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Nanny State By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 19, 2007


Frontpage Interview's guest today is David Harsanyi, an award-winning columnist at The Denver Post. In addition to a thrice-weekly column, his writings on politics and culture have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, National Review, New York Press, Christian Science Monitor, Jerusalem Post, Toronto Globe & Mail, The Hill, Sports Illustrated Online, and numerous other publications. He's also a regular guest on radio and television shows across the country, including PBS, NPR and Fox News. He is the author of the new book, Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children.

FP: David Harsanyi, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Harsanyi: Thanks for having me, Jamie.

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

Harsanyi: Witnessing the implausible acceleration of the nanny state, I wanted to lay out, not only the sheer number of invasive laws dictating personal choices, but also explain how we got to a place where an American can't smoke a cigarette in his own bar.

FP: Can you talk a bit about your own intellectual journey? What influenced you in your youth to respect individual rights and to find government intrusion loathsome?

Harsanyi: As with most people, my ideology and my attitudes about life were informed by parents and family. My mom and dad defected from communist Hungary in 1969, so the importance freedom – particularly individual freedom -- was instilled in me early and often. When I was younger I was drawn to Ayn Rand books and other works of fiction celebrating individualism. Though I would love to tell you I incessantly read Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises in my early 20s, I'd be lying. It was more people like PJ O'Rourke, who masterfully mocks the excesses of the state, and Milton Friedman, who made economics accessible, that did the trick for me. If had to label myself, I guess classical liberal would be best.

FP: What is your book's main argument?

Harsanyi: Small things will lead to big ones. When we hear about tag being banned in Colorado Springs, or we hear about dog house zoning laws in San Francisco, or "health zone" initiatives in Los Angeles, we may just laugh and shake our heads. But when you bundle together of all these various piddling intrusions, it manifests into a growing movement that endangers liberty on a larger scale. I argue that both political parties – on every level of government – is guilty.

FP: What kind of people support an intrusive government? What is their mentality?

Harsanyi: Diversity, sadly is the key. On a micro level, we have too many citizens – even small-government conservatives -- with caveats when it comes to personal freedom. On one issue or another, citizens believe government is needed to protect the individual from him/herself. All these individuals form rather large constituencies, however. And then when we add up all these constituencies what we're left with is a growing and wide-ranging paternalistic state that many people aren't even aware is here.

There are also those, take Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who are driven by tragic personal events. There are those who surrender to convenience – state dependency can be seductive. Then there are the professional meddling parents who want to stick their noses in everyone's business. There are "progressives" who believe freedom and fairness are the same thing, advocating for expansion government dependency. (And isn't it sad that once we have "revolutionaries" and now we have legions of prigs on the left.) There are health care officials or safety watchdog groups that believe a particular issue is the most the momentous threat to republic since saccharine and are willing to invade individual freedom to "fix" the problem.

This is the "For the Children" crowd.

Most of these folks are under the mistaken impression that government can create a superior or healthier or more moral person. Almost always they are motivated by good intentions and Utopian idealism. But as C.S. Lewis wrote, "Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive." When safety and salubriousness become more important than freedom we're in trouble.

FP: How is your book original? What makes it unique?

Harsanyi: Oftentimes libertarian ideas – in a small "l" sense – don't make sense to the average people simply trying to live their lives. Trans fats are unhealthy so why not ban them? In a surrender of convenience people often miss the larger consequences. In the case of trans fats: government can now ban any unhealthy ingredient – and God knows there are thousands of them. What I hoped to do with Nanny State was to write an accessible and entertaining polemic about the pitfalls of excessive government control, rather than another think tanky book, and explain these consequences. Fact is: those who strongly believe in individual freedom often utilize an intellectually rigorous approach -- which turns off the average reader.

FP: But government intrusion is necessary on many levels no? Where do we draw the line?

Harsanyi: There is no straightforward answer to that question. On a fundamental level a lot of our society revolves around the idea of common sense. Yet on some level common sense has become more subjective as American ideas about the size and scope of government have atomized. For the topics covered in my book – the little things – I contend that government should be held accountable for protecting Americans from hidden dangers, it should provide transparency and it can even try to convince citizens to act in a healthy and safe manner. But the line should be drawn between convincing and coercion. Convince me not to smoke with warnings labels and pictures and tearful public service announcements, but once you prohibit smoking in my bar or in a home – as is the new trend – we've crossed the line into Orwellian territory.


FP: What are your thoughts on the Religious Right?

Harsanyi: Well, though a sinner myself, I often find that the religious right gets a bum rap. My column has covered many attacks on the First Amendment rights of social conservatives who have the audacity to mention Jesus in front hyper sensitive do-gooders. But then again, the problem with the religious right begins, in my view at least, when they advocate for the regulation of speech or overregulation of adult entertainment. If conservatives want government out of their lives, it's important for them to remain intellectually and ideological consistent. Too many people in this country believe they have the "right" not to be offended by the things they see or hear.

FP: I find the “right” not to be offended very scary. I have always very much believed that the right to offend is crucial in a society where freedom is valued. If there isn’t speech and art in a culture that isn’t offending anyone, then that society is quite boring, insipid and on its way to a despotism of one kind or another. Your thoughts?

Harsanyi: I agree completely. Political correctness is one of the engines of nannyism. Allowing and even encouraging "offensive" ideas is vital for the intellectually health of a free society. Too many of us believe they have the "right" not to hear anything or smell anything or see anything that is offensive. Still, I believe the average American has an innate small "l" libertarian impulse. And that is exactly why nannies will often transform something that is merely annoying, like second-hand smoke, into something that can kill you on contact.

It must be added that many conservatives are also ideologically inconsistent on this issue. During the overblown Janet Jackson nipple controversy, Republicans, who only few years earlier were advocating the elimination of the FCC, now were entertaining the idea of expanding the regulatory power of that organization to encompass cable and satellite television because a over-the-hill disco singer popped a mammary. There is a difference between condemning the repugnant (things like Janet Jackson's dance routine) and advocating that government protect us from the repugnant. That's the distinction between a nanny and an active citizen. Too many folks, if something is the "right thing to do" government should force us to comply. It's a dangerous idea. Because the right thing is almost always subjective.

FP: David Harsanyi, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.

Harsanyi: Thanks very much for having me.


Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.


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