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Reflections on what’s really good about a nanny state

Date Published: 05/26/2010

Author: Dane Smith, President


Middle-income families could benefit from early-childhood help and other kinds of ‘nannying’

Who’s afraid of nannies?

Not me. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t help but love Julie Andrews in both of her nanny roles, as the high-flying Mary Poppins and the exuberant governess of the wealthy Von Trapp family in “The Sound of Music.”

Or maybe it’s because my youngest daughter actually is working this year as a nanny for an affluent New York City family.

Whatever the reason, I am not exactly fear-stricken when government bashers raise the specter of — hide under your beds now — “The Nanny State.”

It’s one of their favorite pejorative phrases for any governmental effort to improve the lives of ordinary folks, especially if it impinges on our God-given American right to persist in doing whatever the heck we want, even if it’s clearly bad for us and others.

The term has been around since at least the mid-1960s, and apparently was coined, as one might expect, by a Conservative member of the British Parliament.

Syndicated columnist Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is the latest to raise this image of the evil nanny.   In a recent op-ed, Gerson blames the “nannying impulse” for our new federal health-care-reform legislation, which will mandate and provide  health coverage to some 30 million Americans who otherwise would not have it, and a few who choose not to have it.

Gerson  then lists an assortment of other buzz-killing freedom squelchers, from proposals to limit salt content in good products,  to higher taxes on tanning beds, to requiring  calorie disclosure for fast-food restaurants, and even throws in the absence of candy for this year’s White House Easter Egg roll.

All this he dismisses as a product of a “Mary Poppins Syndrome,” which dictates that Americans will not be allowed by their governments to rest “until they are perfect in every way.”

Let’s concede that our democratic governments’  instinct to protect and serve, and to respond to every problem and highly publicized accident or failure, can be a bit much.

My own favorite example of overreach is from several years ago, when the Minnesota Legislature, worried about salmonella poisoning, tried to crack down on potluck dinners by prohibiting people from bringing certain kinds of homemade casseroles to the church brunch.  Public outrage nipped that one in the bud, and personally, I’d risk my life for grandma’s hot dish.

But we also need to seriously consider the alternatives to laws and regulations that protect the safety, health and welfare of real people. safeguard public health and safety,  and reflect on the good that nannies do.

First, we need to remember that the nannying responses arise from repetitive, often outrageous, and sometimes lethal failures by individuals and the private sector to protect the common good. (Note to Tea Party members: The U.S. Constitution in its preamble says our national government was established to “promote the general Welfare.” Yes, the word “Welfare” is right there in the Constitution, capital letters.)

A majority  of Americans and Minnesotans are thankful or at least understand the need for  our governments’ nannying roles.  Most reasonable people would not argue against governmental nannying that:   makes us and our teenagers wear seat belts — and makes car manufacturers provide airbags; tries to prevent oil companies and corporate polluters from destroying the oceans and other environments; teaches our children how to read and get along with others; prevents smokers from blowing smoke into our lungs in restaurants; tries to keep the e-coli out of our hamburgers; gives special help to our autistic and disabled children; attempts to do something about the obesity epidemic; and outlaws efforts by  the pornography industry to exploit our children.

One could go on.   Almost everything the public sector does has a nannying dimension to it.

The principle behind our mostly good and effective governments is that while individual freedoms must be protected, the group is important too.   The collective and democratic wisdom that prohibits littering — and collects taxes to clean up after those who do litter — overrules the wonderful feeling of freedom that comes from throwing your beer can out the window.

And of course it’s not just us drones in the bottom 95 percent of the income ladder who benefit from this nannying.

Business leaders also take comfort in government as governess and depend on the authority of the nanny state for all kinds of direct protection and emergency help,  ranging from bank bailouts to tax-break subsidies, to orderly regulation of their often chaotic industries.   A more complete analysis can be found in a new book by economist Dean Baker, entitled “The Conservative Nanny State.”

And finally, nobody appreciates the role of the actual nanny more than wealthy people themselves, on whom the entire profession depends.

For those who can afford it, extra help with the children is considered a good investment, for the well-being of both kids and parents. A good nanny helps not only with the endless chores of care and feeding but also with providing discipline and early childhood education — and perhaps even with giving children the healthy feeling that a larger village cares for them.

A little more public investment in high-quality nannying is exactly what highly stressed, hard-working, low- and middle-income families need right now.

In Minnesota, economists and business leaders have been saying for years that the best bet for our continued prosperity is more public support for early childhood education, especially for those stressed low-income families whose children are most likely to fail both in school and at becoming productive citizens.

Universal access to first-rate nannying, in short, could help ALL our children pronounce and spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and become more precocious—and get on the road to success.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, May 27, 2010.

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