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The Nanny State

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The “ahhh” of familiar pleasure I felt as I accelerated cut off abruptly as I watched the gas-mileage readout on my sister’s new Camry plummet.

How dare the requirements of fuel-efficient driving presume to contradict the habits — and unacknowledged godlike joys — of a lifetime of gasoline consumption? I looked at my sister, a “hypermiling” neo-enthusiast, who seemed to be wagging her finger at me (she wasn’t, but I’m sure the impulse was there), and said, “Nanny state.”

At least I uttered it as a joke — that grating, illuminating expression of adolescent politics and individual triumphalism. Libertarians. You gotta love ’em. They survey the human landscape and wince at . . . a government that cares too much, in a bumbling, overreaching way, of course, and tries to protect us not merely from thieves and terrorists and snake oil salesmen but from ourselves. They hate seatbelt laws and anti-smoking laws and picture government not as a shifting coalition of organized, often malign interests, but as a self-righteous scold.

As I felt my inner libertarian rage at the dashboard of my sister’s hybrid auto, I was reminded of a story I’d recently read in the Chicago Tribune about the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone — sometimes known as “Red Ken” — who has taken aim at the street-clogging, gas-slurping, CO2-belching American SUVs the city’s upper crust have embraced as status symbols.

Livingstone, who calls these monsters Chelsea tractors (after the well-heeled London ’hood where they abound), wants to introduce a $50-a-day “green tax” on SUV owners as the cost of driving in the central city. These folks are unhappy. The essence of their complaint about the tax, as reported by the Tribune, was summed up by the owner of a Range Rover who said, “We’ve become a nanny state. With Mr. Livingstone, we are constantly being told what we can do and cannot do.”

Wow, that sounds rough. Reading these words, I realized that democratic societies have many ways to trivialize debate and defend and maintain states of privilege and denial, and these days “nanny state” is one of the most effective. For know-nothing noise production, it’s right up there with “family values” and “flip-flop.”

The problem I have with the term is not so much that the principle of triumphant individualism is inadequate, which it is, but that it has been largely co-opted by the same dark corporate forces that have hijacked the Christian right; and the mocking, dismissive term “nanny state” is just one more tool for whacking Democrats, blocking social initiatives and keeping taxes low. As with the London SUV tax, it’s usually invoked indiscriminately — not because government has invented some new category of victimless pseudo-crime or spotted a bogus danger no one else has noticed, but because it has inconvenienced the moneyed interests.

Probably nowhere is this more apparent than in the country’s draconian stinginess when it comes to health-care spending, which is at one of the lowest per-capita rates in the industrialized world. “You would think that we were living in the lap of the Nanny State,” the New York Times recently editorialized about the matter, naming the epithet at the center of the impasse.

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“One of the most puzzling facts of the political debate,” the editorial continues, “is how much traction Republicans still get from their calls to cut taxes and public spending, and how timorous Democrats are in arguing against them. . . . Long a moral outrage, this tightfisted approach to public needs is becoming an economic handicap. . . . If the United States is to reap the rewards of globalization, the government must provide a much more robust safety net — to ensure public support for an open economy and protect vulnerable workers.”

Well, too bad, New York Times. It’s not going to happen. You wanna know why? Nanny state, nanny state . . .

Try it yourself. Rev up that nasal sing-song. It’s fun. Pretty soon you’re 9 years old, taunting your little sister: nyah-nyah nyah nyah-nyah! This is the essence of special-interest politics. When you’re probably going to lose the debate on the merits of your position, pull out the magic wand of mockery and simply make the other side disappear.

In the name of a visceral individualism, which is something we all feel — I felt it as I accelerated my sister’s Camry and realized my own deep affection for the car culture and reverence for oil — the great debate about the planet’s future stalls time and again.

Even still, the belittling of government that comes with the “nanny state” taunt represents human progress of a sort, a phase through which we must pass as we separate — like teenagers — from parental authority and learn to stand on our own, existentially naked, as moral agents.

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We used to swear allegiance to the mother land, a symbol of cruel, absolute authority. People killed for it and obeyed it blindly. Thus were the great crimes of the modern nation-state of the last century possible. No one will commit genocide for the nanny state.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.

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