In a world where foie gras is outlawed, only outlaws will munch on goose liver fatted by gavage.
In his new book Nanny State, Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi documents in appalling and encyclopedic detail exactly "how food fascists, teetotaling do-gooders, priggish moralists, and other boneheaded bureaucrats are turning America into a nation of children." If there's a smoking ban, a mandatory exercise program, or censorious city government out there, it's pilloried in Nanny State.
In wide-ranging and engagingly written chapters, the 37-year-old Harsanyi argues that preserving life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means giving individuals more choices in how to live, not fewer. "We've built the freest and most dynamic society the world has ever seen," writes Harsanyi. "To let these lightweight babysitters take over would be absurd, self-destructive, and categorically un-American.
Earlier in September, Harsanyi sat down for an instant-messaging interview with reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie.
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reason: What's the 30-second version of your book?
David Harsanyi: It's a book about the most basic aspect of freedom: free will. The right to make the "wrong" choice. It's about the rise of the babysitter state. It's also about how intrusions—ones that we may find piddling and sometimes humorous—when bunched together make for a dangerous movement.
reason: So that explains why you open your book with quotes from G.K. Chesterton ("The free man owns himself. He can damage himself with either eating or drinking; he can ruin himself with gambling. If he does he is certainly a damn fool…but if he may not, he is not a free man any more than a dog") and Cheap Trick ("Too many people want to save the world.")
Harsanyi: How can you not love both of 'em?
reason: Your subtitle leaves little to the imagination: How food fascists, teetotaling do-gooders, priggish moralists, and other boneheaded bureaucrats are turning America into a nation of children.
Harsanyi: We were a little worried that some consumers might confuse Nanny State with a childcare book.
reason: How did you get interested in the topic?
Harsanyi: My parents both defected from communist Hungary and were what most people would today call libertarian. I grew up with a general distaste for taxation and any policy that intruded on our lives. Still, living most of my life in New York, I witnessed plenty of nanny state laws. Later, I lived in D.C. for a bit and saw even more. I assumed when I got to Colorado, the Wild West, there would be a rejection of such intrusive legislation. I was wrong. So I wrote column after column on the topic and finally decided a book was in order.
reason: Your first chapter lays into "Twinkie Fascists," folks who try to limit what we can eat. Explain.
Harsanyi: First of all, the ideas Twinkie Fascists come up with—from regulating food portions to outlawing unhealthy ingredients like trans fats to creating "health zones" to taxing certain undesirable foods—are not based in reality. People have already made their choices and these intrusions, which nip on the margins, won't change those lifestyles. What is it does, though, is accelerate the nanny state. If we can ban one ingredient, why not every unhealthy ingredient? If we can tax a candy bar, why not a steak? There lies the danger.
reason: I ate lunch today at a Chinese buffet–all you can eat. At least half of the patrons were super-fat fucks–we're talking seriously obese, probably even on the moon. I alone ate about 10 pounds of food. Don't people need help in restraining themselves?
Harsanyi: Maybe they don't want to be restrained. I don't remember reading anything in the Constitution that says I can't be a fat fuck. (Though most of the founders clearly kept themselves in awesome shape.)
reason: Gouverneur Morris would fit right in at a Golden Corral, god bless him. So obesity and diet-related issues are not something that should be legislated. Obviously, I agree with you completely. But how do you debate or publicize concerns then?
Harsanyi : I don't think it would be possible for us to hear more about the obesity issue. We're in the midst of an epidemic, haven't you heard? Something needs to be done, you know, for the children.
reason: In the book, you talk up a place in Decatur, Georgia, called Mulligan's, which serves the "Luther Burger"–named for Luther Vandross, the dead singer. It's a bacon cheeseburger with a Krispy Kreme donut for a bun. I think just discussing it caused me to gain weight. But Vandross died in his early 50s; he had diabetes and at various points weighed over 300 pounds. It seems safe to assume that his death was hastened by his blubber. Is this where America is headed? And if so, is that a bad thing?
Harsanyi: I live in a mixed-use modern liberal community in Denver. Literally every person in this godforsaken place goes jogging in the morning, rides a bike, and climbs a mountain on the weekend. I root for people when I see them smoking around here. There are plenty people in this country who are healthy. And there are plenty people in this country who aren't. It's none of my business. and it's certainly none of government's business to coerce us into either camp.
reason: Talk a little bit about "keg tracking," the new craze that will prevent all underage kids from ever getting blitzed again.
Harsanyi: Essentially, it's a GPS system in your beer keg. This way, if you've bought a keg and an underaged drinker happens to sneak a beer at your picnic, you're screwed.
reason: Is there any reason to believe this kind of thing is effective?
Harsanyi: No. None. Most police departments aren't interesting in dealing with this sort of thing to begin with. It's the neoprohibitionists with groups like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) that nag legislators to get involved. For the children.
reason: Speaking of children: Do you have any? And what did you find is happening on playgrounds these days?
Harsanyi : I have two girls (ages three and five) and I discovered that no matter how hard they try they simply can't hurt themselves at the local playground. I suppose they're lucky, though. In certain playgrounds in Florida, we have "No Running" signs. And in certain schools we've banned tag. And, as most of us have heard, in many places we no longer keep score during kids sporting events. This way no one's feelings are hurt.
reason: How important is any of this? I'm the father of two boys (ages six and 13). You weren't supposed to keep score when the kids were in Pee Wee soccer or whatever, but there's no reason to believe that sports are less cutthroat than they were back in the good old days.
Or to put it another way: Isn't it a pretty awesome time to be a kid? Sure, there's all sorts of idiotic rules binding them, but that's always been the case ("Don't lean back in your chair, you'll break your neck!") Isn't the more important thing that virtually all kids have more choices and opportunities than they used to?
Harsanyi: I agree on some level. I'm not a big believer in the "War Against Boys." Kids are healthier than ever. They have more choices than ever. And you can't suck human nature out of a child. The point I make in the book is that government, local school boards, and administrators have bought into nannyism. These people are hyper risk averse. And risk aversion, in my mind, is one of the engines of nannyism. It's all about starting early.
reason: Well, lord knows that it's better to give the kids fruit juice than soda pop in school vending machines! Let's look at some areas where nannyism isn't just retarded, but is clearly ineffective or even countereffective. You note that when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took his job, he made it clear that, in the post-9/11 world, going after porn was a top priority.
Harsanyi: I can only assume the Bush administration was interested in reaching out to social conservatives. Most of whom do not appreciate porn, or, at least, not publicly.
reason: You've got a great line from the Bush administration in the book, something about how the prez views the public: "The president sees America as we think of about a 10-year-old child."
Harsanyi: This was during the 2004 run and uttered by then-Chief of Staff Andrew Card. Certainly Bush has governed as if he believed it.
reason: Yet nannyism is pretty bipartisan, with advocates on the right and the left, yes?
Harsanyi: Absolutely. Republicans like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are some of the worst offenders in the nation. But I'm harder in the book on Republicans because they, at least rhetorically, will give lip service to rights of the individual. But in reality, on the ground, many of them have been as bad as any do-gooder progressive.
reason: Who is the worst offender on the left side of things?
Harsanyi: It's hard to say. Most nanny-state initiatives begin on a local level.
reason: What cities are the worst for this sort of thing?
Harsanyi: New York, of course. Mayor Mike Bloomberg has no clear ideological stand other than nannyism, as far as I can tell. If there's a bad idea, he's all over it. San Francisco is pretty awful, as well.
reason: They do watch out for their pets, don't they, in the City on the Bay?
Harsanyi: Oh yes. They regulate things like the dimensions of a dog house and the amount of water available to the dog at all times. In many places around the country, you're no longer called a "pet owner" but rather a "pet guardian."
reason: Talk about how the focus on lowering the blood alcohol content or concentration (BAC) that defines drunk driving–a tactic being pushed at every level–wastes police resources.
Harsanyi: Well, most of the serious drunk driving in this country is perpetrated by repeat offenders and those with higher BAC levels—0.15 and up, I believe. Zero-tolerance on drinking and driving—meaning no drinking at all before driving—is a collective punishment that, in essence, only affects responsible adults who follow the law. I feel the same way about road blocks, which inconvenience thousands of people, while doing very little to stop the core problem of drinking and driving.
reason: You write that Nanny State is a book "about freedom, personal responsibility, and free will. It isn't about ignoring the hazardous decisions we make, it's about being able to exercise our right to make those decisions in the first place. While we still can." What was the pre-Nanny golden age? Was there one?
Harsanyi: I'm probably romanticizing a bit there, but clearly the day that mandated seat belt laws (and helmet laws) were passed in this country, the government decided that it was time to protect citizens from their own stupidity. Sadly, I think a majority of Americans accept that government should be involved in this to one extent or another.
reason: Is this another way of saying that things were better when you were a kid? You know, the good old days when we drove to school three miles in the rain without a seatbelt…
Harsanyi : I actually think my kids have a much better life than I do. I remember sitting in the lap of my grand dad in the front seat driving on the highway. I'm lucky to be alive. But I don't buckle up my kids because George Bush says I have to. I do it for their own safety. And I think any parent will tell you that. The parent that won't, well, that parent is an idiot and no amount of laws can change that fact.
reason: Why do people accept government intrusions now more than in the past? Overall, we're richer, more educated–shouldn't we be more likely to tell the gummint to go fuck itself?
Harsanyi: Absolutely. Not only do they accept these laws, they welcome them. When they ask Americans about government in polls, you'll typically see a majority claim they think it's become to intrusive, big and dangerous. But when you break it down, they don't really believe that at all. We're doomed.
reason So what explains the dynamic of a public that doesn't believe in the efficacy of government yet calls for more nanny state regulations? (Please don't say it's the fluoride in the water.)
Harsanyi: It's because everyone has their own issue. I get a lot of people who tell me they agree with the book in general, but not on smoking bans. Or they agree on everything, but something really needs to be done about obesity. Or drunk driving. The right not to hear a word that offends you. The right to health care. The right not to smell my cigar. And so on. When you add it all up, you have a nanny state, a place where people make no distinction between convincing us to do the right thing and coercing us to do it.
reason: Enough about your book. Let's talk about you: You mentioned that your parents were Hungarian refugees, which likely means that they're big Leslie Howard fans and very anti-communist. What else informs your politics? How do you describe yourself politically?
Harsanyi: Many of my readers in Denver call me a conservative, and I used to call myself a conservative as well. But then when I hit my readers with a column that calls for legalization of drugs or defends illegal immigrants, they get a little confused. I'm probably close to being a libertarian, though I suspect some of my foreign policy views would keep me out of the club.
reason: It's not a club, it's a gang.
Harsanyi: With guns. And bazookas. In the end, I sorta hate labels anyway. Ron Paul is my favorite presidential candidate. Take that for what it is.
reason: What are the political milestones for you?
Harsanyi: As a youngster I was a big fan of Ronnie Reagan—the president, not the MSNBC star. I had my Ayn Rand phase, as well. My parents had a lot to do with my thinking. They despised communism. Anything remotely socialistic was frowned at, intensely. But, to be honest, I always thought of libertarianism as common sense. Growing up in a liberal Jewish neighborhood in Queens and later Long Island, you can imagine my views weren't popular. So nothing has changed.
reason: We hear so much about a liberal media bias. Have your politics ever hindered your professional life?
Harsanyi : No, it's helped me actually. I was an affirmative action hire at the Denver Post. The editor, Greg Moore, who I have great respect for, wanted to balance the ideology of the columnists–
reason: Was that columnists or communists?
Harsanyi: Very good. I began my career working in sports–writing for the Associated Press, the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated Online, and Major League Baseball. I reviewed books for the AP as well. Then, at some point I began freelancing on politics and wrote for The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Weekly Standard, and a lot of newspapers. I worked for a short time as a press secretary in Washington. That was before moving to the Post.
reason: As someone working in print, do you think the stories about the end of newspapers are accurate?
Harsanyi: I don't know about "the end," but we're going to have to get a lot more creative and aggressive if we're going to make it work. we've started that process at the Denver Post with projects like PoliticsWest, where I blog. Then again, some of it is beyond our control. When craigslist simply destroys the newspaper classified business, it won't matter how interesting we are as journalists.
reason: What role has the media played with regard to nanny state issues? Are we seeing the sorts of contrarian reporting that focuses on the counterproductive effects of, say, attempts to police all drinking while driving?
Harsanyi: The inclination of the media—and this is natural, not a nanny-state plot—is to focus on the more dramatic and horrible things that happen to us. The media (and I hate using that term, as if the "the media" was a monolithic entity) has a duty to report the ghastly things that happen to children or the ghastly acts of drunk drivers.
Do I wish those things were put into more context? Yes. Do I wish there were more John Stossels out there, taking on sacred cows? I do. But even when the media does the right thing, the public tends to remember the negative. An example: In 2004 the Centers for Disease Control released a horribly flawed study that claims 400,000 Americans die yearly due to obesity. It was the media—mostly The Wall Street Journal—that completely debunked that report. But the initial damage had already been done. Most Americans still believe thousands are dropping dead from french fries.
reason: Thanks very much.