The Nurse Ratched state


WASHINGTON -- I no longer smoke, except for the occasional cadged party cigarette, and even then I find I don't enjoy the old delivery systems as I did once. But on the Fourth of July, I am going to say the Pledge of Allegiance and light up a Marlboro, or perhaps an unfiltered Camel. It's my patriotic duty.

It's yours too, if you care about living in a nation predicated on the idea that the citizen must be protected from the natural tendency of the state to expand into his or her life. The proposed settlement between Big Tobacco and Big Government epitomizes the new statism. "Nanny state" is far too kind a term. It is too cold, too cruel, too implacable, too illiberal to be a nanny. It is the Nurse Ratched state.

The old statism believed in an activist government that sought to use the power of the state for do-gooding social engineering: redistributing wealth; improving the health, education and welfare of the citizenry; enforcing equality under the law; sponsoring works that added to public safety and well-being (roads, hospitals, rural electrification); warring against threats to the public good (polio, organized crime, urban slums).

It was marvelously competent at engineering on the level of specific and concrete goods (the Hoover Dam, Social Security, the Voting Rights Act) and disastrously incompetent on the more grandiose level of effecting changes in human behavior (the welfare programs, urban renewal, school busing).

The new model of statism is as devoted to spectacular schemes of social engineering as the old one -- and it has added the awful idea that these schemes may be achieved not through legislation and federal funding, but through a creative and brutal system of mandated behaviorism, in which the state uses its immense powers to force targeted citizens and entities to "voluntarily" accept a violation of their rights and an encroachment upon their liberties -- and to pay for this privilege.

The two principal methods by which the Nurse Ratched state achieves its aims are rooted in that power which the Framers wanted most to limit, the power to criminalize and punish, to deprive a citizen who violates the state's wishes of his liberty or his property. The methods are the expansion of the definition of actions as illegal behavior; and the exploitation of this power to win submission through extortion -- by threatening to extract or to deny large amounts of money from noncomplying individuals and entities.

Exploit public approval

In the schemes of the new statism, politicians identify a vaguely defined but universally supported good (minorities should not be lTC discriminated against, disabled people should have a chance to work, children should not smoke), and then exploit public approval of this good to win acceptance of a new and vast expansion of the state's powers, finally rendering opposition to this expansion illegal.

The fruits of this process are all around us. The efforts to sustain affirmative action rest on these coercive methods. So, too, do the efforts to enforce the decree that private workplaces be free of discriminatory, harassing or even rude behavior. The intrusions resulting from the Americans With Disabilities Act have mutated beyond sanity.

Every day, it seems, the boundaries are pushed further. The New York Times recently reported that the National Transportation Safety Board has formally asked all 50 states to criminalize the act of allowing a child under the age of 13 to ride in the front seat of a car.

The board has taken this step as a response to the fact that one of the government's previous efforts at making citizens do what is good for them, the requirement of air bags in cars, has had the unfortunate side effect of killing small children (40 in this decade) who were in the front seat when the air bags deployed. The new laws should correct for that, at the minor cost of making a lawbreaker out of every car-pooling mother who lets her child ride next to her. Nursie knows best.

Or consider Kevin Gillson, a 19-year-old Wisconsin man who recently ran afoul of the sex police. When he was 18, he got his 15-year-old girlfriend pregnant. The sex was consensual, and the young lovers wanted to keep the child, marry and start their family.

But Mr. Gillson's girlfriend was a minor, and so District Attorney Sandy Williams decided that it was in the people's interest to prosecute him as a sex offender, a charge that carried a sentence of up to 40 years. She won a conviction from jurors who later said they had been misled into thinking they had no choice but to convict under the law. Mr. Gillson was sentenced to two years probation.

The tobacco fix

Now comes the tobacco fix. Under the concerted attack of federal government forces led by the fanatical Food and Drug Commissioner David A. Kessler and by the attorneys general from 40 states, the tobacco companies knuckled to a deal that will allow them to stay in their dubious business.

With the states threatening years of class-action lawsuits on the grounds that the companies' products had cost the states money in Medicare and Medicaid payments for diseased smokers (if anything, it has been argued, smokers die younger, saving the government money), and with the FDA threatening to regulate cigarettes as a drug, the companies agreed to pay $368.5 billion over 25 years to a variety of groups and causes (including health insurance for poor children); to accept various and drastic bans on tobacco advertising; to pay for advertising campaigns against their products; to plaster 25 percent of each cigarette package with dire warnings; to accept some FDA regulation of nicotine, and, most unbelievably, to pay penalties of up to $2 billion a year if they fail to effect a reduction in teen smoking going of 42 percent within five years and 67 percent within 10 years.

Mr. Kessler and his fellow Nurses were outraged at the deal. It didn't go far enough, they said. For them, it never will.

Michael Kelly is editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.

Pub Date: 6/27/97

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