How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America Into a Nation of Children

By David Harsanyi

Broadway. 291 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Scott Stein

'Nanny State" is the name given to government policies that treat adults like children and try to protect people from every possible harm or offense, especially from their own choices. Ultimately, it is about control, as shown in David Harsanyi's new book,

Nanny State

, which compiles numerous examples of what he terms the "tyranny of the busybody." The book's wide range and satiric tone are indicated by its long subtitle:

How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and Other Boneheaded Bureaucrats Are Turning America Into a Nation of Children


Harsanyi, a columnist for the Denver Post, breaks up his chapters into short sections with headings that mock the nannies who would use legislation or litigation to control the personal behavior of others. Chapter One, "Twinkie Fascists," contains such headings as "Plump Fiction" and "The War on Cookies." The text itself is written in the casual, irreverent tone of a biting newspaper column, putting the author's incredulous outrage on display throughout.

Nanny State

's greatest value is its detailed cataloguing of nanny proposals, the people pushing them, and their tactics. After finishing this book, readers will find it difficult to dismiss, as just another nutty isolated incident, the report on the evening news about the latest lawsuit against fast-food companies for causing obesity and the claims by lawyers that their clients had no clue that eating Big Macs three meals a day was unhealthy. The ban on trans fats and the attack on Girl Scout cookies are only the beginning. Nannies use the "obesity epidemic" and concern for "the children" to justify all manner of meddling, always for our own good, of course. This paternalistic logic goes far beyond food.

Some nannies don't want us drinking alcohol, either. They use the pretext of protecting others to try to control the use of alcohol by adults. This includes arresting people for driving with a blood alcohol content far below the legal limit and trying to mandate that every new car have ignition interlocks, forcing people - most of whom have no record of drunken driving - to blow into a Breathalyzer every time they start their cars. In Herndon, Va., police hassled patrons at local bars, whether they owned cars or not, subjecting them to sobriety tests. This was necessary because, as the police chief explained, you "can't be drunk in a bar."

Turning adults into children is achieved partly by changing the age at which they become adults. Yet, despite the raising of the drinking age to 21 in 1984 and colleges' escalating restrictions on alcohol possession by students, a Harvard study "declared binge drinking the single most pressing drug crisis on college campuses." In the previous sentence, Harsanyi might change



because of

. When they treat adults like irresponsible children and make drinking an underground activity, they shouldn't be surprised when 18-year-olds binge drink. The author argues that this is a consequence of the nannies' preventing our culture from providing young adults with any other social context for alcohol consumption.

Harsanyi explores myriad other nanny efforts. He examines the antismoking movement's strong-arm tactics as well as its use of dubious statistics about secondhand smoke. He describes a nation increasingly afraid of all risk, and reminds us not only of the war against dodgeball in gym class, but against tag in the school yard. As one school superintendent says, "The idea of loosely running around and chasing each other is not safe."

Some nannies want to protect us from our own immorality. Hence the police raids on poker games across the nation. And the provision in one state that "made it illegal to sell or produce 'any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.' " The latter prompts the author to ask a question that applies to nearly the whole book: If this is "within the scope of government regulation, really now, what on God's Earth isn't?"