The nanny state, consisting of rules that limit personal freedom and promote the government’s views on the best way to live, is easy to mock. New York City’s infamous attempt to ban 16.1-ounce sodas is a perfect example. Many nanny state policies simply create inconveniences and raise costs slightly, such as having to buy two 12-ounce sodas instead of one 24-ounce soda, with no discernible benefits.
However, not all polices are harmless. The nanny state also extends to parenting—and here it does real harm to children, parents, and American society. In what follows, Abby Schachter shares some of the findings from her new book No Child Left Alone and explains why the government needs to get out of the parenting business.
When the government enacts more and more prescriptive rules, this raises the cost of doing business.
Jared Meyer: Your book contains many personal experiences that awakened you to the excessive government regulation of parenting. Can you share one of your most frustrating stories?
Abby Schachter: I did not set out to be a radical, really. I just wanted my baby swaddled at daycare. But after several years of enduring all the rules governing daycare, ranging from the wasteful and the useless, to the inefficient and the just plain silly, I lost it when I was told that swaddling—wrapping a baby’s body in a blanket—was banned at my child’s state licensed daycare. At that point it stopped being about irritating rules and became more of a crusade to take back my rights as a parent.
JM: Regulations have increased the costs of daycare so much that in some states it is actually cheaper to pay for in-state tuition than daycare . Why do you think the government continues to enact new, burdensome regulations that hurt the families it intends to help?
AS: The biggest reason is that most people do not recognize that every time there is a new rule, which is supposed to provide some benefit, there is a cost associated with that new rule. It would be a different story if parents understood more clearly that when the government enacts more and more prescriptive rules, this raises the cost of doing business. Consequently, that cost is passed on to customers—in this case parents looking for a place for their children to be looked after outside the home. Politicians and bureaucrats would have a harder time regulating daycare if parents understood that government is the main reason why daycare costs keep increasing.
JM: Using appeals to child safety, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has, in recent years, gone after numerous companies with fines and forced recalls without any real fault from the business or risk to consumers. One specific example you mention is the CPSC’s war against Buckyballs, magnetic balls that serve as adult desk toys. What makes the Buckyballs case particularly concerning?
If the losing side in litigation and lawsuits had to bear the cost, perhaps attorneys would be more hesitant to take up frivolous cases.
AS: The CPSC personally sued the man who ran the company, even after the business had collapsed due to CPSC campaign against the single product produced by the business. The government forced a recall over concerns that children would swallow the balls, and then decided that the CEO was financially responsible for the recall. That in itself was unique, but the CPSC’s crusade against Buckyballs did not end there. Even after it was clear that the risk of harm was statistically insignificant compared with the number of units already sold, and even when it was obvious that the isolated children’s injuries were due to accident, not negligence by the company, the CPSC still pursued a case against Buckyballs and a single individual simply because it could.
JM: The government’s “war on fun” extends to playgrounds and limits opportunities for children to learn and use their imaginations. But do you think it is possible for state and local governments to return to the playgrounds of the past given the threat of a lawsuit if children are hurt?
AS: Since municipalities are under terrific budgetary pressure, even without the threat of litigation, I favor pushing for a simple legal reform in order to change the incentives regarding playground equipment and to restore fun in public places. If we had a system where the losing side in litigation and lawsuits had to bear the cost of the entire process, perhaps individuals and plaintiffs’ attorneys would be more hesitant to take up frivolous cases.
JM: The effort to eliminate any chance at injury or hurt feelings seems to be a pervasive, growing trend in American society. Do you think the banning of games such as tag and dodgeball in schools is comparable to trends on college campuses to create safe spaces and require trigger warnings?
An unreasonable standard of safety is at work when we can't even tolerate skinned knees.
AS: I suppose the two trends are related somewhat but I would not necessarily draw a straight line between the two. Much of what happens regarding removing games and free play from public schools has to do with several factors: academic pressures to keep kids in the classroom to cover as much material as possible, teachers not being allowed to discipline kids in the same way they once were, and fear of behavioral problems among students on the playground (which shows itself when schools ban games that supposedly might lead to bullying or bad behavior). An unreasonable standard of safety is also at work because we do not seem to be able to tolerate skinned knees or any signs of rough play at all in schools. From school administrators’ point of view, it is better to ban the sorts of games that might lead to such problems rather than change our attitude toward free play among children.
JM: Countless government interventions are justified as “for the children.” But in their focus on “protecting” kids, government nannies have unintentionally—or intentionally—waged a war on fun. Even more problematic, the costs of childcare continue to rise with each additional government mandate. Rather than throwing more taxpayer funds at subsidizing child care, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both propose, it would be better to start chipping away at laws and regulations that turn childcare into a luxury service.
Republished from Economics 21.