Nannies with badges and guns

Paul Jacob

6/10/2012 12:00:09 AM - Paul Jacob

Blame Upton Sinclair.

You may want to blame Michael Bloomberg or Barack Obama for the current binge of food nannyism, but Sinclair really got the ball rolling.

His novel, The Jungle, was one of the most influential books in American history. It scared hordes of Americans into relying on the federal government to protect them from bad food, meat in particular.

But the book was a failure, on several counts.

First, it wasn’t a very good novel — but it didn’t need to be. Neither did Dracula nor Naked Came the Stranger. What it got was attention.

Second, it was a work of fiction, and by that I don’t mean the obvious. I mean, Sinclair told some whoppers. He made stuff up. He lied about the conditions of meat packing in Chicago for “effect.”

Third, Sinclair was an earnest and self-professed socialist who aimed to turn Americans against the capitalist system as a whole. Most folks, however, had no interest in a complete overhaul of society. They just wanted a few tweaks. And they got them. Sinclair himself admitted that the book failed to do what he wanted: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Sinclair may have stretched the truth in his few pages devoted to icky food processing, but he did briefly focus on something that later accounts usually forget: the problem of corrupt government inspectors. Yes, contrary to what I was told in high school, there were meat inspectors before The Jungle. The just-so story from the history books, that Sinclair’s novel forced a necessary regulatory regime upon a cruelly laissez faire America — by popular demand, no less — was something less than accurate. Instead, Congress and the Department of Agriculture found almost no basis in fact for Sinclair’s allegations, but passed new regulations anyway . . . to appease pressure from the meat packing lobby!

Cut to the present day. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing to ban Big Gulps and the like, for New Yorkers’ health sake. President Barack Obama and his wife talk endlessly about “getting healthy,” and do more than hint about how the federal government can step into our lives to make us better. “Make no mistake,” the president likes to say, about the need for more government.

The authoritarian nature of today’s nannyism — whether Bloomberg-initiated or Obama-centric — may be merely the next notch in the ratcheting up of government. After all, the war on personal freedom and individual responsibility has been in place for a very long time. But remember, it started out, ostensibly, to protect the people from nefarious others. Now it’s out to protect people from themselves.

But that ramping up of paternalism — from “save us, please!” to “save the fatsos from themselves” — doesn’t give much pause to the more ideological coercivists. Timothy Noah, in the New Republic, for example, expresses no qualms in his defense of the current growth in paternalism:

I disagree with conservative aspirations to install the nanny state in my bedroom, but I wouldn't necessarily begrudge the state its power to play moral cop elsewhere. I approve of the government prohibition against the selling of organs, and I would never want the government to stop discouraging illicit drug use and prostitution (though I might quibble with its methods). These prohibitions all constitute the government helping to define the nation's collective values, which is entirely legitimate.

Typically for a modern “liberal,” Noah gives no reason to oppose bedroom regulations while promoting dining room regulations. Indeed, one could easily argue that people mess up their lives worse by whom they choose to have sex with than by what they choose to eat. Letting government shove “the nation’s collective values” onto unwilling individuals (who obviously don’t share in the “collective’s values,” indicating that the notion is borderline meaningless) in one domain opens it up for others. That’s how you lose liberty, folks. You ignore limits on government so that your favored “collective” value can be yoked upon your neighbor, and then your neighbor does the same to you.

Noah should be smart enough to figure this out. The principle isn’t difficult. Even children understand it. We have a big word for it, if that helps: reciprocity.

Further, paternalistic regulation is nothing like “entirely legitimate.” Treating adults as adults, as ends in themselves, with rights that limit our purview over them, is what’s entirely legitimate. And pretending that adding on more prohibitions, more regulations, will increase liberty, as Noah does, deserves more of a laugh than anything else:

Indeed, the 16-ounce limit might actually enhance individual liberty by compelling restaurants and bottlers to sell soda in the smaller quantities that people often want but can’t get.”

Hey, Noah: Have you noticed that Coke has been selling smaller-than-usual sized plastic bottles of its products, and now has a complete line of sizes (and prices) available at nearly every corner store in America?

And have you noticed that non-fast food restaurants rarely provide large-sized drinks? Most offer, instead, free refills, should you thirst for more.

Or that fountains offer several sizes, and that you can dilute your poison with as much ice as you want?

But actual facts probably will convince few nannies of freedom’s rationale, despite the painfully obvious result of a lack of limits: Increasing absurdities, including health boards banning bake sales and cities banning the charitable feeding of the homeless (to protect the beggar from too much salt or fat or sugar in his food).

Of course, I’m not denying that Americans are getting fatter. Part of this may be the result of an aging population, much of it an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, but some of it is no doubt our diet.

I just insist that improving our lot be up to us, as parents and responsible self-governors. It is individuals and families who must take charge of what we put into our mouths.

And it’s not as if the government can be trusted to tell us what’s right.

After years of federal bureaucracies pushing corn and starchy foods, subsidizing agribiz by the billions; after our Agriculture Department helped develop and promote high fructose corn syrup as a cheap refined-sugar substitute; and after pushing for a generation the unscientific, ideologically hyper-puritan nonsense that “eating fat makes us fat” — effectively pushing the low-fat obsession throughout the commercial food chain, replacing fats with sugars — I’m less than interested in politicians now stepping in to save us “from ourselves.”

First, we have to save ourselves from our big, fat government.

Which knows no limits. And knows almost nothing else, either.

So, I blame Bloomberg for his alleged “health” fascism. And Obama and Congress, for piling on. They may or may not be socialists, like Upton Sinclair, but they are as deceitful and bullying as you could expect from a self-righteous nanny with a gun.

But let’s forgive old Upton. He had the savvy to oppose the regulations that came after his book. He realized what they were, covers for big business.

The Jungle aside, will Americans recognize the danger of the current nannyism? Will Americans see it as just another illiberal “fix” of a problem caused, for the most part, by government itself?

If we don’t, we’ll all be less free and less responsible, living in something worse than a jungle. And all our food will be prison food.