The lingering odor of the untrammeled state

Posted: Oct 17, 2004 12:00 AM

There's something rotten in Denmark. And I catch a whiff of something similarly unpleasant here in a America, too.

It's this idea that everything good must be somehow promoted by government, and everything bad fought by it. It's an alarming odor, like old parchment burning. The Constitution. And any notion of limited government and individual freedom along with it.

What's in a Name?

According to a New York Times article, "Danes Favor Common Names." And their government makes sure they get them. You can't name your child anything you want. You can't even spell your child's name as you please. The government is there to protect your child . . . from your caprice or even deep-seated belief:

[T]he Law on Personal Names is designed to protect Denmark's innocents ? the children who are undeservedly, some would say cruelly, burdened by preposterous or silly names. It is the state's view that children should not suffer ridicule and abuse because of their parents' lapses in judgment or their misguided attempts to be hip. Denmark, like much of Scandinavia, prizes sameness, not uniqueness, just as it values usefulness, not frivolousness.

But what's not valued is freedom.

So, in Denmark, if you are more religious than the average Dane, and want to revive an ancient name from the Bible for your son, "Hezekiah" or "Melchizidek" likely won't do.

Or, if Shakespeare is more your bacon, and you can't imagine anything better than a son "of infinite jest," so, in both love and lark you seek a name that Shakespeare thought was Dane, that is, Yorick ? fat chance.

Actually, maybe those names would past muster. But in Denmark, you needn't ask your friends, write Dear Abby, or peruse the columns of I.N.C.H., the Institute for Naming Children Humanely (or its Danish equivalent); just petition the government. The government tells you what you may and may not do.

Now, in other contexts, my sympathies are with the children, too. I wince when I see some names. I know how cruel kids can be with other kids' names. (Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him as "Hey You.") But perfectly good names can become fodder for cruelty just as easily as suppposedly silly names can.

What's needed? More wise adults. I don't think you get them by treating adults as children.

Thankfully, Danes are considering changing the law. The Scandinavian acceptance ? even love of ? conformity (which is what this is all about: conformity in the name of protection from hurt feelings) is so utopian and unrealistic for the modern world that it really shouldn't last. Diversity, not conformity, is the reality of civilization.

And yet I can sadly imagine this kind of law being taken up as a cause by some Americans. After all, as one Dane explained it, the government "doesn't want to see people put in a situation where they can't defend themselves. We do the same in traffic; we have people wear seat belts."

Yes. We've got seat belt laws in America, too, thanks in no small part to a few "visionaries" like Mario Cuomo. Increasing safety through education, advocacy, and innovation just isn't enough. You've got to go that extra mile and coerce people. Some people don't feel like they've accomlished anything until they've started pushing people around. But as I've shown before in my Common Sense e-letter, that's often when they begin to become increasingly ineffective.

America's Big(ness) Problem

All sorts of causes are worth our support, or at least consideration. Most take on a bad smell only when they get mixed up with law and government and bureaucracy.

In late September, the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine came out with a "comprehensive assessment" on childhood obesity. Too many kids are much too fat. Nearly everyone agrees. So what should we do about it? According to the academy, "We must act now and we must do this as a nation."

Well, I'm not so sure. Is it "as a nation" or parent-by-parent that we should attack the problem?

The Academy wants "to establish a high-level task force to coordinate all federal childhood obesity activities." How many federal obesity activities are there? And how can a government unable to balance its own budget really offer the best way to handle other people's excess?

The Academy insists that we develop "new nutrition standards for all foods and beverages sold in schools." But the rise in obesity occurred during the period wherein federal support for ? and control of ? school lunch programs was at its highest. Maybe the federal government should just let local communities take over.

The Academy also wants to trounce on the First Amendment, to curb "marketing of junk food to children." Less freedom is not on my diet.

It's interesting to compare the ideological spin on the story by the newspapers. I started with the Washington Post, which mentioned parents only once in its article. Yet it is parents who do the shopping, and who will send kids out to play rather than watch TV for the seventh hour in a row.

Moving away from the liberal Post, one notices that other newspapers did a better job of stressing parental responsibility, actually giving advice to parents. My first thought, on reading about the importance of exercise, was about safety. Parents are a lot more fearful these days for their kids' safety outdoors, where they'd best exercise, er, play. "Funny this subject wasn't mentioned," I thought. After all, public safety is a more basic government service than anything else on the Academy's list.

But Tommy Thompson, our man in the Health and Human Services bureaucracy, has that covered:

The cities have got to set aside (safe) places for kids to get outside and walk or even ride their bicycles.

More millions spent by local governments. Americans have this goofy notion that you've got to spend a lot of money to lose weight. I bet that's not necessary, in private diet struggles or in public policy.

Most communities have roads and sidewalks that allow kids to roam around. I did this when I was a kid. It didn't require "increased federal involvement," one of the key notions in the report. It required civilization. At the local level. Some cooperation amongst neighbors. Some level of public safety.

And a general, healthy lack of reliance upon coercion as a way to solve every problem we face.

That might get the kids outdoors, playing again.

And protect us from other harms, too, including those from people compensating for their funny names.