Who's Your Nanny?

Jacob Sullum

2/28/2007 12:01:00 AM - Jacob Sullum

Several California newspapers recently carried a story about "nanny government" measures in the state legislature that "irk Republicans," including bills that would forbid smoking on state beaches, ban trans fats in restaurant food and require calorie counts on menu boards. "If somebody wants to go ahead and choose to do something that may not always be in their best interest," said one of those irked Republicans, state Sen. George Runner, "hey, this is America, you get to choose those things."

As long as those things do not involve, say, smoking pot. Runner, despite his defense of the right to do risky things, is a gung-ho drug warrior. Two years ago the Drug Policy Alliance picked him as one of seven "Drug Policy Reform Zeroes" in the California legislature.

Although Democrats frequently are portrayed as meddling do-gooders eager to save you from yourself, they are no worse in this respect than Republicans. The targets may differ, but the basic impulse is the same.

The paternalistic policies that have received the most attention lately have been associated mainly with Democrats. But it's worth remembering that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who brags about pushing smokers to quit by imposing onerous cigarette taxes and banning smoking in bars and restaurants, is officially a Republican. New York Health Commissioner Thomas Friedan, who led the effort to ban trans fats from the city's restaurants by bureaucratic fiat, is a Democrat, though a Bloomberg appointee.

On Feb. 8, the Philadelphia City Council, which consists of 14 Democrats and three Republicans, voted unanimously to impose a similar ban. The legislators pushing trans fat bans in Chicago, California and New Hampshire are all Democrats, displaying their party's indomitable faith in the efficacy of social engineering.

"We talk about obesity as a national epidemic leading to diabetes and all the other health care costs," state Rep. Paul McEachern, co-sponsor of the New Hampshire trans fat bill, recently told The Boston Globe. "This is something that will have a measurable effect, and it doesn't cost any money."

Well, it doesn't cost any money if you don't count the costs imposed on restaurateurs forced to find new fats for frying and baking. And since the new fats will have just as many calories as the old fats, it's hard to see how the switch will have "a measurable impact" on obesity. But McEachern means well, and that's what matters.

Even if his bill doesn't pass, said McEachern, "with the publicity surrounding this, people will realize that 'maybe we are better off going to a restaurant that doesn't use trans fats.'" Exactly what is stopping them from doing that now isn't clear.

Likewise, the New York City Board of Health defends its new rule requiring calorie counts on menu boards as a way of giving consumers useful information. But since the rule applies only to restaurants that already provide nutritional information online, in brochures and on posters, it's really a way of nagging people who would rather not be reminded how many calories are in that cheeseburger or frozen coffee drink.

Before we get carried away scolding Democrats for all their scolding, let's recall that Republicans are leading the crusade to stop you from using the Internet to play poker or bet on football games. It's a Republican administration that has revived the effort to prevent adults from looking at dirty pictures in the privacy of their homes. And while the war on drugs is a bipartisan project, Republicans are noticeably more enthusiastic about imposing draconian prison sentences on drug offenders.

Broadly speaking, Democrats want to protect you from the physical threats posed by habits such as smoking, overeating and crossing the street while listening to an iPod. Republicans are more interested in protecting you from the moral threats posed by temptations such as drugs, gambling and pornography. Between them, they've got you covered, body and soul.