The Nanny Corporation

by Walter Block by Walter Block


All libertarians of whatever ilk are heartily sick and tired of the nanny state. We have rightfully had it up to "here" with governmental nagging about smoking, drinking, eating fatty foods, using seat belts, motorcycle helmets (in Canada, a more "progressive" country than even ours, it is against the law to ride a bicycle without wearing headgear). Not only are we outright prohibited the use of substances such as marijuana, we even need permission to use ordinary drugs (prescription laws). Thanks to the government, Nurse Ratched is out and about, butting her big nose into our businesses and personal lives, hither, thither and yon. There are entire alphabet soup agencies dedicated to forcing us at the point of a gun, to proverbially drink our milk and brush our teeth.

But what about private companies that sell us products with strong nannyistic tendencies? A case in point is Toyota, which is gearing up in this regard with its 2009 models. These cars will come to us replete with steering wheel sensors that can discern, based on the sweat of our hands, whether we have been boozing it up or not. If so, forget about driving; the automobile will shut down forthwith.

Are such products compatible with libertarianism? Of course they are. After all, if we do not like these items, we can always give them the old Edsel treatment; that is, refuse to purchase them. That will make Toyota sit up and take notice. If customers spurn this product in great numbers, that automobile company will lose vast amounts of money. If that does not convince them to pull in their horns on this sort of paternalism, bankruptcy is only around the corner. On the other hand, of course, if this new product offering meets with consumer approval, well, then, a new option will have been added to consumer choice, and our economic welfare will have taken that one further tiny step in an upward direction. Quite possibly, as with most new initiatives, some will accept it, others not. Then, under free enterprise, we can each please ourselves.

But this type of analysis does not meet with the approval of all commentators. For example, Gunter, Lorne. 2007. "Toyota, lending a hand with the nanny state." National Post, January 8, p. A13 is very exercised about this phenomenon.

This author objects to these new automobiles on the ground that they will anticipate that drunken (and other) drivers may wear gloves, and thus will come replete with "other sensors to detect excess swerving, and kill the engine. They may even install cameras to check your pupils. Not focusing properly on the road ahead? Same result — an involuntary halt to your driving."

Gunter objects on several grounds. A "false positive" in extreme cold weather might lead to death. Or you swerve to avoid "junk on the road," and the sensor interprets this as driving under the influence. Or you take your eye off what is in front of you to yell at your quarrelling kids in the back seat. Ditto for "chatting with passengers, putting on makeup, drinking coffee or eating while driving, changing CDs or tuning the radio, talking on a cellphone."

The response here is easy. If the sensors cannot distinguish between these things and driving while inebriated, it is back to the workshop with them. No auto executive worth 1% of his salary would try to flog a dog like that.

And then comes this howler from Gunter: "But more troubling is the moral dimension — the way Toyota is setting itself up as a better judge of your competence than you. This blurs the line between corporations and the nanny state and implies consumers will not do the right thing for themselves and their fellow drivers. They need a big, u2018socially responsible’ corporation interfering in their lives in the name of the public good… Even if Toyota’s idea worked and made us safer, that safety would come at the cost of less personally responsibility. We already look to government too much to protect us from ourselves and others. And with less responsibility comes less freedom."

Nonsense on stilts, say I.

The enemy of freedom is not paternalism, maternalism, do-goodism, nannyism, busy-bodiness, bossiness, bossism, or whatever you want to call it. Rather, what affronts justice is when these things are done in a coercive manner. When such intrusiveness stems from voluntary agreement, it does not at all offend liberty. If we can accept voluntary sado-masochism, the ultimate in the squelching of the human spirit, as being compatible with the libertarian law, we can certainly find room in our legal code for a few bossy cars. Take another example, the orchestra. Wind instrument players (tuba, clarinet) are told when to breathe. (This is not a misprint). Such instructions are right there in the score. If he gulps in air at a time incompatible with these directions, the conductor will stop the entire practice, glare at the musician, and tell him to shape up or ship out. No overseer was ever so intrusive as to tell a slave when to breath. The key is not totalitarianism of this sort. It all depends upon whether or not the intrusion is agreed upon. Toyota is completely in the right on this matter.

Gunter continues his attack on free enterprise: "How long will it be before crusading politicians — with the backing of safety-obsessed voters and the cooperation of PR-conscious manufacturers — use Toyota’s example to make such devices mandatory on all vehicles?"

Well, if the government does this, then we are no longer within the realm of free markets. It is no longer corporate nannyism. It is now, once again, the coercive government variety, to be opposed by all men of good will.

Toyota paternalism is only the tip of the iceberg of course. Into this category we must include business firms that sell us organic food, health aids (tooth paste, aspirin, etc.), salads, shoes, clothes, indeed, anything that we in our roles as busybody nannies in our own behalves would purchase for ourselves. The logical implication of Gunter’s critique of Toyota is that no business firm should be allowed to improve the health and safety of its products. A strange position indeed.