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The Nanny State and the Superego

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January 2009
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Driving around the other day, I heard some “conservative” complaining about the “Nanny State” as if that is what the Democrats stand for and want to institute.  Its a bit of political rhetoric for Socialism.  Of course, the Democratic Party is hardly Socialist, so the “conservative” rhetoric is nothing but the erection of a straw-man argument.  But I was taken by the phrase “nanny state” and said to myself, What is wrong with having a nanny?

In the use of the phrase there is an implicit criticism of nannies, of which I cannot approve.  Frankly, I wish I had had a nanny.  I wish I had a nanny now.  The only logical criticism one can make against nannies as a class is that they are not mothers — that is they substitute for the loving care of the parents.  Parents who hire nannies are sort of hiring someone to do their child-care for them because they are too busy with careers.  I have a few in-laws with nannies, and I envy them, but only people with careers that earn them lots of dough can afford to farm out the childcare.  Still, I do not mean to criticise and think that nannies are quite a good thing on the whole.

So, why is the “nanny state” supposed to strike fear into our hearts?  Do so-called conservatives in America resent the fact that they didn’t have a nanny?  Or did they feel their childhood was too constrained by having a nanny to tell them when they were doing something bad or dangerous?  Are nannies all tyrants?  No.  Hardly any of them, I should think.  They aren’t all Mary Poppins, of course, either, but what is the problem with having someone older and wiser to tell us when we are doing the wrong thing?

In fact, as human beings, we require this.

Growing up, we don’t know right from wrong.  We would grow up to be selfish and destructive apes if we did not have parents, or the teachers and nannies that act in loco parentis. Freud postulated that the internalized voice of our parents and nannies (he had one) saying “No!  Bad!” created in our subconscious minds the super-ego.  The superego is, as the name suggests, an ego above the ego.  The word “ego” is simply the Latin word for “I” the first person pronoun.  So, in Freudian psychology the ego is defined as that conscious part of our mind that speaks and identifies itself in speaking as “I.”  Ego-formation is the business of childhood and a very serious business it is for the stability of our ego is what makes us a stable and functional adult.  If our ego is haunted by negative voices and complexes, it can makes us neurotic. When the ego is split into many personalities (many “I’s”), that is psychosis.  Nobody’s ego is perfectly adjusted, and one of the reasons is that nobody’s parents (or nannies) are perfect.  The voice that tells us what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false accumulates in our unconscious super-ego as a sort of watching personality that follows us around for the rest of our days commenting and criticizing our behavior.  A nice super ego will praise us when we are good.  But child-rearing in our culture has for many generations focussed on “correction” — the voice that says “No!” and is often enforced by physical and emotional violence.  The parental voice may threaten to abandon the child, to go away, to reject it as “bad.”

When I was out driving I observed the behavior of the other drivers on the road.  Some of them were playing by the rules.  Some seemed not to even know there were rules.  Some were flagrantly disregarding the rules, and the worst were behaving in such an anti-social way that they were positively endangering their fellow citizens and themselves.  Now, “conservatives” and “libertarians” seem to believe that government agencies should not interfere when citizens are acting wrongly  or foolishly.  No, we shouldn’t require motorcyclists to wear helmets.  No, we shouldn’t make it a violation of law to not wear a seat belt.  In Britain, of course, where the “nanny state” metaphor originated, they have now traffic cameras that constantly monitor people’s driving speed — what we call photo-cops.  One can certainly see the point that making so many rules spoils the fun of life.

But it is we who make the rules.  Those people who fulfil their civic duty and get involved in the legislative process.  Those who just freeoad off the rest do not have any right to complain.  If they don’t like the laws, they should work to change them.  Simply refusing to obey the nanny is nothing more than childish.  Especially when one is endangering oneself.  I can only wonder at the motives of those who think that refusing to wear a seat belt is an expression of their liberty.  Do they really think that such a gesture has any substance?  Do they think that Liberty is only about doing whatever they want?  That is an extremely childish and selfish attitude.

So, in essence, those who complain about the “nanny state” are the adults in our society who (it seems) had so little support and help in growing up that they learned to play games by the rules.  They are disobedient, selfish, and there is something wrong with their superego.  Did they not have parents to admonish them on values and principles of good behavior?  Or were their parents too strict and abusive?  Were they hypocrites?  Who knows?  But from my vantage point it does seem to me that they lack that little voice in one’s head, that “still small voice” of conscience.  They have confused liberty with mere license – with the abuse of freedom at the expense of others.  They are anti-social, not merely anti-Socialist.

Of course, I do understand that “government surveillance” can go to far.  I’m not an extremist.  It is only extremists on either the left or the right who believe that government surveillance and legislating morality is a good idea.  But there is a middle ground that is complex and requires not childish foot-stamping but reasoned discourse among citizens.  Take the smoking bans that have become so fashionable.   As a smoker of pipes and cigars, I do not exactly approve of the bans.  But I am also a person who doesn’t even like to go to a bar because of the stench of cigarette smoke on my clothes and the burning eyes that any American bar used to produce.  I can certainly sympathize with the waiters adn bartenders who do not want to work in such unhealthy air.  The freedom to smoke if we want to clashes with our neighbors unalienable right to fresh air.  I tend to side with those who want fresh air, but it would still be nice to have a few smoking rooms around where one can light up one’s pipe without breaking the law.  In a Minnesota climate, where I live, the Winter is tough on the tobacco addict.

But clearly we as a people must get together and decide where we draw such lines on the basis of balance between individual choice and how our choices affect our neighbors.  Urban society has made people a bit to self-absorbed.  The smoking ban has a logic, but the same logic might be applied to people who talk on their cell phone in public (I have a right to quiet air too), or who refuse to bathe (the right not to breathe your stink.).

The last example may seem like mere reductio ad absurdum, but consider the pig farmer.  The vast pig factories that exist in today’s agri-industry, generate a monstrous stink and indeed, I do believe that the neighbors have an inalienable right not to be forced to smell their neighbors.  You can get petty about it, certainly, but it is a right of private property.  We do not want to be disturbed by our neighbors and ought to be guided by the Golden Rule.

If everyone was in fact guided by a superego that whispered the Golden Rule in our unconscious ear all day, then we would have no need of the nanny state.  Perhaps the ultimate fictional satire of the nanny state is Aldous Huxley’s great novel Brave New World.  In it parents are eliminated, citizens made in vitro and in test tubes, and conditioned as infants and children with a mechanical voice that repeats the rules and beliefs sanctioned by the state in their shell-like ears until they become adults who are perfectly adjusted to fill their social role.

Nobody wants that.  I don’t think even Lenin wanted that.  Okay, maybe Lenin.  But really, the Golden Rule mitigates against such ideas.  It is all well and good to tell other people what to do  and what to believe, but nobody likes being told themselves.  Well, maybe fundamentalists do.  But nobody else.

So, the issue, it seems to me is that we want our nanny to be a good nanny.  We want the Mary Poppins State, or even the Nanny McPhee State, but not the mechanized bureaucratic soullessness of Brave New World.


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