The Nanny State Mentality

Anyone who has observed politics for long would see that too many politicians believe nothing positive would happen unless they pass a law requiring it. They think that the American people are dependent on them for their wealth, safety, and happiness.

This “nanny state” mentality has always been with us, but the nannyists in Harrisburg seem to be working overtime to intrude into our lives. For example, many lawmakers are pushing to ban smoking in all places of business. The bill would criminalize restaurant, bar, and other business owners who choose to allow smoking in their privately-owned facilities. Supporters of the smoking ban argue it would protect patrons and employees from the harms of second hand smoke, despite the fact that those patronizing and working at these places are doing so voluntarily.

The nannyists refuse to recognize that the free market is already working to provide smoke-free facilities for those who want them. Today, almost 80% of workplaces ban smoking—without a government mandate to do so. Recently, a slew of restaurants in Pittsburgh (and national chains) and a number of (no longer “smoke-filled”) bowling alleys voluntarily went smoke-free. Those restaurants that allow smoking typically limit it to a separate smoking section. Yet some lawmakers still feel that government needs to criminalize business owners who cater to smokers.

The recently passed minimum wage increase is another example of the nanny state mentality at work. Under the guise of raising the incomes of low-wage workers, lawmakers ignored the negative impact that artificial increases in labor costs have on unskilled employees. They further ignored the fact that fewer workers have been earning the minimum wage.

Since the last federal minimum wage increase in 1997, the number of workers earning the minimum wage declined by 64%, while the total number of workers increased by 13%. Employers raised the salaries of employees and starting wages for new hires—without government edicts from Harrisburg or Washington.

Governor Rendell’s energy plan constitutes another offspring of the nanny state mentality. He proposes borrowing $850 million and increasing taxes on consumers to “invest” in alternative energy companies—ostensibly to make Pennsylvania “energy independent.”

But what would happen if Governor Rendell didn’t increase our debt burden and raise taxes on working Pennsylvanians? Private investors would likely put their own money into emerging energy technologies. With the price of gasoline approaching $4.00 per gallon, there is enough incentive—and profit—in finding successful alternative energies. In fact, only unsuccessful alternative energy initiatives need a taxpayer subsidy, and Governor Rendell is not the most qualified person to determine what technologies merit such “investment.”

Finally, the pork-barrel spending and corporate welfare that is pervasive in both Harrisburg and Washington exudes the nanny-state mentality. Elected officials often celebrate taxpayer handouts to politically selected companies as “economic development,” claiming they will create jobs. But how many jobs are destroyed with the taxes necessary to pay for these handouts? Taxing all businesses and individuals to give taxpayer-funded gifts to a select few is like splashing water across a pool—it won’t make the pool any larger.

Likewise, handing out oversized cardboard checks to earmarked recipients does not constitute philanthropy. Some museums, symphonies, and charities that receive taxpayer handouts seem deserving of this “Walking Around Money” (WAM). But deserving organizations should raise funds privately, and many individuals would rather donate to their favorite charity than pay taxes to let lawmakers choose it. The current earmark/WAM system rewards organizations whose local lawmakers cut the best deals or that hire the most effective lobbyists. This is not the way to determine the merit of a project.

Too many elected officials have come to believe that nothing will happen if they don’t do it. They have reshaped their role as the nanny, rather than the arbiter, of the public.

Fortunately, not everyone in Harrisburg has the nanny state mentality. There are those who understand that working Pennsylvanians and businesses create jobs, increase wages, and provide goods and services—not politicians redistributing our money. There are those who know that a truly civil and prosperous society depends on personal responsibility and philanthropy—not government mandates. Unfortunately, Governor Rendell and most in the General Assembly leadership are not among them.

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Nathan A. Benefield is Director of Policy Research with the Commonwealth Foundation (, an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.