Personal responsibility and the nanny state
Helping people help themselves
Some Republicans have recently seized on small provision of health care legislation under consideration in the Senate:
For critics of the Democrats’ $849 billion health care bill, this may be the ultimate irony: millions of dollars set aside so the government can help teach citizens how to handle their own money better.
The funding is part of a broader, $375 million program aimed at promoting responsible lifestyles – a five-year plan to fund state efforts to educate adolescents on abstinence, contraception and other “adult preparation subjects” such as healthy relationships, increased child-parent communication and “financial literacy.”
Critics like Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) say that “Personal responsibility is a good principle — but not the government doing it.” Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) sarcastically calls it “a wonderful nanny state.”
This is an old, but important debate.The traditional dichotomy is to describe, on the one hand, a libertarianism that says “People own themselves fully. Any attempt to legislate their behavior is both tyrannical and counterproductive. The state should essentially keep the peace and otherwise butt out.” On the other hand is a highly interventionist account of the state that says “People are sometimes the worst judges of their own good. The state has an important and necessary role in providing people with the tools to make good decisions and, in some cases, the right to remove other decisions.”
Vice laws are a good example of the latter. You can’t gamble in many states. You can’t drink or smoke below a certain age and, even when you do, you often have to pay more to do so. In most states, you can’t kill yourself.
To what extent does financial literacy, parenting, and abstinence education fit this mold? All are examples of issues that, like vices, can have a powerful and destructive influence on an individual’s life, as anyone who goes into deep debt, has a child too early, or who comes from a broken and unstable home can tell you. Of course, lots of things could be argued to exert a strong tug on the trajectory of one’s life. If it starts here, ask the critics, where will it end?
Yet there’s a difference between how vice laws treat behavior (“you can’t do this”) and how this approach to healthy lifestyles treats behavior (“we want to teach you about a better approach”). They both make the same normative assumption, namely, that the state can have a perspective on the “right” way to live. But an educative approach acknowledges that there’s space for both disagreement and for the freedom to dismiss the lesson. Vice laws make no such exception. You face a penalty, either financial or judicial, for any transgression.
Something less discussed is the deprivation of liberty for individual taxpayers to choose what lifestyle the state promotes. If I’m someone who, for example, doesn’t believe in abstinence (or believes it’s morally wrong to preach a sexual lifestyle to adolescents), I have no choice but to provide tax dollars that will fund this perspective. This may sound somewhat benign, but imagine that the state embraced a specific religion as part of its definition of “healthy lifestyles.”
At that point, what seemed like a harmless use of taxpayer money would arguably be an infringement on the religious freedom, both for the putative students of the relgious education as well as every taxpayer of a different religion (whose dollars nonetheless go towards the program).
These are the two edges of the nanny state: is it right for government to encourage a particular lifestyle and, if so, is it appropriate to levy public funds to do it?