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Friday, November 1, 1991

The Big Nag

Mr. Smith is a writer living in Santa Maria, California. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

On January 4, 1977, I smoked my last cigarette. For anyone interested in further details, it happened in Burbank, California, at precisely 11 A.M., and the cigarette was a Lark. It was tough going for a day or two, but I soon broke free, and it’s been a long time since I have even wanted to smoke.

I thought of this recently when I was in a public building and came across a big anti-smoking display that was a monument to the sloganeer’s art. It was a pretentious, sermonizing, government-sponsored presentation that scolded smokers thoroughly and told them of the evil consequences to be faced if they didn’t mend their ways immediately. The effect it had on me was to make me want to light up, not because I wanted to smoke but merely to protest this government intrusion into personal behavior.

This sort of thing has been going on for many years, but it seems that recently the whole business of government nagging has passed beyond the reasonable limits of human tolerance. And it isn’t all tied up in smoking. We are told to eat more fiber, see our dentists twice a year, hire the handicapped, exercise, buy bonds, vote, learn to swim, drive safely, conserve water, and share the ride.

The advice given is sometimes good, sometimes questionable, and occasionally quite bad, but one wonders why it is offered at all on a governmental level. It is a case of authorized and approved nagging, a big bureaucratic finger shaking in our collective faces and telling us that if we don’t eat our vegetables we won’t be getting any dessert.

There was a time when government was dearly in the business of making and enforcing laws, but this now seems to be only an adjunct to the endless flow of admonition that pours forth from Washington, every state capital, every county seat, and every city hall on a round-the-clock schedule. It is as though our bureaucrats have run out of laws and have decided to enter the field of human behavior to fill their empty hours. This is accompanied by the tacit message that they, government, know far better than we, the people, how we should be conducting our personal affairs.

Government has consequently evolved into a nagging, scolding, ever-counseling superpresence, reminding us constantly to eat a good hot lunch and to come directly home from school. It might well be described as a nagocracy, a kind of government that sees itself as the kindly protector of potentially naughty children and spends the bulk of its time seeing that we make it through the day safely. As always, it means well, but then what nag doesn’t?

I thought a lot about this as I gazed upon the disgusting and overstated anti-smoking display in the public building. My first thought was that I had quit smoking on my own with the simple decision that it was bad for me and that I should have the fortitude to stop; which I did. Government badgering had nothing to do with it, and I don’t know anyone who ever gave up smoking because a bureaucrat said it wasn’t a good thing to be doing.

More important, though, was the thought that someone on the public payroll received money to create this display, and others were paid to cart it into that building and set it up. To compound the sin, there are countless others being paid to tell us to stay out of the sun and to rotate our tires regularly.

Is this really why we have government? I cannot believe that our political structure exists to tell us how to conduct our daily affairs and to chide us into refraining from harmful behavioral patterns. The smoking matter, in particular, has gotten quite out of hand. We just don’t need government to tell us not to smoke. As a nonsmoker, I find myself paradoxically more and more on the side of the smokers when the issue arises because they aren’t nearly as hard to take as the carping minions of the civil service society whose chief aim in life seems to be to nag the populace into conformity. This is why, in a restaurant, I always ask for a table in the smoking section. I want them to see me there.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.