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The Nanny State

August 6, 2001

Tags Big GovernmentCorporate WelfareThe Police State

Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory has a beef with Mary Sheila Gall, President Bush’s nominee to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

It seems that Gall once "made a derogatory remark about ‘the federal nanny state.’" This remark, says McGrory, has "come back to haunt her" because, apparently, the phrase "nanny state" is now seen in Washington as some sort of slur against politicians and bureaucrats.

McGrory further blames Gall—and, by implication, the federal government's alleged turn toward neglect—for a "parade of calamities in the nursery—babies burning, drowning, crashing down stairs in their Safety 1st baby walkers, trapped in bunk beds." Gall stands accused of coddling "industries that make flammable pajamas, capsizing bath rings and dangerous bunk beds."

It is strange irony that for a full-time statist like McGrory, government is always at fault for failing to prevent every mishap. The poor bureaucrat just can't win with these people.

It would seem that, if babies are falling down stairs, with or without walkers, the issue is not defective baby walkers but rather the defective attention spans of parents who perhaps are convinced that regulators have guaranteed the safety of all products on the market. The overwhelming majority of baby-walker mishaps are the result of such parental errors, which is why regulators are always on the lookout for cases that defy this norm.

During the hearing on Gall’s nomination, for example, Senator John Edwards offered a story that was supposed to illustrate why it is crucial that the head of the commission be an activist and a true believer in government. He cited the case of a woman named Lynn Starks, who happened to be sitting two rows behind Gall, whose three-year-old daughter died after being strangled between the frame and the guardrail of her bunk bed.

Senator Edwards said this tragedy occurred because the manufacturer of the child's bed was not aware of a voluntary standard to reduce the space between the frame and guardrail. Furthermore, Gall, as a commission member, had voted against making this safety standard mandatory; had the standard been mandatory, the manufacturer presumably would have known about.

No one dared raise the obvious questions: If a mother cannot be expected to look after the safety of her very own child, how can anyone believe that Consumer Product Safety Commission members are better suited to do so? Further, why should officials in Washington, who have no financial stake in the matter, be better at assuring product safety than the manufacturers themselves? And if regulators assume responsibility for safety, what becomes of the legal accountability of producers whose negligence or malfeasance results in property damage, maiming, or death?

At an anti-Gall news conference after the hearing, Representative Rosa DeLauro brought up another case designed to highlight the need for mandatory flame-resistant fabric. It seems that when David Borowski, who now works at Freddie Mac, was three weeks old, a puppy chewed through an electrical cord, which set fire to a blanket. David underwent fifty surgeries and was left to a life of disfigurement—all because Washington hadn’t yet imposed a mandate for flame-resistant fabric.

Might there be another explanation? In the real world, as opposed to the imaginings of bureaucrats, this case is an example of an accident, and one from which parents learn. It is easy enough to spin counterfactual regulatory scenarios that might have prevented a particular accident—cords wrapped in hard plastic that puppies can’t chew, asbestos blankets, mandatory adult monitoring during baby sleep times—but it is impossible to address every contingency. And every intervention creates unanticipated results and leaves other contingencies unaddressed.

Many calamities are preventable—not by bureaucratic means, but by simple attentive parenting and common sense—but nothing can take away the inherent risk of calamity that exists every day of our lives. An irrefutable fact of reality is the unpredictability of the future and all the accidents that result. The problem here is to balance risk of harm with the prospects of success, and that is something only the private sector does well.

Again, are we really supposed to believe that the government’s personal love for children is more intense than the personal love for children of parents themselves? The McGrorian-style worldview has no place for individual responsibility and accountability and actually works to undermine it by transferring all accountability to D.C.

If government regulations did not crowd out private testing and rating services, then rating guides, reports, and private-sector safety consultants would be more available, comprehensive, and affordable than they are now. State regulation breeds irresponsibility and blame shifting. Tangles of regulations impose costs that price competitors out of the market and prevent the invention of new designs and superior and cheaper products which, under the existing regulations, would become technically illegal.

The free market would encourage entrepreneurs to create rating and safety systems that would perform the dual role so claimed, but never actually delivered on by the government—namely, providing consumer safety and respecting consumer choice. Only products tested by the market can find the right balance. Anyone who has looked through baby-product catalogs knows that safety is extremely important in this market.

If safety, as arbitrarily and remotely defined by bureaucrats in Washington, is to be imposed regardless of the cost, then why not take the next step? Parents themselves should be trained and licensed by the government, all in pursuit of the ideal of "safety." Forget the Nanny State; we need a full-time Parental State. It may sound absurd and dangerous to liberty, but one wonders how many politicians and bureaucrats today could marshal arguments against the idea.

Like so many others who practice genuine compassion in their private lives, Mary McGrory freely donates her time to genuine charitable work, volunteering at local orphanages and inviting complete strangers into her home for the holidays, all without expecting reward or recognition. 

This is a wonderful thing. If she can do all this of her own free will, why won't she let others be as generous as she is and let them share their time and ingenuity to help reduce future risks for all of us? Yet McGrory seems to lack the desire to imagine that free people can cope with the uncertainty that the future brings. 


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