On Point: Reflections on what's really good about a nanny state

By Dane Smith

Daily Record Newswire

Who’s afraid of nannies?

Not me. Maybe it’s because I couldn’t help but love Julie Andrews in both of her nanny roles, as the high-flying Mary Poppins and the exuberant governess of the wealthy Von Trapp family in “The Sound of Music.”

Or maybe it’s because my youngest daughter actually is working this year as a nanny for an affluent New York City family.

Whatever the reason, I am not exactly fear-stricken when government bashers raise the specter of — hide under your beds now — “The Nanny State.”

It’s one of their favorite pejorative phrases for any governmental effort to improve the lives of ordinary folks, especially if it impinges on our God-given American right to persist in doing whatever the heck we want, even if it’s clearly bad for us and others.

The term has been around since at least the mid-1960s, and apparently was coined, as one might expect, by a Conservative member of the British Parliament.

Syndicated columnist Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is the latest to raise this image of the evil nanny.

In a recent op-ed, Gerson blames the “nannying impulse” for our new federal health-care-reform legislation, which will provide health coverage to some 30 million Americans who otherwise would not have it.

He then lists an assortment of other buzz-killing freedom squelchers, from proposals to limit salt content in commercial foods, to imposing higher taxes on tanning beds, to requiring better calorie disclosure for fast-food restaurants and even the absence of candy for this year’s White House Easter Egg roll.

All this he dismisses as a product of a “Mary Poppins Syndrome,” which dictates that Americans will not be allowed by their governments to rest “until they are perfect in every way.”

Occasionally, let’s just acknowledge that this governmental instinct to protect and serve, and to respond to every problem and highly publicized accident or failure, can be a bit much.

My own favorite example of overreach is from several years ago, when the Minnesota Legislature, worried about several documented cases of salmonella poisoning, tried to crack down on potluck dinners by prohibiting people from bringing certain kinds of homemade casseroles to the church brunch.

But sanity prevailed — public outrage nipped that one in the bud. Personally, I’d risk my life for hotdish, preferably mayonnaise-based.

Seriously, we need to consider the alternatives, and reflect on the good that nannies do.

And we should realize that all these nannying responses arise from repetitive, often outrageous, and sometimes lethal failures by individuals and the private sector to protect the safety, health and welfare of real people. (Note to Tea Party members: The U.S. Constitution in its preamble says government was established to “promote the General Welfare.” Yes, the word “welfare” is right there in the Constitution.)

I believe the majority of Americans are thankful for most of our governments’ nannying roles.

No reasonable person can argue with how government: makes us and our teenagers wear seat belts — and makes car manufacturers provide airbags;

• is trying to prevent oil companies and corporate polluters from destroying the oceans and other environments;
• teaches our children how to read and get along with others;
• prevents smokers from blowing smoke into our lungs in restaurants;
• tries to keep the e-coli out of our hamburgers;
• gives special help to our autistic children;
• attempts to do something about the obesity epidemic; and outlaws the pornography industry from exploiting our children.

I could go on: Almost everything the public sector does has a nannying dimension to it.

The principle behind our mostly good and effective governments is that while individual freedoms must be protected, the group is important too.

The collective and democratic wisdom that prohibits littering — and collects taxes to clean up after those who do litter — must override the wonderful feeling of freedom that comes from throwing your beer can out the window.

And of course it’s not just us drones in the bottom 95 percent of the income ladder who benefit from this nannying.

Business leaders also take comfort in government as governess and depend on the authority of the nanny state for all kinds of corporate welfare, ranging from bank bailouts to tax-break subsidies, to orderly regulation of their often chaotic industries. There’s even a book out on the subject, the “Conservative Nanny State,” by economist Dean Baker.

And nobody appreciates the role of the actual nanny more than wealthy people themselves, on whom the entire profession depends.

For those who can afford it, extra help with the children is considered a good investment, for the well-being of both kids and parents. A good nanny helps not only with the care and feeding but also with providing discipline and early childhood education — and perhaps even with giving children the healthy feeling that a larger village cares for them.

A little more public investment in high-quality nannying is exactly what highly stressed, hard-working, low- and middle-income families need right now.

Universal access to nannying, in short, could help ALL our children pronounce and spell “supercallifragilisticexpialadocious” and become more precocious—and get on the road to success.

Dane Smith is president of St. Paul-based Growth & Justice, a progressive research organization that focuses on economics and state-and-local budget issues.