AUGUSTA, Maine — “Nanny state” is a label nobody wants, which lends it all the more impact when it comes to ideological clashes over how much or little government should regulate people’s lives.
In March, when a Democratic proposal to ban teenagers from tanning booths dominated legislative debate, House Republican Communications Director David Sorensen rolled out the phrase “nanny state” to attack Democrats for their objections to Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget and plan to pay debts to hospitals.
“While Democrats pursue political pettiness, nanny-state regulation and big-government pickpocketing, Republicans have been focused on paying our bills to Maine’s hospitals and coming up with solutions to the state budget shortfall,” wrote Sorensen in a memo to reporters.
Conservative BDN blogger Matthew Gagnon explored the issue in a 2011 piece, “Impulse to make laws does little for safety.”
“Like parents disciplining their children, enterprising legislators have a penchant for codifying behavioral rules. Motorcyclists die when they crash without a helmet? Mandate helmets! Motorists die because they don’t wear their seat belt? Mandate wearing seat belts! Too many fat people in the world? Ban trans fats!”
Political assaults like these fly from both Republicans and Democrats in Augusta frequently. It’s the nature of politics, but the question remains: Is Maine a nanny state?
The debate about government infringement on personal freedoms dates back probably as long as there have been governments, but “nanny state” didn’t exist until 1965 when a British politician used it in a column. “Nanny state” is defined as a government perceived as authoritarian or overprotective, but one person’s overprotection is another person’s progressive framework for everything from saving a life to feeding the poor.
“It’s a disservice to our public discourse and the role of government to resort to this conceptualization of ‘we’re a nanny state or we’re not a nanny state,’” said Garrett Martin, executive director of the liberal Maine Center for Economic Policy. “I think the notion that somehow government in and of itself is the problem or the root of so many of our problems is just misplaced because at some level, we are the government.”
Martin said people of any political persuasion can point to laws that overreach into personal liberty — until the lack of a law infringes on their personal liberty.
“We’ve sort of created this no-win situation as it relates to the role of government in people’s lives,” he said. “Increasingly, it seems as though policies are being viewed through the individual lens as opposed to through the broader public-good lens, but at any one moment the shoe could be on the other foot, and suddenly they could be crying foul.”
J. Scott Moody, chief executive officer at the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center, said he views Maine as a nanny state.
“There’s this general impression that Maine is often used as a test case, particularly with environmental laws,” said Moody. “When it comes to taxes and regulations, if we have it, it’s always on the extreme end of the spectrum.”
Moody identified some laws he sees as excessive, such as protecting vernal pools from development, requiring the use of seatbelts and banning texting while driving. While some laws might make sense from a safety standpoint, Moody said they’re flawed because they’re nearly unenforceable.
Organizations that try to quantify what a nanny state is range from the serious to the sublime. On the latter end of that spectrum is the website nannystate.com, which filets what it sees as overreaching laws from around the globe. Recent posts have targeted a city in India that is considering a ban on scantily-clad mannequins and Chinese lawmakers who want to fine women the equivalent of $26,000 for having children out of wedlock. The Portland City Council made the website’s list last month because of a proposal to ban commercial use of so-called Stryrofoam. That proposal is still under consideration.
Chet Justice, one of three people who run nannystate.com, said use of the term has gained traction in recent years, especially among small-government and libertarian supporters. Their ire is often aimed at Democrats, though Justice said there’s plenty of criticism to go around.
“Seeing that the Democrats are in power nationally, there’s going to be that slant, but both parties are guilty of the same type of things,” said Justice. “People in power have a tendency to want to do something. They don’t go there not to do something, but there’s got to be some sort of balance.”
Syndicated columnist David Harsanyi authored the 2007 book “Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America Into a Nation of Children.” He said if the use of the term nanny state has increased, it’s because nanny state-ism is on the rise.
“In the 2000s it picked up a lot of speed,” said Harsanyi. “In the 90s it still would have been frowned upon for a Democrat to say, ‘I want to pass a law that dictates how big your food portion is.’ I think we all would have laughed about something like that.”
Harsanyi said if people are calling the use of the phrase “nanny state” disrespectful, it’s because they fear it may be directed at them.
“I don’t see why people shouldn’t be called what they are,” said Harsanyi. “When you want to tell other people’s children what they can and can’t do, you’re being a nanny. It is what it is.”
The Mercatus Center at George Mason University in Virginia ranks states based on their level of individual freedoms. The “Freedom in the 50 States” report ranks Maine poorly at 39th, though the state has climbed several spots toward “overall freedom” since 2007. It cites Maine’s strict land-use regulations, “one of the worst in the nation” scores on educational freedom, outdated eminent domain laws and health insurance over-regulation as working against personal freedom.
The center recommends Maine decrease spending on housing, community development and public welfare systems; place statewide limits on the power local governments have to stop residential construction with zoning laws; and loosen certain requirements on homeschoolers and private schools.
Some argue that Maine is moderate when it comes to nanny state-ism. Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, cited a recent rejection of a motorcycle helmet law and passage of a measure that made it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to track cell phone data.
“I think calling Maine a nanny state is derogatory and off-point, and I don’t think it reflects what Mainers want in our Legislature,” said Goodall. “They want legislators who are thoughtful and do what’s right. We just had a spirited debate about making sure that law enforcement has a warrant when they’re looking at your cell phone data. Making the burden harder on government to intrude on our lives is clearly not a nanny state.”
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, the former assistant House Republican leader, agreed with Goodall to some extent. Cushing said there are plenty of nanny state laws in Maine but just as many examples of lawmakers finding ideological compromise.
“What we usually try to do is find folks with divergent opinions before we make our decisions,” said Cushing. “We hear a lot about personal liberties and people being resistant to government getting into their personal business, but I don’t know if Maine is a nanny state more than other states are.”
Pem Schaeffer, a conservative blogger from Brunswick, said the question is much bigger than whether Maine is a nanny state.
“The noble human instinct is one of reaching out to neighbors through things that used to be called charities, not because the law said you have to,” said Schaeffer. “Pretty soon we will have lost the collective memory of nuclear families with a father and mother figure whose primary roles in life were to tend to their children and the upbringing of their family. I think we’re just becoming a nannified culture.”