, if not more than, the concrete world. Not only must smoking actual cigarettes be forcibly curtailed; any replacement becomes suspect as well, since the replacement violates the spirit of the original symbolic act of saving the masses. The people have found a loophole, and such feral children must be stopped.
Those who argue for bans draw from the bottomless fount of power that comes from invoking “health,” “safety,” “animal rights,” and “the environment.” There is room in free societies for protecting and fostering each of these, but the law-abiding citizen will have noticed that these concepts are continually used to dismantle their private lives. Since every civilization relies on the use of animals and the environment for its prosperity and cultural traditions, nothing is safe if “animal rights” and “environmentalism” are enforced to their logical limits. What possibly could not be controlled or banned in their name? Since neither animals nor environments can speak for themselves, there is always an infinite number of arguments that self-appointed proxies can employ on their behalf in order to regulate or ban what the proxies don’t like.
Is this a condition peculiar to postmodern societies such as ours? How did it get this way? How did we—I should say “they”—become more concerned about bagatelle than about actual matters of life and death and criminality? I once proposed that the term “nanny state” is actually a misnomer, since nannies are employees who provide a valuable service. They can also be fired if they don’t do a good job. A better term is “molester state”: a juggernaut whose advances are most unwelcome and not so easily terminated.
Come to think of it, we should pay more attention to all our political vocabulary. For instance, if you say the phrase “unlimited government,” most people mistakenly believe that you are referring to a government that exercises complete control at all times. Their minds immediately drift to images of secret police forces, gulags, and killing fields. Thus they dismiss as paranoid hyperbole any suggestion that the nanny state has become unlimited in its power. After all, nothing short of concentration camps or genocide would justify such a charge, right? But an unlimited government is, in essence, an arbitrary government, under which the criminals are the ordinary citizens.