Monday, March 28, 2011

Hitchcock: The Appalling Threat of the 'Nanny State'

Editor's Note: From now on, when I reprint a column written by Leonard Hitchcock, professor emeritus at Idaho State University, the post title will reflect his name and the title he originally assigned to each column. He submits each of his columns to the Idaho State Journal where they are considered for publication and are often reassigned titles at the editor's discretion. When possible I will also include a link to the column at the ISJ blogs. As always, his columns are reprinted here with his permission.


Right-wingers use the phrase “the nanny state” to encapsulate their conception of both the Obama administration and liberals’ generic vision of the good society. The phrase is, of course, also intended to express conservatives’ abhorrence of that reality and vision. They hope that it will call up from people’s childhood memories a deeply-felt resentment at being subjected to the rule of adults, i.e. adults who refused to grant them the right to make their own choices. The message is, then, that the nanny state treats its citizens as children, rather than as adults, and abrogates their freedom of choice.

It’s somewhat curious, by the way, that the adults that most frequently exercise this sort of authority over children are parents, yet the phrase refers to nannies. Perhaps that has to do with the expression’s origin, since it was reputedly a Conservative British M.P. who first used it. But it also might unintentionally reflect the fact that, in the United States, republicans are far more likely than democrats to belong to that stratum of society that can afford to employ nannies. And then there’s the phrase’s British connotation, which serves to further stigmatize such governments because Britain notoriously tends toward socialism, also known as the “welfare” state, the bĂȘte noir of the radical right. For conservatives, children are, indeed, quite properly ruled by parents (and sometimes by nannies), whose job it is to protect them from the evils that abound in the extra-family environment. Children are also to be instilled with a set of values and a yearning for independence so that, when the time comes, and they are ejected from the nest, they will be able to function independently of their parents. Once they have achieved “adulthood” they are on their own and parents who continue to attempt to direct or ameliorate their children’s lives violate the conservative model of child-rearing. This “strict father” conception of the family (see George Lakoff’s Moral Politics), stresses the moral virtue of self-reliance and approves of a world in which failure to succeed is quite properly punished by suffering.

It is therefore the conviction of conservatives that right-thinking adult citizens do not wish to be protected by their government. For them, government protection will imply that they are not, after all, adults; that they are not independent and capable of managing their own lives successfully. But what about wrong-thinking adults? Conservatives would acknowledge that there are, unfortunately, citizens who want protection, but such citizens are the weak, the incompetent and the undeserving, and they would be better off without protection because that would force them to grow up and take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Real adults, therefore, not only believe that their own freedom is compromised by government’s misguided efforts to protect them, but properly resent other people being “coddled” by such protection.

Ours is a capitalist society. The profit motive drives the machine. In the competition for profits, businesses regularly lie to the public, conceal the flaws and dangers that their products contain, cut production costs in any way possible, overcharge, and encourage excessive consumption. Centuries ago the public realized that “caveat emptor” was a slogan created by sellers to relieve themselves of responsibility. The average citizen had no way to check on whether the packing house that produced his meat was sanitary, whether adulterants had been added to his drugs, whether the construction firm that built his house used the right materials, whether the bank he patronized would still have his money when he wanted to withdraw it, or whether the toy he bought his child contained invisible toxins.

So the average citizen wanted, and felt he deserved, protection against all those affluent captains of industry whose intentions were to cheat and exploit him, and whose trustworthiness he hadn’t the means to ascertain. He asked the government for help, which was the rational, the adult, thing to do, and the government delivered.

There is no shame in being protected by the government. We pay it to do just that. The only freedom that we lose is the freedom to be bilked, left destitute in our old age, and denied medical care when we need it. And we should take encouragement from the fact that the rich and the corporations, the puppet masters of those conservative ideologues, seem to feel no shame in accepting their own protection from the government. They accept the tax breaks and subsidies that their political minions obtain for them, without complaint and without resentment, and are able somehow to bear the loss of freedom that is thereby so cruelly imposed upon them.

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