“Nanny state” is a derogatory term often used to describe a government that attempts to ensure it’s citizens’ well-being with laws restricting their personal choices. Much as a nanny would restrict a child’s actions in order to prevent him from getting hurt, the government in a nanny state passes measures that lawmakers believe will protect individuals from their own bad decisions.
Many people in the United States, especially political conservatives and libertarians, object to nanny state laws because they limit a person’s civil liberties. They believe that individuals should be free to make their own choices, even if those choices result in negatives consequences to themselves. Laws, they argue, should be restricted to measures that protect individuals from other people.
Others, specifically political liberals, argue that these types of laws make the country a better place. They contend that it is part of the government’s role to protect people from harm, even if this results in fewer choices for these people. Indeed, they say, the United States has passed these types of laws from the time it was founded.
Below is a list of some of the more recent laws that critics have deemed part of a trend towards a nanny state in the U.S.:
1. Anti-obesity laws
As obesity has become a growing problem in the United States, especially among minors, many call for government involvement in the matter. For example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, widely known for his commitment to public health, recently proposed a ban on the sale of sodas over 16 ounces large. He said in regard to this measure, “Obesity is a nationwide problem, and all over the United States, public health officials are wringing their hands saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible.’ New York City is not about wringing your hands; it’s about doing something…I think that’s what the public wants the mayor to do.” Critics, however, argue that this soda ban restricts the freedom of individuals and puts an undue burden on beverage companies.
2. Seatbelt, helmet, and life jacket laws
In many jurisdictions, it is illegal to drive or ride in a car without wearing a seatbelt. Similarly, many laws make it illegal to ride a motorcycle or a bicycle without wearing a helmet. In locations with rivers and lakes, laws against being in a boat without wearing a life jacket are popular. While these laws are meant to prevent injuries and deaths, some argue that the degree to which individuals go to ensure their personal safety should be their own decision.
3. Cigarette laws
Over the past few decades, campaigns against cigarette smoking have gained clout. As a result, the government has increasingly regulated the tobacco industry. Tobacco is subject to heavy taxes, the sale of tobacco has been limited, and advertisements for tobacco products have been restricted. Cigarettes are addictive and have health risks; however, critics of these measures argue that the decision to use certain substances should be made by the individual, not by the government.
4. Gambling laws
Gambling is regulated or illegal in almost every jurisdiction in the United States. In the age of the Internet, online gambling has gained particular popularity, as it allows individuals to gamble in the convenience of their own homes. However, as online gambling has become more popular, calls for more restrictions on the practice have become louder. In 2006, Congress and President George W. Bush passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which severely limited Americans’ ability to gamble online. Proponents of the law say that it prevents economic calamities and gambling addictions; however, critics point out that the law is hypocritical, given that numerous states have a government-run lottery.
5. Prostitution laws
Like gambling, the sale of sex for money is the subject of much legislation. In most jurisdictions in the United States, prostitution is illegal. Supporters of this legislation argue that prostitution is detrimental to both the prostitute and the individual paying for sex. Others, however, contend that the government should not restrict sex between two consenting adults.
The nanny state and its accompanying debate isn’t going anywhere soon. It is a constant struggle between individual liberty and individual well-being. Laws will be passed; critics will fight back. The direction the United States goes regarding these laws rests heavily on the voters who place our elected officials in office. If you have an opinion on the nanny state, it’s time to inform yourself about political candidates and go to the ballot box.