Bill Steigerwald

With his book “Nanny State,” Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi has thrown a conservative-libertarian rope around a disturbing political and cultural trend -- the nannification of America by moral busybodies and nitpicking maternalists who use government power to micromanage our personal lives and protect us from ourselves. Whether it’s outlawing trans fats in New York City or tag on school playgrounds, Harsanyi says the “nannyists” among us are not only creating a new culture of dependency on government but also eroding what’s left of our individual freedoms. I talked to the author of “Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning American Into a Nation of Children” by phone from his offices in Denver.

Q: What’s “Nanny State” about?

A: It’s about the difference between coercing someone to do the right thing and convincing them to do the right thing. In the Nanny State, we coerce them -- or the government does, at least. All these intrusions -- what we eat, what we smoke, what we watch -- one by one they don’t seem like they are much. But when you bundle them together, you have a movement, and a movement that undermines our freedoms. That’s what the book’s about.

Q: Do most people know exactly what you are talking about when you mention "the Nanny State"?

A: I think people who pay attention to politics do know what we’re talking about. I’m not sure the everyday Joe does. That’s why I have a very long subtitle -- to make it clear that it’s not a book about child care.

Q: Who’s responsible for this Nanny State -- liberals, conservatives, Jane Fonda, Jerry Falwell?

A: All of the above. I would say that the left typically believes that government can make us better people and protect us from all the vagaries of life. On the right, at least rhetorically, we hear a lot about individual freedom. But in the past few years, and maybe it’s compassionate conservatism, we see the Republican Party coddling adults as well and buying into the Nanny State. It’s still not as bad as the liberals, but bad enough. But there are many different kinds of people involved in the Nanny State and it’s driven by all kinds of concerns -- hyper-risk-aversion and political correctness are also part of it. It’s not like you can pin it down to one or two types of people. It’s a bunch of people.

Q: It’s become federalized -- it’s enforced at all levels of government?

A: These ideas usually are hatched in city councils. The nannyistic endeavors of the federal government are not written about much in this book. I concentrate on local stuff. But yes, whenever we have collective health care, for instance, and all of a sudden we are responsible for each other, that just helps grow the Nanny State.

Q: What are some of your favorite examples of "Nanny State"-ism?

A: These are fun, not serious, for the most part: In New York there was a councilwoman who wanted to ban dangerously sized candy. In Chicago -- and I believe in all of Illinois -- they banned a certain kind of yo-yo because one child almost choked or hung himself, which doesn’t sound too funny; it was funnier when I wrote it, I guess. In Florida there are actually playgrounds that have “No Running” signs. These are things that just make you shake your head. In other places we have people who are advocating for regulations on food portions. So they count out the calories in a restaurant and tell you how much you could eat. And zero-tolerance laws where you can’t have a glass of wine and drive.

Q: Why did you feel you had to write this book?

A: Heh, heh, because they bought it from me -- no. Nannyistic laws are coming down every day. I think even liberals sometimes are annoyed by the paternalistic aspects of government on that level. But again, I just don’t think that people viewed it as a movement that was encompassing the whole country. I was surprised there wasn’t a mainstream book about nannyism. I thought I could bring it together and whoever decided to read the book could understand better how dangerous this movement is.

Q: What people or what agencies are the chief practitioners of nannyism?

A: There’s a process to the whole thing. It starts with activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the Center for Science in the Public Interest and they try to scare the living daylights out of everyone. Sadly, the Centers for Disease Control has also gotten into the act. They released a so-called study that claimed that 400,000 people died from obesity each year. This was quickly debunked. But the original story had run in every newspaper in the country – “Fat is killing us.” But the corrected number hardly ran anywhere and certainly didn’t have the prominence the other stories did. It sort of softens up the American public. You know, like these bogus secondhand-smoke studies that essentially tell you that you can have worse things happen to you from secondhand smoke than actually smoking for 20 years. These things soften up the American people for the city councilman to come in and ban smoking in your home, which they’ve just done in Belmont, California.

Q: Do you take issue with things like motorcycle helmet laws and seatbelt laws, which are sort of the beginnings of the Nanny State?

A: Yes, I do. I realize the motivation behind seatbelt and helmet laws. It was the first major initiative that told people you are too stupid to take care of yourself and even if you are hurting no one else, we’ve decided you must wear seatbelts and must wear helmets.

Tucker Carlson says in the back of the book that once you can force someone to put a seatbelt on, you can force them to do anything. I go into this at length in the book. I’m not against someone wearing a seat belt, because obviously it’s for self-preservation. I don’t put a seat belt on my kids or myself because I care about some $50 fine. I do it because I care about myself. And clearly, I think that most Americans do, and the ones who don’t, don’t care about the law anyway. That’s why I think seatbelt laws are irrelevant.

Q: Is this whole petty Nanny State thing a European thing, a socialist thing?

A: It’s a sort of socialism, a sort of collective looking out for each other. It sounds nice, like socialism does on occasion. But I think what we forget sometimes is that a little thing can lead to a big thing. Here in Colorado and elsewhere they wanted to pass “driving while distracted” laws – if you are playing with your radio, they can pull you over. Doesn’t that mean that a cop can pull you over for basically anything whenever they felt like it? They could racially profile if they felt like it. They could do anything they want. That’s what people forget: they are petty laws but in the long run they could become a very big deal.

Let me go back to the socialism thing. I tried to stay away from that, only in the sense that I didn’t want the book to become something partisan. But clearly, clearly, this is a European model we’re headed for -- and that’s a socialist model.

Q: We’re probably the smartest, safest, richest, most self-reliant, most anti-authoritarian society in history. Yet here we are micromanaging our lives more and more. What’s going on here?

A: I don’t know, because when you listen to the news you wouldn’t even know that we are living longer than ever before. Or that we’re healthier than ever before; our kids are healthier than ever before; we have more choices than ever before. What this is about is that there are people out there who don’t believe in free will. They are anti-capitalistic, so I guess they’re socialists. They think that McDonald’s can convince you to come in there and be fat and eat junk. I think that most Americans still believe in free will and the freedom to make the wrong choice. Without that freedom, the rest doesn’t really mean that much. However petty it is to create a “health zone” in South Los Angeles, I think that’s an assault on freedom. It’s hard for me to believe Americans let it happen, but it’s happening everywhere..

Q: It’s innocent, I guess, on the local level as long as you can move to another town. But at some point….

A: Where do you move now? It’s happening everywhere. Colorado Springs is a conservative place, maybe one of the most conservative places in the country. They have schools that just banned tag, because some kid would have to be “it.” That’s a whole different area. We get the kids started early: this is politically correct not to have someone be “it” or someone chasing someone else.

People keep giving me the example about the frog in a pot and you just keep incrementally putting up the heat and then it’s boiling and frog doesn’t even know it. I think we’re almost there. But I don’t see any stop to it, because it’s hard for a politician to get up and defend tobacco, or strippers, or drinking and all those things, even though the underlying argument obviously is freedom of choice and individual choice. But what we’re doing is creating a nation of dependents. Not just as far as welfare programs go, but as far as people believing that government should always protect them, from Katrina all the way down to a kid playing tag. And it’s dangerous.

Q: Albert J. Nock once wrote that individuals lose the ability to “do the right thing” and develop good moral character if the government outlaws everything.

A: Even in religion, as far as I know, and I’m a lapsed Jew, God gives you the choice. He gives you free will to make the right choice. Without that choice, making the right choice means nothing. I’d always think back when I was writing this book, “What would Thomas Jefferson think about this? What would he think about banning happy hours at pubs? Or telling an Irish immigrant who owns a little pub somewhere that he can’t smoke a cigarette in there -- on his own property?” I think it’s an assault on the American idea. I know that sounds dramatic, because it’s such small inconveniences, but that’s what they are. And then you have to deal with the argument about externalities – “Well, if you smoke, I have to pay for your health care in the end.” Clearly, that’s a slippery slope, because then you can tell me to exercise every day. That never ends. But the more we socialize on a federal level, and clearly that’s coming with health care, then we’re all going to be collectively looking out for each other. That never ends. It’s never-ending right now, and it’s accelerating. Soon we’ll be at the Nanny State. It’s Orwellian. I know people throw around Orwell’s name a lot, but if you read “1984” the protagonist is trying to sneak a cigarette – because small things lead to big things. I think that’s the lesson there, and that’s the lesson I hope this book will convey to people.

Q: It’s hard to believe that this Nanny State mentality is going to go away or lose its steam. Were you discouraged by what you found?

A: Sure, yeah. I’m pessimistic about the future. My parents defected from Hungary in 1969 to get away from this sort of thing -- the whole socialization we’re going through. For my kids to have to be heading into it is a depressing thought. And that’s where we’re headed on every level. I blame Republicans the most for not standing up for individual freedom -- even rhetorically, as Reagan did.

Bush’s compassionate conservatism was just another nannyistic idea, in my opinion, and there’s no one left to stop it that I can see.

At some point there is always push-back, but I don’t know where that will be. I could have written another book on nannyistic laws since I wrote this one, because that’s how fast it’s coming. We have guys like (New York Mayor) Michael Bloomberg -- who’s somewhat popular in this country -- whose only ideological stand is nannyism. He doesn’t really stand for anything else -- except protecting people from themselves. So, yeah, pessimistic. Big-time.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..