by Mark Knox

There’s a great scene in “Mary Poppins” where Mr. and Mrs. Banks are about to interview a series of prospective nannies (of whom there are many lined up) for their children. A strange wind comes along and blows all the nannies away while the same wind wafts in the “practically perfect in every way” nanny, Mary Poppins.

What makes for great cinema also makes for bad public policy. I speak in particular about the “Forces for Good” using the power of the State to generate public policy “for the peoples’ own good” – a strange wind that is increasingly blowing into our once private affairs…The Nanny State.

At my school, they show the daily teen news program “Channel One” at the beginning of the day. This week there was a segment on President Obama’s proposal to tax soft drinks in an effort to get kids to change their drinking habits and thus cut down on childhood obesity. [At a possible 1 cent per ounce, this can of Coke Zero I’m drinking as I write this would cost me an additional 12 cents!] The newscast interviewed several teenagers with obvious questions like – Would you stop drinking soft drinks? Would your friends change their drinking habits? Do you think this would help teenagers to actually lose weight? And so on.

[As a little economic cul-de-sac, I wonder about the thought processes that enabled policy makers to heavily tax cigarettes in hopes of “raising revenue” while enacting heavy taxes on soft drinks in an effort to “reduce usage.” Just sayin’.]

I could finally take no more and verbally raised the question to my class, “Why is no one asking, ‘Is this really the government’s business in the first place?’” [Being that this is a US History class which had studied the Constitution earlier in the year, I thought it was an appropriate question.] At least one student nodded agreement with a “Yeah, I know! Right?” which, for those of you not conversant in Middle School languages, is loosely translated, “I agree and concur with what you are saying right now, teach!”

This is just another example among many of the State deciding for us what is in our best interest. Bicycle helmet laws, seat belt regulations, product warning labels, decibel level ordinances…these are all manifestations of good intentions enacted into public law with the unintended consequence of an entire society becoming more and more dependent on the State. These all began with good intentions, but it’s become death by a thousand paper cuts as we find more and more aspects of our lives being controlled by the State.

I’m not sure what the answer is. Can you imagine being the person to stand up in a City Council meeting and arguing against a bicycle helmet ordinance for kiddies? That’s how pervasive this has become; we’ve just come to expect this sort of thing. I pray that we can recover some of that moral fiber and risk-taking that made this country great.

Unfortunately, there’s no amount of sugar (oops, I mean USDA-approved sugar substitute) that will make the Nanny State go down…in the most delightful way, or otherwise.


  1. I'm with you on government interference into our personal choices … and I'm not certain legislation is the answer. However, I would be careful not to group a ridiculous soda tax with such instruments as bicycle helmet laws, seat belt laws, product warning labels, etc. I am constantly surprised at the lack of common sense – some would say “stupidity” – in a vast number of people. I have a friend who's a cop who pulled over a van for some violation. In the back was a playpen with two little children. I've seen kids and adults alike riding bikes at night with no helmet, no headlamp, no reflectors and dark clothing that made them nearly invisible. The fact that some people are caught violating the law broaches the question: How many people would participate in irresponsible behavior if there were no laws to govern them? Seat belts had been around for years … but my parents never used them on themselves or us, despite evidence of the dangers of driving without them, and the statistics of how many lives they save. It's almost like we have to save stupid people from themselves – or at least protect their children.


  2. I agree to an extent that there's a difference between a soda tax for social engineering and a seat belt law, but I'm not sure exactly where to split the difference. And that's the rub. Once such laws are passed, it's easier to pass more. And what's next? If it's beneficial for the public good to have a tax to reduce soft drink consumption, wouldn't also be beneficial to pass a law requiring people to floss? It's a tough question, for sure.As an aside, I was one of those who started wearing a seatbelt as a result of the law changes. Now I wouldn't think of doing without. So I guess in this case, the law has a good effect and to some degree was necessary for this effect.I guess the dividing line is somewhere along the good of the many/rights of the individual dichotomy. But that's a tough line to see. Personally, I think the soda pop tax crosses it.


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