We have heard much recently about the “Europeanization” of America, particularly in the context of socialized health care or expanded environmental regulation. Yet few have noticed what is perhaps the most insidious instance of America becoming more like Europe: the growth of the nanny state and the collective infantilization of its citizens.
For an example of the nanny state run amok, look no further than our closest cultural neighbor, the United Kingdom. There, aristocratic disdain for the lower classes has been replaced by an outright ban on anything the nation’s political masters deem inappropriate. Britain’s Labor Party created a whopping 4,300 new offenses during its 13 years in government. Some are frivolous. Some are redundant. Almost all have, to an unprecedented extent, unnecessarily expanded government control over behavior that should be governed by common sense.
No wonder government spending skyrocketed in the United Kingdom. Laws seeped and snuck into the fabric of British society without much opposition because they weren’t recognized as the threats to freedom they are. Insidiously, this encroachment on liberty happened slowly enough to pass by largely unnoticed.
Now similar policies threaten to change American society. Instead of federal laws, many nanny-state regulations are coming into effect at the state and local levels, helped along by aggressive campaigns from leftist advocacy groups.
For instance, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recently decreed that all shops selling mobile phones must display radiation-emission information next to each handset. With at least two-thirds of Americans using cell phones, this policy could well spread to other cities.
And to what end? Cell-phone cancer scares have happened before, but they have no scientific basis. It is a basic concept of biophysics that cancer can be caused by radiation that ionizes molecules in living cells. Cell-phone radiation is simply not strong enough to do that. As the University of Maryland’s warrior against “voodoo science,” physics professor Bob Park says cell phones are “far below the cancer-energy threshold.” San Francisco, quite simply, is acting arbitrarily.
Is the creation of new offenses such as “Obstructing an authorized person from inspecting apple, pear, peach or nectarine orchards for the purposes of ascertaining whether grubbing up has been carried out” really a good use of government resources? Obliging the agendas of single-interest groups is a terrible way to make policy and can only lead to ever more government waste and expansion. This explosion in legislation has increased government influence and encroached on individuals’ civil liberties.
Moreover, in a state where virtually everything is forbidden, the citizen has to look to the state for permission to do virtually everything. In the most literal sense, it is a nanny state, where the citizen is treated as a mewling infant. And when people are treated like children, they lose the initiative to take on adult responsibilities. All the great American virtues - self-reliance, resilience, entrepreneurialism - will wither on the vine. That is the reality of “Europeanization.”
The old Roman Tacitus wryly observed, “The most corrupt state has a lot of laws.” Unless Americans rein in their legislators and demand something like the Great Repeal Act being planned by the new British government, the American republic will be in for some dark days ahead.
Iain Murray is a vice president and Anne Sutherland a research associate at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Both are British citizens.