Nanny State Misunderstanding

April 29, 2006 at 3:00pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

This morning’s Lincoln Journal Star editorial demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the term “nanny state”. The editorial supports nanny statism in the context of barring drivers from driving while distracted. But such laws designed to prevent Driver A from killing Driver B (or Pedestrian C) have little to do with a nanny state.

The nanny state involves the government preventing or discouraging a person from engaging in behaviors that are “harmful” primarily to himself. Such policies include anti-smoking laws, junk food taxes, neo-prohibitionism, sex toy bans, and so on. The LJS is confused in that it conflates any restriction on personal behaviors with nanny statism. But laws that restrict personal behaviors on public property do not necessarily rise to the level of nanny statism. Banning talking on a cell phone while walking on a public sidewalk (which may annoy others, but doesn’t threaten to harm them) would be nanny state creep; banning make-up application while driving 75 miles per hour on a public Interstate does threaten others, and is therefore regulatable without fear of the nanny state label.

The problem here is that the LJS’s definition is overbroad. And it is a problem. In the editorial they claim to support one particular so-called nanny state policy, and many people are likely to agree. They see the policy, they see the nanny state label, and they think to themselves, “Gee, I always thought the nanny state was totally irrational, but this policy makes sense.” That in turn leads to folks being more likely to accept other “mild” instances of actual nanny state creep. And once the foot is in the door…

Truth be told the Journal Star’s mistake is pretty minor. And it’s not as though the LJS is the first or only media organization to endorse nanny statism (real or otherwise). But it was an annoying enough mistake that on a quiet Saturday morning I thought, “Eh, what the heck, I’ll blog it.”

By the way, I suppose I should make clear that I don’t necessarily favor banning any specific activity while driving. I don’t have a problem with talking on the cell phone, reading a map, or even applying make-up while driving. Some people are remarkably talented at multi-tasking while behind the wheel. I do, however, support making drivers pay attention to what they’re doing, and holding them liable for damages they cause to persons or private or public property as a direct and probable consequence of their negligence. In other words, the crime ought not be driving while texting, but driving while incompetent. Believe it or not, those laws are already on the book.

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Karin May 3, 2006 at 4:27pm

I saw a woman drinking a coffee, talking on a cell phone, and smoking as she drove her two ton SUV the other day. (How, you ask? she was bending her head to hold the cell phone, and holding the coffee and cigarette one in each hand. Good thing for her she doesn’t drive a manual, I suppose)

Since I started biking to work and school, I have been nearly run down at least once a week by someone in a car, usually, but not always, talking on a phone. I am careful to use hand signals and stay out of cars way, too.

When I had a cell phone, I would very occasionally take a call while driving, but I would ask the person if I could call them back. There’s no reason for half the drivers out there to be constantly talking on their cell phones- not only is it mildly dangerous, it’s kind of creepy.

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