Ambrose: America is turning into a nanny state

It pretends to care for us, tucking us in at night, a smile on its lips, compassion in its eyes, but then, as our trust grows, it puts a pillow over our faces. Though we writhe and kick and try to shout, we find ourselves being smothered to death.

I speak of the nanny state, which also happens to be the title of a book by David Harsanyi, a Denver columnist I recently met, a pleasant fellow whose unpleasant message is that the country is jam-packed with people wanting to tell us how to live our lives even when our behavior affects no one but ourselves.

You don’t want to go along with them? Too bad, because time and again they are successful in getting the government to make you shape up at penalty if you don’t — for your own good, of course.

One much-discussed instance of coercion for the sake of rescuing us dummies from ourselves are the restrictions on smoking in bars and restaurants, even though most bars and restaurants are nonsmoking to begin with and no one is forced to spend time working or relaxing in one where tobacco fumes circulate.

The do-gooders want to go much further, of course — many would like nothing better than to have the government dictate what kinds of hamburgers you can consume. And wait — is that a coercive glimmer in their eyes when they snarl about all the sugar and calories packed into Girl Scout cookies?

In New York City, Harsanyi’s book informs us, you can get a court summons for having a bag next to you in a subway, feeding pigeons or sitting on a milk crate. I think you get the picture.

Let’s make a few observations, beginning with the obvious point that the premise of the nanny state contradicts the basic premise of our democratic republic — that we citizens are self-accountable, rational and perfectly capable not only of caring for ourselves but, through our election choices, of governing the nation in which we live.

The premise of the nanny state is that we lack the capacity to cross streets safely without some intellectually and morally superior government official holding our hand.

The objective of the nanny state is to force us to behave properly for our own sakes, which is impossible to do as a matter of law and regulation without abridging our freedoms to choose the way we will live as long as we don’t hurt others. It is, of course, true, as the old saying goes, that my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

The nanny state crowd would have you believe that any harm to ourselves is a harm to society, the argument being that even some sort of amorphous, distant, possible social cost is sufficient reason for regulation.

Wiser heads point out this formula is often false (my early death would save the government Social Security expenditures), that regulations themselves can be deadly and that totalitarianism is excused by this way of thinking.

The nanny state is a kissing cousin of Big Brother, the kind of government that always keeps an eye on you, ready to fix you if you ignore it. And even before it goes that far, it is a diminution of our humanity; it robs us of our dignity as self-deciding moral agents, and in doing that, it strips away a fair portion of what lends life meaning. It puts a pillow over our faces.

Examiner columnist Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers. He may be reached at

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