OUT IN the Pacific time zone, the nanny-statists have been busy.
In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a law banning restaurants from using trans fats when preparing food. In Seattle, city councilors passed a measure requiring shoppers to pay 20 cents for every plastic or paper bag they use in grocery, drug, or convenience stores. In Los Angeles, a new "moratorium" forbids new fast-food restaurants within a 32-square-mile section of the city that is home to 500,000 low-income residents. "Ultimately," the moratorium's sponsor declared in a press release, "this ordinance is about providing choices." But how blocking new fast-few outlets in a poor section of L.A. will generate more choice wasn't explained.
In San Francisco, meanwhile, Mayor Gavin Newsom has proposed a mandatory composting-and-recycling law that would oblige residents and businesses to separate their waste into multiple color-coded bins, whose contents would be inspected by city trash collectors. Individuals failing to "separate the coffee grounds from the newspapers," the San Francisco Chronicle reported, "would face fines of up to $1,000 and eventually could have their garbage service stopped."
Of course it isn't only on the Left Coast that government paternalists are busily restricting freedoms in order to spare adults the trouble of making decisions for themselves.
Regulators in Boston want to stamp out the sale of cigarettes in drugstores and on college campuses and to shut down cigar bars altogether. It makes no difference to the city's health commissioner that tobacco products are lawful and that many individuals enjoy them despite their well-known health risks. "Why," she asks indignantly, "would you want to sell something that has absolutely no redeeming value and ends up killing a lot of people?"
Sagging pants, a ridiculous fashion trend in which pants are worn low enough to reveal one's underwear, has been criminalized in communities from Louisiana to Michigan. In Riviera Beach, Fla., where a ballot initiative banning sagging pants passed overwhelmingly, violators can be hit with a $150 fine for a first offense, and up to 60 days in jail for repeated infractions. "It's not our intent to get rich off of fines or lock people up in jail," Mayor Thomas Masters insisted. "It's about a simple message: Pull up your pants."
The saggy style in full view in New York's East Village. (NYT)
There was a time -- younger readers may find this startling -- when society was able to convey such messages effectively without resorting to prosecution. There was similarly a time when grown-ups could decide on their own whether to have a Big Mac for lunch, or to take home their purchases in a disposable bag, or to grab a pack of smokes at the corner drugstore. The fact that some people disapproved of their choices was not deemed a sufficient reason to deploy the state's police power. Freedom, it was understood, necessarily included the freedom to choose unwisely.
No longer. Politicians today may invoke "freedom of choice" when extolling abortion, but freedom evaporates when it comes to matters they consider really important.
Thus Hillary Clinton, campaigning earlier this year in Zanesville, Ohio, endorsed government action to prod individuals to "quit smoking, to get more exercise, to eat right, to take their vitamins." In 2007, John Edwards told Iowa voters that under his universal health care proposal, "You can't choose not to go to the doctor . . . You have to go in and be checked and make sure that you are OK." John McCain, co-author of an egregious campaign-finance law, is adamant that voters not be allowed to exercise their First Amendment freedoms without Washington's help. "I would rather have a clean government," he says, "than one where, quote, First Amendment rights are being respected that has become corrupt. If I had my choice, I'd rather have the clean government."
If I had my choice, I'd rather have the First Amendment. But Congress took that option off the table.
There is no limit to the nanny-statists' ideas for saving us from ourselves. In Dallas, it is illegal to publicly display a toy gun. California's energy regulators floated a proposal for requiring homes and buildings to install thermostats that the government would be able to control remotely. The script for "Jersey Boys," a musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, had to be rewritten after a Chicago theatergoer complained that the actors were lighting up on stage, in violation of the city's smoking ban.
Eternal vigilance, Americans once understood, is the price of liberty. Well, that was then. Americans today have less time for liberty, since they are busy absorbing more important messages. Like "put out that cigarette." And "pull up your pants."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)