When Does the Nanny Become a Despot?

So among my liberal friends is Joel Mathis of the Philadelphia Magazine.  This is one of those situations made possible in the Internet age: I’ve never met Joel in person, but we’ve spoken on the phone several times, exchange lots of emails and Facebook comments, and he’s one-half of the Right-Left “Ben and Joel Podcast” with Ben Boychuk on the InfiniteMonkeys site that is always excellent.  (And let’s face it: “InfiniteMonkeys” is one of the greatest blog names ever.  James Lileks calls it “a sparkly blog.”)

Well, Joel has issued a big-time throw down today, with an PhillyMag column titled “In Defense of the Nanny State.”  Much of Joel’s particular argument in this short column centers around the facts of U.S. mortality rates and the relationship to the lack of universal health care.  This is not a new dispute, and there is a rousing debate about what wonks call “confounding variables” besides the extent of health coverage that can explain trans-national differences.  I think Joel’s argument is vulnerable here, but then it is a short column and not a long journal article where the qualifications and refinements are possible.  But the comments on his Facebook thread making the usual objections lead us to a dead-end I think.  Factual arguments are always important, of course, but more useful is the broader teaching Joel has in mind, which he states late in the column:

Why I’m a liberal? I believe you can have freedom and care about reducing income inequality. I believe you can have liberty and smaller soda sizes. I believe you can throw off tyranny and still have a smarter health care system that delivers care to more people. I’m a liberal because even though conservatives and libertarians can sometimes come up with good ideas to address these problems, mostly you sense they’d rather not be bothered. Which leaves good old-fashioned Big Government as the most likely option to actually fix stuff.

Nannies don’t imprison you, after all, and they never did. Their job is to help you stand on your own.

Good for Joel for stating it directly rather than hiding behind equivocations or facile constructs.  So here’s my response: What conservatives find objectionable about the nanny state (or Big Government if you like—the terms are virtually interchangeable—they both mean essentially unlimited government) is that while any single state intervention may be plausible or defensible in isolation, the steady accumulation of state interventions at some point begins to be a substantive erosion of liberty, and, more importantly, begins to alter the essential character of free citizens.

Sure, am I really less of a free person if I can’t buy a 32-oz soda?  Or get a plastic bag in my local store?  In isolation, not really.  But what about when I can’t buy a 32-oz soda, can’t burn a fire in my home’s fireplace (now an air quality regulation in many places), can’t build a spiral staircase from my back deck (as I learn this morning from the San Luis Obispo County planning department), can’t own a gun (New York, Chicago), can’t get plastic bags at the store any more (even though I not only recycle them but reuse them for many of my own purposes), can’t patronize Ubercars because the incumbent taxicab monopoly gets the city council to block the new business in the name of “consumer protection” (naturally), or can’t start a small business except with great difficulty and dead-weight expense to the local bureaucracies?  And on the other side of the ledger, large bureaucratic interventions like Obamacare will stifle marketplace discovery and adaptation.  Part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in is because of two government interventions of long standing: the tax treatment of health care (dating back to World War II), which accelerated third party payment that drives the perverse cost trends of the health care marketplace.

After a while, you’re not “standing on your own” any more.  The nanny hasn’t put you in prison, but it has changed a lot of things in a significant way.  That was the point of Tocqueville’s famous passage about “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear.”  Most everyone quotes this paragraph from that chapter:

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.

So far so good.  People often miss the next paragraph, which is equally important:

I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have just painted, could be combined better than one imagines with some of the external forms of freedom, and that it would not be impossible for it to be established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Two observations.  The point I’m making here—that there is a substantive cumulative effect of seriatim state interventions—is one liberals themselves make in one particular case: the environment.  The formal Environmental Impact Statement process is based on the premise that while one single housing development may have a de minimis impact on the environment, the cumulative impact of one development taken together with others is significant enough to justify regulation of the individual proposed development.  And this is sensible in the abstract.  But why don’t we apply the same scrutiny to the cumulative impact of state interventions?

Second, as we contemplate the “Europeanization” of America under the Obama worldview, let’s stipulate, as Charles Murray does, that people in Europe aren’t “unfree” in the ordinary sense of the word.  Here’s Charles, from his 2009 lecture on the subject of “The Happiness of the People” (it’s an extraordinary lecture, a real tour de force worth reading in its entirety):

Not only are social democrats intellectually respectable, the European model has worked in many ways. I am delighted when I get a chance to go to Stockholm or Amsterdam, not to mention Rome or Paris. When I get there, the people don’t seem to be groaning under the yoke of an evil system. Quite the contrary. There’s a lot to like—a lot to love—about day-to-day life in Europe. . .

But—as Tocqueville warned, Murray thinks it has changed the character of the free peoples of Europe in ways that make them less happy: “the problem with the European model, namely [is that] it drains too much of the life from life. And that statement applies as much to the lives of janitors—even more to the lives of janitors—as it does to the lives of CEOs.”  Charles has some data on this he can point to.

Okay, I can hear Joel responding, All these somewhat abstract considerations are all very well and good, but what about the unemployed janitor without health insurance?  Fair enough objection.  But here I must suggest that once upon a time liberals got both parts of this problem, whereas today they only get the practical side.  I’ve been drawn back lately once again to Lionel Trilling’s famous book The Liberal Imagination from 1950, where he argued that reform liberalism was becoming too programmatic and organizational, and that its powerful social imagination was suffering atrophy.  He revisited the theme of his famous preface in an unpublished lecture in 1974 (the year before he died), when he felt fully vindicated in predicting “this dull, repressive tendency of opinion which was coming to dominate the old ethos of liberal enlightenment” and that liberal thought (and consequently policy) was shedding its legacy as “a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty.”

Instead, today we get mandates instead of moral suasion.  Instead of persuading people to be responsible with their plastic bags, we ban them. Instead of persuading people they are foolish to drink 32-oz sodas, we ban them.  And to conservatives this looks deeply weird, too, as well as unimaginative and hypocritical.  For liberals, it’s okay for a teenage girl to have an abortion—no questions asked—but not okay for her to order a 32-oz soda?  Look, if more teenage girls order 32-oz sodas, fewer of them will need abortions in the first place, believe me.

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