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.