Nanny State

8 Attacks on Freedom, From the Left and the Right

Americans are still relatively free.


If you look around the country today you will find that, despite the best efforts of their betters, Americans still enjoy a fair amount of freedom to do as they wish. But the nation's busybodies are on the case, and will soon take care of that.

Item: Now that Republicans effectively have repealed Obamacare's individual mandate—the decree that every resident shall buy health insurance, whether he wants it or not—states are stepping in and pondering whether to impose their own. So far nine states and the District of Columbia have taken up the idea, even though less than half of Democrats favor the mandate.

Item: Numerous cities are now looking with longing at rent control to keep housing costs in check. Irony alert: Many of those same cities also impose tight restrictions on land use, which limits the supply of, and therefore drives up the cost of, living space. This is an economic point so obvious even the Obama administration could see it: "The Obama administration … is calling on cities and counties to rethink their zoning laws," Politico reported a couple of years ago, "saying that antiquated rules on construction, housing and land use are contributing to high rents and income inequality, and dragging down the U.S. economy as a whole." But why roll back regulations that raise the cost of housing when you can simply impose even more regulations to offset the effects of the first ones?

Item: The majority leader of California's state Assembly has introduced legislation that would impose a fine of up to $1,000 on any waiter or waitress who offers a plastic drinking straw to a customer without being asked. The Washington Post notes that this is part of a growing anti-straw movement, which is driven by alarm over the 500 million straws that are used every single day—which is almost certainly a fake number, seeing as how it is based on an unconfirmed phone survey by a 9-year-old boy. (Yes, really.)

Item: Two lawmakers in New York have introduced legislation to ban Tide Pods (those little plastic packages of laundry detergent), owing to the "Tide Pod Challenge," in which teenagers chew the things up for the delight of social media. Obviously, we don't want hundreds of children dying from such a phenomenon. Equally obviously, they aren't: From 2012 to 2017, two children died from eating detergent packets, which—as Reason's Christian Britschgi points out—is one-eighth as many children as died from swallowing batteries.

Item: The Seattle Times thinks it would be swell for Washington state to follow the lead of California and Hawaii, and raise the legal age for smoking and vaping to 21. Because while you can choose to risk your life in combat at that age, you shouldn't be able to choose to risk your life with Camels.

All of the preceding items reek of left-wing market interventionism and liberal nanny-statism, but conservatives often find freedom a loathsome inconvenience, too:

Item: New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently suggested that American society would be much improved if we banned pornography. This, he argues, would lead to "better men" who are not "at once entitled and resentful, angry and … caddish … and frustrated that real women are less available and more complicated than the version on their screen." Interesting theory—but it runs up against the reality of how men treat women in times and places where porn is hard to come by, such as America in the 1840s or Saudi Arabia today.

Item: Republicans used to cheer free trade, but since Donald Trump rose to power they have turned sharply against it: 85 percent now think, wrongly, that free trade costs more jobs than it creates. Consequently, if an American chooses to buy a product from, say, China or Mexico, many Republicans would be happy to have the government step in with as much force as it can muster and say, "Oh no you don't!"

Item: Republicans also used to cheer immigration. But since Donald Trump rose to power they have had a change of heart there, too. This is probably the biggest current example of right-wing busybody-ism, and it is surely the worst, because it rests on so many dangerous premises.

There is, for instance, the belief that immigrants take "our" jobs. This presumes that somebody is entitled to a job in the first place. Not so. The only person entitled to decide who gets hired is the person offering the job. Nobody else has a claim on it.

Then there is the belief that too much immigration threatens America's identity. But America's identity, unlike that of most countries, has nothing to do with ethnicity or tribe. It is based on a set of eternal ideals, not a set of ephemeral genes.

So claiming that Latinos or Asians or some other group are "taking" "our" country from "us" is like claiming that Latinos or Asians are taking "our" theory of gravity.

America is freedom. If people come here to be free, they're not taking America—they're joining it. And they probably understand the country a lot better than the poor souls who worry that not enough Americans are being told what to do.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.