Nanny State

The Tea Party and many Republicans object to what they call “the nanny state.” Their image is of Americans who went out to the frontier, cut down trees and lived off the land, by gathering, farming, hunting, and taking care of themselves.

Such independence is impossible for the vast majority of us. We depend on employers for jobs and on investors to start new businesses even though most start-ups fail. One friend of ours left the country in embarrassment when she couldn’t pay back the friends and relatives who had staked her business. No man or woman is an island. We need each other for the myriad tasks that modern living requires. But if everything we need becomes a wild west that requires maximum vigilance, little can happen. Countries without decent government services stagnate, or worse.

Our economy depends on our support for regulators who try to prevent wild swings and depressions. It’s not a nanny state that protects us. It’s an efficient, effective state.

Most of us are used to the fact that we don’t, and can’t, live independently, and seek instead a fair and efficient environment. Is it a nanny state that protects us from contaminated foods? The alternative is to let many people die. Checking the factories that prepare our food requires a common solution or it becomes much too expensive for any of us to handle.

Buy that information yourself? Consumers Union can check only a small fraction of what we consume. We could grow our own food only by sacrificing the benefits of an advanced economy while spending our time growing what we need. It’s not a nanny state that protects us. It’s an efficient, effective state.

Is it a nanny state that tries to protect us from global warming, foul air, dirty water, and unsanitary waste in the streets? Which of us has the resources to solve those problems for ourselves. Indeed economists of all stripes describe them as problems with fancy names – external costs, free riders, coordination problems – which mean it’s profitable for people to do things which cause huge social problems as long as other people have to pay the costs. As a result economists agree that common, society wide solutions are essential. That’s not liberal or conservative economics. It’s fundamental. There are differences to be sure about the best ways to solve specific problems. But there is no solution without a political solution. It’s not a nanny state that can protect us. It’s an efficient, effective state.

Infant mortality is one of the best predictors of countries on the verge of revolution. The reason is clear. It is a symptom of a government that is failing to do its job. It’s not a nanny state. It’s not a plethora of regulation. It is failure to do the things that make life efficient and predictable, providing necessary infrastructure for commerce and for public health. Growth and progress depend on a base of predictability, health, property and opportunity. Those depend on government. It’s not a nanny state that can protect us. It’s an efficient, effective state.

American public investment in all the essentials for a healthy, wealthy and powerful country have been declining for decades. Don’t be misled by nonsense. America needs us to go to the polls and reject those trying to take apart one of the most important American creations – efficient, effective government.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 26, 2010.

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