Several years ago, British politician Margaret Hodge gave a speech in the United States in which she described the “nanny state” as a “force for good.” I’m reminded of her terminology each time I hear a leftist politician or so-called evangelical progressive recommend policy “for the common good.” You just know that they aren’t referring to Aristotle’s ethical understanding of the concept or to the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching. Instead, they are usurping a term that is based on the Golden Rule and central to moral theology for the benefit of progressive social and political values. Indeed, one of the highest recommendations for progressives is to describe a political or social policy as contributing to the “common good.”
The prevailing tenets of the left are based on the idea that society can be perfected into a framework that is effective for everyone’s “good” — that there are principles, regulations and measures that will produce “common good.”
Reason magazine recently ranked American cities according to whether city regulations interfered with the free exercise of citizens’ personal freedoms. The magazine looked at adult entertainment regulations such as the number of strip clubs per capita along with other “paternalistic” regulations such as seatbelt and motorcycle helmet laws, and surveillance cameras. Not surprisingly, Las Vegas, Nevada, is one of the least regulated cities in America, and Seattle, Washington, is one of the most regulated.
There is plenty of economic, demographic, health and consumer data to support the thesis that capitalism, with its free market economy, has made citizens in the United States more prosperous and better off and that American prosperity and technological advances have made it a more productive guardian of natural resources. Even so, there are those who think that people need protection and equality more than personal freedom and individual rights.
As a culture, we have adopted the Home Depot slogan: “You can do it, we can help.” But, just as there is a price for Home Depot’s help, there is a price for government assistance. When the government “helps” people do what they want and get what they want, we all foot the bill — not just financially; we pay a price, too, in terms of personal liberties with more government regulation and more red tape. A new study shows the popularity of the Home Depot approach to government. Denmark, a socialist democracy, is cited as the “world’s happiest country.” In fact, all the top countries in the study are characterized by universal health care, high wages, strong unions and a strong social services safety net. Obviously, that’s where progressives want the U.S. to go — a culture where the government “helps” with everything.
Even though reasonable adults recognize that much of today’s “science” is inconclusive and will likely be supplanted by new findings next year (remember the alar scare and cyclamates?), we still latch onto the newest no-no’s from the cultural nannies — causes that become a fad (zero-population-growth and politically-correct language) and produce multiple regulations on things like trans-fats or second-hand smoke.
Hence, following a nationwide trend, Indiana state fair officials banned the use of trans fats by vendors on the fair grounds. Savvy folks will recall that in the 1980s, trans fats were the heart-healthy choice; now they are verboten. Fairgoers who are in Indianapolis this week and next for the annual state fair will find only trans-fat-free “healthier” versions of their favorite treats such as funnel cakes and deep fried Oreos. Or, say critics, the new rules will convince people that they have permission now to eat as much of the greasy stuff as they want.
My recent experience in an airport illustrates our need to get back to making individual rights and personal responsibility our priorities.
Before a recent flight, I walked down an airport corridor behind a couple with two children. Just before reaching an escalator, the mother took one child and went another direction, while the father and the other child went toward the escalator. The dad rushed ahead, with the boy running to keep up. The dad got on the escalator without ever looking back. I watched, astounded, as the boy, maybe four years old, stood at the bottom, perplexed and fearful. Without looking back, the dad called out, “Come on! Hurry up! Let’s go!” The boy stood a bit longer, screwed up his courage and then finally stepped on. The dad got to the top, looked around at his son and said, “Good for you; I knew you could do it.” He took off again, and his son raced to catch up.
That little scenario illustrates what’s wrong with the nanny state. While nannies coddle, fathers challenge. Maybe we ought to watch some re-runs of the popular 1950s television series, “Father Knows Best.” We’ve been coddled so long that we no longer think that we can do it. We’ve given up real fathers for what one author calls “paternalistic socialism.” Instead of contributing to the common good, our attempts to regulate the economy and redistribute wealth have bloated the federal budget.
We are paying a high cost for implementing the “common good” via a Nanny State under the Home Depot approach that “we can help.”