Nanny State

Now at Reason.tv: Harsanyi on No-Fun Playgrounds

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Nanny State author David Harsanyi, who also wrote the November reason cover story "Prohibition Returns!: Teetotaling do-gooders attack your right to drink," appears on The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams to discuss how safety mavens have taken the fun–and sharp edges–out of America's playgrounds.

Click below for the show:

A long, long, time ago (1997!), I gave a rundown on the tendency toward "Child-Proofing the World."

reason on family issues here.

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  1. Two “made me sad” items –

    When the Westland mall (Westland MI.) opened there was a large sculpture of the Goose That Layed the Golden Egg, carved out of granite, prominentlt displayed in the main concourse. Kids would play on it often, it was cool. You could climb it and use it as a slide. In 1994, after a 20 year absence, I returned to find this work of art, that doubled as a children’s amusement piece, moved outdoors and surrounded by a fence. I don’t know if some dumbass kid hurt himself, resulting in the inevitable lawsuit, or if that the insurance attorneys advised this step, but I’ll bet it was one or the other.

    In a city park near my home, there once was a WW II tank, hatch welded shut, that we little boys played on all the time. It has, of course, been removed. I’m certain it was for one of the reasons mentioned above. Or maybe because it “glorfied war”. Either way it’s gone. Shit!

  2. From the 10-year old article:

    Although apocalyptic rhetoric in general has diminished in recent years–overpopulation, nuclear war, global warming, and the like just don’t pack the same wallop they did in years past-

    How quaint!

  3. I have to be honest. This seemed like a pretty weak segment. I can sympathize with the general sentiment of the first 30 seconds or so, but the examples given didn’t seem all that convincing and even exaggerated. The interviews with the Santa Monica school people seemed edited into pointlessness and ambiguousness.

  4. Much ado about nothing, and the kind of report that makes libertarians look like whiny grouches. Under a libertarian pretense, Harsanyi is actually just repeating the same complaints every aging person has repeated for milennia – today’s kids are soft, in my day we had to face real hardships, blah, blah, blah. The nanny state has very little to do with modern playgrounds – for better or worse, todays parents are better educated, more aware of risk, and have the money to do something about it. Funny how every parent I know makes their kids wear a bike-helmet, even the ones who back in their 20s (like me) would mouth off about how stupid bike-helmets are. There is a real market for “safety”, even if it is illusory (as Harsanyi rightly points out). Intrusive government is actually not the issue here, affluent parents are willing and able to spend large sums of money to keep their children safe even with no regulation – and that means helmets, car seats, more expensive soft playgrounds, etc. In most of these cases the laws to enforce these things are simply feel-good legislation, if you got rid of the laws most parents would still behave the same way. If you built a playground with private funds would you pave it with cracked asphault and put in a wobbly steel slide and a teeter-totter? No you would not, because only insane parents would bring their kids there if they have any choice at all. My kids play in modern playgrounds, they seem to have plenty of fun, and they’ve never ever stared at playground equipment not knowing what to do.

    You want a real scandal – the fact that the grand old triceratops sculpture on the Mall in DC got removed because some kid fell off, now that’s an issue that needs to be reported on.

  5. Oh, and the old story about dodge ball… I can say with absolute confidence, kids like me were the reason the game may have been banned in some places. Back in the 70s, in a Catholic school, we were a vicious group of players, and only the strong survived. It wasn’t uncommon for the weak to be singled out, pummeled with a partially deflated ball (this way one could grasp the ball with one hand and fling it with more force), and humiliated into total submission. Coach didn’t seem to care. Physical education consisted of working out a hierarchy and brutally enforcing it, whether it was being challenged or not.

  6. I understand they’re flattening all the hills to make skiing safer.

  7. Sigh. Anyone who’s been to a playground in the last, say, decade knows exactly why they’re no longer the fabulous deathtraps you remember from your childhood: the primary users are 4-years old. Sure, see-saws and 20-foot high jungle gyms over pits of broken glass were great for 12-year ods in the 70s, but the target demo these days is a bit different. No kids over the age of eight is ever seen at a playground.

    And we all know the two reasons for that, right? Video games and internet porn.

  8. And we all know the two reasons for that, right? Video games and internet porn.

    Video games, internet, cable TV with 500+ channels, Tivo, DVD Players, etc etc. Also I think children over the age of 8 have way more money to burn now than kids did in the 1970s, so they can do things like go to the mall or movies more.

  9. Go buy a box of Cracker Jack. “Candy coated popcorn, peanuts and a prize – That’s what you get in Cracker Jack” – that’s their jingle.

    Nowadays, the ‘prize’ is just a cardboard foldout joke or rhyme, not cool stuff like little plastic toys. My favorite used to be the plastic magnifying glass.

    Why no more fun prizes?
    Apparently, because several years ago, someone managed to somehow injure themselves with one of the toys. The class-action lawyers got busy, and soon enough, another little source of delight was removed from our lives.

    So much for “land of the free and home of the brave”. We no longer even have the freedom to risk ourselves with crackerjack toys.

  10. I’m having a hard time working up any nostalgia for the playgrounds of my youth. They were unimaginative and frequently painful. Despite my being accident-prone, my folks never made a nickel suing anyone over my concrete-kissing contusions or sheet metal lacerations.

    The playgrounds that my 2 year-old plays on these days are veritable wonderlands of 3-dimensional exploration. He still gets hurt sometimes, but when he does it is a temporary upset, not a trip back home for some gauze and iodine.

    He’ll grow up remembering some playground bruises. I can still see most of my playground scars.

    In comparison to now, the past almost always sucks.

  11. When I was a kid, only municipalities with their inherent liability protection could afford to provide the playground equipment of the day. Today’s playground equipment is so safe by comparison that you see more of it in backyards, day cares, and churches than you ever saw back then.

    The ambulance chasers may be killjoy bastards, but the playground industry has largely adapted to their threat and today’s generation is the beneficiary. If you’re gonna advocate for libertarianism and for the importance of the civil courts and for the creative destruction of the market, you ought to recognize a success story when you see it.

  12. Highlight of the segment:
    “If kids have disputes with each other, um, they don’t get a black eye. They get dead. They get shot.” (Rebecca Kennerly, President of the Santa Monica PTA Council)
    This was definitely the experience of my recent youth. We generally settled disputes with large-caliber handguns.

  13. “And we all know the two reasons for that, right? Video games and internet porn.”

    Or, in the case of my son and his friends, skateboards and lighter fluid.

    I myself yearn for a swing with a twelve-foot chain and a board seat.

  14. Rimfax –

    I advocate for the civil courts, but the civil courts need substantial reform.

    And by reform, I mean a fundamental change to the sort of damages that are actionable. Damage limits and “loser pays” and the rest of it are meaningless band-aids. They would accomplish nothing, because the overwhelming factor turning our civil courts into pirates of nannyism is the fact that juries hand out money for stupid reasons, and seem to be moving more in the direction of stupidity all the time.

    The libertarian “lets the civil courts hold people accountable” rhetoric was all written in days when juries still had a semblance of a notion that people who do stupid things don’t deserve to get bailed out by people with deep pockets. That is no longer the case.

    If I stick my head in a bucket and drown myself, the contributory liability of the bucket manufacturer should be zero. But the courts have allowed juries to not see it that way, and until that is fixed, there are no civil court success stories.

  15. fluffy-

    Do you think a panel of judges would be more sane than juries? Just a thought.

  16. Back when I was a child, we played in thunderstorms with lightning rods strapped to our backs…

    OK, enough old codger mode. A lot of the shit today–like bicycle helmets and pads–are stupid overreactions. Some stuff, like rockin’ playgrounds, might be better, but overall, kids are more and more prevented (as best their parents can) from taking normal stupid kid risks.

    So many of the parents’ fears are totally blown out of proportion. Just try telling your average 30-35 year old parent that there aren’t 50 child molesters behind every fucking tree and watch them sputter as they try to digest the fact that you aren’t terrified and that you need to be.

    It’s amazing. I will talk to a parent, and after they spew the same fearful dumbass shit at me, I point out to them that they did all this stuff as a kid, and they’re fine. The inevitable response: “it’s different now!” When I ask how, they sort of ramble on about…nothing. It’s all in their fucking heads and it is utterly pathetic.

    Basically, it’s another competition with the neighbors. Whoever isn’t afraid enough doesn’t care about their children, so they compete to be the most smothering and worried.

  17. I find this whole idea of Libertarians caring about whether kids are overly coddled a bit puzzling. As long as the parents themselves are paying for it, who cares if the kids become stunted little solipsists who cannot venture into the big outdoors all on their own?

    Why not just say, “STOP WASTING OUR TAX DOLLARS CONFISCATED AT GUNPOINT ON PLAYGROUNDS AND LIBRARIES!” and be done with it, rather than this weird nibbling around the edges with this debate about whether rubber surfaces for playgrounds are overly coddling kids?

  18. You could climb it and use it as a slide. In 1994, after a 20 year absence, I returned to find this work of art, that doubled as a children’s amusement piece, moved outdoors and surrounded by a fence

    J sub:

    Similar story. Here in Seattle, on Alki beach, after some big storms, a huge…. HUGE tree trunk appeared on the beach. It was situated in a place where during high tide, you could walk from the end (on the beach) out over the water. It became a natural play structure, kids would play on it, tourists would get their pictures taken on it (space needle in the background). It was a fantastic natural gathering place. One day, after about two years it was gone. My libertarian spidey sense started to tingle, and eventually I found the tree, off the beach near the street, half buried, flowers planted and a fence around it.

    So, to sum up:

    Public property!!! No Tresspassing.

    “You can’t be here, this is public property”

    All public property is theft.

  19. On a related note, anyone catch the Daily Show a few days ago, the segment with that obesity scaremonger Meme Roth? It was their typical interview someone ridiculous but take it dead serious shtick, but one of the best examples of the form. She’s ranting about how schools need to ban cupcakes, and the interviewer (Rob Riggle?) gets her to say eating a cupcake is just like shooting yourself in the head, etc.

  20. Intrusive government is actually not the issue here, affluent parents are willing and able to spend large sums of money to keep their children safe even with no regulation – and that means helmets, car seats, more expensive soft playgrounds, etc.

    Vanya, I agreed with everything you said until you got here.

    People do have more money to spend to keep their kids safe. But we’re regulating everything you mention as being without regulation. Please, correct me if I misinterpreted your comments, but government intrusion is at every level of this issue.

    To wit:

    Effective June 1, 2007, children less than eight years old must be restrained in child restraint systems, unless the child is four feet nine inches or taller. A child who is eight years old or older, or four feet nine inches or taller, must be properly restrained either with the motor vehicle’s safety belt or an appropriately fitting child restraint system. Children under thirteen years old must be transported in rear seats where it is practical to do so.

    So, to sum up, your kids have to be in some kind of booster seat until they’re 12 years old. Twelve years old. Twelve.

    Bike helmet laws:

    Washington State
    Aberdeen All ages 2001
    Bainbridge Island All ages 2001
    Bellevue All ages 2002
    Bremerton All ages 2000
    Des Moines All ages 1993
    DuPont All ages
    Duvall All ages 1993
    Eatonville Under 16 1996
    Enumclaw All ages 1993
    Fircrest All ages 1995
    Gig Harbor All ages 1996
    Hunts Point All ages 1993
    Island County: All ages 1997
    (Recommendation only.)
    Kent All ages 1999
    King County All ages 1993
    Lakewood All ages 1996
    Milton * All ages 1997
    Orting Under 17 1997
    Pierce County All ages 1994
    Port Angeles All ages 1994
    Poulsbo Under 18 1995
    Puyallup All ages 1994
    Renton All ages 1999
    Seatac All ages over 1 yr 1999
    Seattle All ages 2003
    Snohomish skate park All ages 2002
    (City-wide bike ordinance repealed)
    Snoqualmie All ages 1996
    Spokane* All ages 2004
    Steilacoom All ages 1995
    Tacoma * All ages 1994
    University Place All ages 1996

    So, if you’re on a bike, you will wear a helmet. All ages.

    This would all be fine and dandy if parents were making this individual choice based upon their own spending power and information awareness and processing. But that’s not the case. We’re being made to do these things. If that’s not government intrusion, I don’t know what is.

  21. In most of these cases the laws to enforce these things are simply feel-good legislation, if you got rid of the laws most parents would still behave the same way.

    Cool. I’m tending towards agreement here. So… let’s get rid of the laws. Let me guess the response: We should keep them “just in case.” or “to cover those few parents that won’t behave the same way”.

  22. For the benefit(?) of my colleagues here, I’m repeating what I had posted on the earlier, related thread:
    “I usually watch the first 11 minutes of Brian’s show anyway, so it wasn’t that cruel and unusual for me to have to endure the whole show tonite to catch this segment.
    The segment itself seemed to have a lot of rubber padding around it, but this is the “feel-good” time segment for all networks.
    What struck me was why was Harsanyi holding himself out to be an expert on the subject?
    That said, it was thought-provoking, considering the time slot, and a flashing of nannyism mind-set can’t be a bad thing.”


  23. In comparison to now, the past almost always sucks.

    Yeah those 3 meter high dives we used to do tricks off sure sucked.Much more fun to enter the pool by stairs in the shallow end, firmly grasping the safety rail.
    I’m suprized those of us over 40 are still alive after shooting our eyes out with Crossman 760s and dodging all those child molesters while roaming miles from home, unsupervised, until dark- well before our teens.

  24. How is buying a GPS chip for your kid’s shoe either nannyism or actually keeping the kid from changing his behavior into something more safe?

  25. How is buying a GPS chip for your kid’s shoe either nannyism

    I guess it could be nannyism if the nanny made your kids do this.

  26. pool by stairs in the shallow end, firmly grasping the safety rail.

    With teh mandetory floaties for everyone under 18.

  27. Fluffy-Do you want to return to contribtory negligence as a total bar on liability?

  28. I favor closing expensive private schools. We need to stop coddling these little rich kids. Let them learn from the school of hard knocks – ie, public schools. And another thing that irks me – building electrical codes. Nowadays kids have these ridiculous 3-prong electrical plugs. In my day, we had 2-prong electrical plugs and we LIKED it. Did we get shocked sometimes? Sure, but I’m a better and less coddled adult for it.

  29. Mr. Nice Guy –

    A return to contributory negligence would be the bare minimum needed to restore basic justice to the civil courts, by definition.

    But that probably would not be enough, and I don’t know what the answer is.

    For example: A burglar is on the roof of a school. The burglar falls through a skylight that is behind on its maintenance schedule. Some dumbass jury might still find the school district 15% liable and award the plaintiff 15% of his claim. And that’s just not acceptable.

    We need some sort of “You’re a dumbass” standard where illegal, idiotic, clumsy, or foolish actions on the part of the plaintiff completely eliminate the liability of others, even when some failing on the part of those others can be shown. If you slam on your brakes on the highway for no reason and get rear-ended, the bumper design used by the auto manufacturer shouldn’t matter, nor should the placement of the gas tank.

  30. Sorry, Mr. Nice Guy – I just fully understood your post.

    Yes, that would be something I would be interested in. You basically offered me the solution I would prefer, but I confused what you were describing with proportional liability, and as a result my post doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  31. No one likes a nanny, but what about an au pair wearing a pleated skirt doing handstands?
    What about that?

  32. After becoming a father for the first time at age 50, it’s interesting hanging around with all the 20- and 30-something parents. They sometimes get a flash of sheer terror in their eyes as I let my 2-year-old play on the big kid playground equipment. When I was growing up, I rarely got hurt because I knew what my father would do if I did. Point being, I like the safer equipment, then I can feel more confident giving my girl more room to roam and I don’t have to be like my dad was.

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