Monday, January 04, 2010

Mother, Mother

The idea of the "nanny state" is a frequent focus of libertarian attacks. By "nanny state," libertarians generally mean rules and regulations passed by the government that seek to control personal behavior - bans on smoking and drug usage are a good example. If you want a sample of libertarian anti-nanny state activism, Jacob at Eternal Recurrence Liquidity Preference does a good job of attacking nanny state laws against smoking, drinking, and various forms of food, and Nobody's Business has some good posts decrying random regulatory madness.

I generally find myself in agreement with the anti-nanny state people, but I think there's a little bit more to this nanny state idea than batty regulations and restrictions on personal freedom. So I was interested when the blind mouse that is David Brooks found the cheese with this column about the Underpants Bomber:
Now we seem to expect perfection from government and then throw temper tantrums when it is not achieved. We seem to be in the position of young adolescents — who believe mommy and daddy can take care of everything, and then grow angry and cynical when it becomes clear they can’t.


In a mature nation, President Obama could go on TV and say, “Listen, we’re doing the best we can, but some terrorists are bound to get through.” But this is apparently a country that must be spoken to in childish ways. The original line out of the White House was that the system worked. Don’t worry, little Johnny.

When that didn’t work the official line went to the other extreme. “I consider that totally unacceptable,” Obama said. I’m really mad, Johnny. But don’t worry, I’ll make it all better.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration has to be seen doing something, so it added another layer to its stage play, “Security Theater” — more baggage regulations, more in-flight restrictions.

Is the nanny state mentality leaking into the so-called "War on Terror"? Greenwald has more:
This is what inevitably happens to a citizenry that is fed a steady diet of fear and terror for years. It regresses into pure childhood. The 5-year-old laying awake in bed, frightened by monsters in the closet, who then crawls into his parents' bed to feel Protected and Safe, is the same as a citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe. A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values can only be degraded and depraved.

And so we get security theater from the TSA, which can easily be seen as nanny state. But when we're running to the government saying "mommy, mommy, protect me from the scary terrorists," we also get warrantless wiretapping, abuses of the state secrets privilege, extralegal detention programs, "enemy combatants," and - well - basically every excess of the Bush and Obama administrations' anti-terrorism policy.

It's all nanny state. It's all predicated in the foolish belief that our government should be able to keep the rest of the world at bay. Like children, we run to government offering to give up everything in order to protect us - from ourselves, from the terrorists, from whoever. Our principles of personal liberty and the rule of law suddenly become malleable when faced with the big scary monster in the closet. We need government to Do Something. We need the president to reassure us that everything is okay and we freak the fuck out when he doesn't. (Seriously, the Republican attacks on Obama in the wake of the Underpants Bomber Fail remind me of nothing more than the way my 22-month-old daughter reacts if she's watching the Backyardigans episode with the giant scary-looking robot and I'm not holding her at the time the robot shows up.)

I don't know about you, but I don't need a president to kiss me on the head and tuck me in at night. I'm an adult, for heaven's sake, with principles and morals and a perspective on the actual danger posed by terror attacks. I don't need reassurance, I need competence, and I'm not selling myself out for the illusion of safety. There are rational, positive steps we can take to fight terror, but we don't need to lose our heads, go overboard, and sacrifice our principles. Let's take an honest assessment of the threat and react accordingly. We can and should work to patch the holes in the intelligence gathering system, but we don't need a whole new legal framework to deal with terror crimes, we don't need to torture or maim anyone or imprison anyone without cause, and we don't need to fight long, protracted wars over it. Terrorism isn't even close to being an existential threat to America. We shouldn't lose our heads and treat it as such.

And another thing. Parents know that when their kid is scared and freaking out, the absolute last thing that they should do is show panic and overreact. Kids will overreact, but when the kid sees her parent calm and collected, they calm down and start to feel better. However, if the kid sees the parent scared or panicking, they'll just get even more agitated and hysterical. But the hallmark of the nanny state is to panic and overreact to some perceived threat with ridiculous, pointlessly intrusive government action. So in a fit of immaturity we run to the nanny state - but it turns out that the nanny state is just as immature as us. Perhaps if we're all going to act like children about the threat du jour - and according to Greenwald, some 58% of our childish nation wants to waterboard the Underpants Bomber, for reasons that remain unclear - we should at least elect adults to run the place.

This song seemed appropriate:

Update:"This one retarded Nigerian crispy penis airplane man who may or may not have been involved with a sub-division of Al Qaeda has officially freaked out an entire nation and rewritten the Obama Adminstration’s agenda, forever. It’s a good thing Terrorists never expect a whiny titty baby nation to comically overreact to every attempted plot they pretend to undertake, right?" Awesome, Wonkette.

1 comment:

Matthew B. Novak said...


Your analysis goes much deeper than a criticism of the nanny state itself, to an indictment of the source of the nanny state - the citizenry. I can't tell you how much I appreciate that. One of my great frustrations with libertarian criticisms of the nanny state is that they tend to identify the government as an "other", and set them apart from the people or individuals. But ultimately the two are so intimately tied as to be inseperable. A problem with one is a problem with the other. Well written.