Whenever some new perceived crisis comes along, Americans typically look to the state as a problem solver. Are we running out of oil? The government should increase CAFE standards so that cars are more fuel-efficient. Is gas too expensive? The government should limit the profits of oil companies. Is the planet getting warmer? The government should mandate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Are too many Americans without health insurance? The government should expand Medicaid and SCHIP to address the problem. Will taking drugs destroy your life? The government should ban them.
My applause is muted, however, for conservatives who rightly criticize the state’s decreeing solutions to these “problems.” Most conservatives never met a federal program they didn’t like as long as it furthered their agenda. As we have seen regarding its support for the Iraq war and lack of support for presidential candidate Ron Paul, the conservative movement has of late exalted the state and its leaders above all else, including liberty. As Lew Rockwell of the Ludwig von Mises Institute has explained,
“The problem with American conservatism is that it hates the left more than the state, loves the past more than liberty, feels a greater attachment to nationalism than to the idea of self-determination, believes brute force is the answer to all social problems, and thinks it is better to impose truth rather than risk losing one soul to heresy. It has never understood the idea of freedom as a self-ordering principle of society. It has never seen the state as the enemy of what conservatives purport to favor. It has always looked to presidential power as the saving grace of what is right and true about America.”
Thus, the same conservatives who condemn the welfare state (while typically accepting it anyway) have no trouble condoning the nanny state. Liberals, of course, generally accept both, although they can be quite selective when it comes to the extent of the nanny state’s reach.
A nanny state is a government that majors in micro-managing the behavior of its citizens. From federal warning labels to state seat-belt laws to local school-district bans on dodgeball and tag, instead of “father knows best” it is government that knows best.
Making people criminals
The nanny state garners the most support when it comes to criminalizing the advertising, sale, or use of what it deems to be harmful substances.
Although tobacco isn’t illegal (cigarette taxes are a nice source of revenue for federal and state governments), cigarette advertising has been banned on television and radio since 1971. Ads for smokeless tobacco ceased in 1986. On the state level and local level, more than 50 percent of Americans live in an area where smoking anywhere outside their own home – including bars and restaurants – has basically been banned completely. A law that took effect in California earlier this year outlawed smoking in a car in the presence of a minor.
I knew that the drinking age in my state (Florida) was 21. I knew that alcohol could not be sold after a certain time at night. I knew that alcohol could not be purchased on Sunday until after a certain time. But I didn’t know that many parents in Florida who probably support those laws were themselves criminals because they let their children have a beer or a glass of wine at home. I have seen posted in several convenience stores around the state of Florida the following sign:
“Notice. It is unlawful for anyone (including parents) to sell, give, or serve an alcoholic beverage to a person under 21 years of age.”
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