According to research published by a Columbia University professor, public smoking bans are not really designed to protect the public, but rather to pressure people into quitting smoking. The professor, Ronald Bayer, says that officials should simply be honest about what they are doing instead of using baseless claims about the dangers of secondhand smoke.
The professor says he supports such nanny-state measures to influence public health and safety, but worries that the excuses and gimmicks politicians use to convince people to submit to more government control are too transparent.
Public health officials don’t want to be tarred with the brush of the ‘nanny state’ (or) ’Big Brother,’ ” Bayer told PBS in a recent interview. “I actually think these bans on parks and beaches represent, I think, a kind of paternalism, a kind of nanny state. The question is, is the nanny state so wrong? If we could eliminate 400,000 deaths a year over time because fewer and fewer people smoke, would that be so bad? And I think not. But I think public health officials are afraid to make the case that directly, so they get caught in making a case that, I think, is easily picked apart.
I think Bayer gives the public too much credit. There’s little evidence that most people take the time to pick apart BS, or even question it at all. Lying to the public to implement policy has always been remarkably effective; if it weren’t people would hardly ever support war, for example. I’m not implying that it’s morally acceptable, but there’s no doubt it works.
With that in mind, I wonder why our benevolent public “servants” (as though they would ever serve us…) don’t tackle some other pressing problems, like rampant obesity and single motherhood.
Some may suggest that mayor Bloomberg’s soda ban in NYC is an anti-obesity effort along those lines, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Not as far, for example, as ticketing people for smoking in public or refusing to wear helmets.
If our health is the state’s business, and the state arrogates to itself the right to use “corrective” measures to change our habits, then why not start ticketing people for being publicly obese? Police could see a fat person in the local park, and then force this person to be measured by a tape and stand on a portable scale. The resulting BMI calculation could be used to determine whether or not to fine the offender for public obesity. The justification behind this could be some excuse such as the following: public obesity causes global warming due to increased methane gas excretion.
Likewise, when a woman is known to be engaging in single motherhood by choice, she should be forced to attend parenting classes, if not fined. And why not arrest people who are known to have anal sex? It’s a dangerous practice, after all, and very much a public health issue. How about we take it further, and ban pop music for advocating promiscuity, tack a carbon tax on all flights, and arrest parents who don’t put sunscreen on their kids every time they take them outside? Every one of these hazards could be justified on the basis of public health/interest. Oh, the possibilities for public revenue and healthy outcomes are endless!
But naturally, these measures will always be used selectively. It’s easy to target those scummy, working-class dudes who are smoking a cig on break. Punishing them is great! But try, in the West, fining a young mother who is foisting her burdens on the rest of society and the sound of howling will reach the moon. Try, even, fining a morbidly obese woman, and we’ll never hear the end of it.
This is the real problem with the nanny state, especially in a liberal democracy. Those we instinctively feel sympathy for, like young mothers, will never be held accountable, while the rest of us will. Naturally, this will simply increase resentment. So, the solution I’d suggest to the public servants:
Get out of our business. It will be cheaper, and we’ll hate you less.