How Do Nanny States Grow?

Friday, March 11, 2005

No. I'm not going to talk about that old (and true) saw of capitalist economics that controls breed more controls. What I'm after lies deeper than that. After all, were our citizenry disgusted enough with the nanny state, we could, through the ballot box, finally start dismantling it in earnest. So the question becomes this: how do citizens tolerate intrusions from the nanny state into their lives in the first place?

I'm not going to go into this in detail today other than to say that what our average citizens will tolerate is a direct reflection on the implicit philosophical premises they commonly hold. But I will provide an interesting example. Through Jewish World Review, I learned of a James Lileks column that shows exactly why we find ourselves, as a nation, in some of the predicaments we are in.

The title of the article is "Don't These People Have Better Things to Do?" and the piece illustrates perfectly what Ayn Rand found wrong with what used to be commonly referred to as the political "Middle of the Road." Out of the gate, it looks like a column whose time has come.

Short version of this column: If the Republicans wish to lose their majority, they can expend great amounts of energy to outlaw soft-core skin flicks on cable TV.

So he's going to make a rousing call to battle for freedom of speech, right? Not quite.

One can argue that the government has the right to regulate decency over the public airwaves because they are, well, public. The Native Americans [sic] sold them to Marconi in 1684 for $24 or something like that. In any case, we lend them to gigantic congealed media conglomerates so they can broadcast drivel and dross in exchange for a few billion dollars in revenue. All we ask is that they don't drop the effenheimer too often, or unfurl a starlet's naughty bits during the family hour.

Voluntary constraint isn't working very well, alas. As you've probably noticed, standards for nearly everything seem to have degraded.

Now, one might argue that I could stand to cut Lileks some slack. We have, after all, never had a rational scheme for property rights in the realm of the air waves. Why should Lileks be raked over the coals for failing to imagine a different scheme? Indeed, Lileks argues against regulation of cable television, a medium for which this confusing regime does not apply.

Anyone with premium cable channels knows that some programs feature content that would not be appropriate for children. But these programs — often called "movies," in the modern slang — have already been revealed to the public in large gathering places called "multiplexes" where adults collect under cover of darkness to observe the alluring shadows projected on the wall. In short, if [Congress] can regulate cable simply because they think they should, then they can regulate anything.

Ah! But why does Congress think it can regulate anything? Maybe because people like Lileks accept their basic premise after all. Notice that Lileks does not make an argument exempting cable from government oversight because it isn't being broadcast over "public" property. Indeed, he accepts government regulation over billboards, which do have definite owners.

If the new censors were concerned only with the public airwaves, they might get an amen from those tired of the banal and adolescent crudity of modern media. If their crusade means fines for radio shows that run contests rewarding people for having sex in churches, as happened with the infamous Sam Adams beer promotion a few years ago, well, this does not mean the First Amendment has been run through the shredder. We can all agree that a certain amount of decorum is desirable in the public sphere, so we will be spared from explaining to our children what those people are doing up on that Calvin Klein billboard. ("It's a special dance people do when they've, ah, lost their underwear, dear.")

And aside from the issue of property rights being a non-issue for Lileks, he basically says, "A little censorship is OK." So when do we stop? That's the whole problem: Our body politic accepts censorship and may be about to get what amounts to a mild slap on the wrist compared to what it deserves. Sooooo..... As much as I admire your work and worship you as a writer, no slack for you, Mr. Lileks!

And this quote also gets us to the crux of the matter. Why do we end up with a paternalistic state? If Calvin Klein uses lewd displays as adverisements, why aren't there massive boycotts? Because parents are unable to stand up to the very children they want to "protect" when they beg for the clothes? Or are the parents themselves such slaves to fashion that they'll tolerate lewdness so they can buy the clothes themselves? Or is it easier to just let Unca Sam take care of the advertisers, freedom be damned?

Government intrusion begins in a free society when people, out of laziness, accept "just a little" government control over some aspect of their lives. So is it true that, as Lileks says, "the First Amendment has [not] been run through the shredder," when we ban certain kinds of advertising we deem indecent? I dunno, but I hear a loud sound resembling a shredder, I hear the rustling of papers, and maybe it's me, but I'm getting a whiff of "old paper smell."

-- CAV

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