13 September 2010

Is Germany a 'Nanny State?' What About the U.S.?

Reviewing Tom Geoghegan's new book about the success stories of European social welfare states, and back from her own trip to Berlin, Nation magazine columnist Katha Pollitt asks anew why Americans oppose European-style programs so much when they seem to work so well. The way she poses the question is telling: "[I]t is hard to understand why Americans fight so hard against the nanny state, which provides so many good things."

Pollitt seems to have unconsciously adopted a term for the welfare state -- "the nanny state" -- that can only have been designed as a pejorative. She uses the term uncritically, not putting it in scare quotes or using the prefix "so-called." It's strange then, that the implications of the term don't factor into her attempts to answer her own rhetorical question. Her preferred theory, admittedly "primitive," is that "a critical mass of white Americans would rather not have something than see black and Latino Americans get it too." Given how much envy fuels the current populist spirit among that "critical mass," I'm unconvinced by Pollitt's answer. She's on safer ground when she notes that angry whites simply ignore the extent to which fellow whites depend on the welfare state. The angriest people probably aren't that dependent. For them, it's less that they'd rather not have what minorities have, but that they don't care whether whites have it or not, as long as minorities don't. It's still more likely that the angry ones resent the poor across the board, even if they place a colored face on them. If Pollitt is asking why people who are eligible for European-style benefits, or are likely to be eligible someday, "fight so hard against the nanny state," the answer has to have something to do with perceptions of a "nanny state" as something that implicitly infantilizes or emasculates the beneficiaries. Whoever coined the term, I suspect, wanted people to feel ashamed of receiving benefits from a nanny state, to question their manhood or adulthood, to "grow up" by bravely and honorably taking their chances in the workplace and the marketplace. If Pollitt doesn't want Americans to feel that way about the so-called nanny state, she should come up with a better name for it.

Wikipedia claims tentatively that "nanny state" dates back to 1965, and is British and specifically Tory in origin. Here's the relevant article on the subject.


d.eris said...

Is it a coincidence that Disney released their adaptation of Mary Poppins in 1964?

Anonymous said...

I'd say the answer is simpler and more complex. More complex in that there are probably as more than one reason. But I would say one of the reasons is simple arrogance. The US was the world leader for nearly a century. I think many Americans simply aren't willing to admit other nations have better ideas on how to do things and are more capable of doing so than the US. This is why so many right-wingers at least are unwilling to even research how social democracies work, simply shrugging them off as "socialist" and therefore no good.

Anonymous said...

d: Yes, it is purely a coincidence.

Samuel Wilson said...

My own guess is that Americans have forgotten the conditions that made a welfare state appear necessary and made it not shameful to accept its benefits, while entrepreneurial reactionaries have been struggling for decades to shame Americans into rejecting the "nanny state." The arrogance Crhymethinc perceives is partly a rationalization for being too proud to accept benefits to which civilization entitles you.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps. The arrogance of which I refer is in part the idea that "only those people who subscribe to the same ideology I subscribe to are Americans and should be allowed to benefit in any way from living in America." Also, as I stated, the idea that the US was once the world leader and had the best ideas on how to do things. This is no longer the case, but I think too many people would rather simply ignore that and pretend we are still the world leader, rather than understand what changed, why we are no longer the world leader and what we must do to regain that standing (assuming the world wants/needs a "leader" as such).

d.eris said...

I think the "nanny state" should be understood in a wider sense than "welfare state." It's not just about economic issues, but issues that affect all sorts of aspects of our daily lives. For example:

There was a story a couple months back about a 10 year old kid from Canada visiting his father in Oregon a couple years ago. He was caught riding a bicycle without a helmet by police, who turned him over to child protective services, who shuffled him through the foster homes for the next two years as his mother fought the system to get her kid back. She finally did, and now the state wants to recoup the costs of their kidnapping from the mother!


Samuel Wilson said...

Wikipedia makes it clear that the term refers to the regulatory state at least as much as to the welfare state, but the term retains its purely pejorative meaning whatever the context and should be rejected in objective discussion. The Oregon story looks like an abuse of power at first glance, but its relevance to regulatory politics is questionable.

d.eris said...

When I hear the term "nanny state," I actually tend to think of all the absurd laws governing so much of our daily existence, laws which are often ignored, but can be wielded against us at any moment. But maybe I'm just mistaken. It was the helmet law which caught my attention in the Oregon/Canada story, as an absurd example of this sort of nanny-statism. "Don't forget to wear your helmet . . . or you'll be kidnapped by agents of the government."

One of my favorite examples of these kinds of crazy regulations can be found in some parks in NYC. As you enter the park there is a sign listing all the things you're not allowed to do.

"Welcome to your awesome neighborhood park. No Soliciting. No Biking. No Skateboarding. No Rollerblading. No Grilling. No Alcohol. No Music. No dogs off leashes. No Ball Playing. Enjoy and Have a Good Time!"

I exaggerate, but not by much.