You’re running your Saturday errands: dry cleaners, post office, oil change, etc. At the grocery store you work your way down the list: milk, eggs, broccoli . . . Where’s the bread? You don’t want to buy that brown stuff with all those seeds and twigs; you want good old-fashioned, mushy, best-thing-since-sliced white bread. But it’s nowhere to be found. Upon further investigation, you’re informed that it’s been banned by the government due to the potential harm it can do to diabetics and the gluten-intolerant, and because refined white grains may contribute to obesity. Never mind that you don’t fall into those categories, you’ve been prohibited from making the choice for yourself, for the greater good.
That scenario is fiction, the government hasn’t moved to completely ban white bread — yet. Not because it isn’t potentially harmful, but because nearly everybody would notice, and the outcry would be deafening. It is much easier to take away our liberties with baby steps, limiting our actions and controlling our options until one day we wake up banned from tying our own shoes because the laces are a choking hazard.
Consider for a moment the modern-day prohibitions that already saturate American life: If I want to ride a bike or a motorcycle, I must wear a helmet; I buy liquor from a state store, and not on Sunday; when I buy pornography, it’s behind the counter; if I choose to smoke a cigarette after a meal, I can do so only outdoors, 20 yards away from a public entrance, and even then I risk being eliminated from job contention; if I want to get divorced, I have to wait at least six months in most states; if I want to celebrate the Fourth of July by purchasing sparklers, I’ll be fined or have to cross state lines. The list goes on and on, ranging from things we notice to small restrictions that fly under the radar.
It always starts the same way: with warnings, then small limitations, and eventually turns into outright bans on an individual’s judgment. Nobody born after the 1960’s remembers a time when cars didn’t come with seatbelts. The insurance industry decided that seatbelts made cars safer, so automakers built them into new products. By 1984, the first seatbelt laws made riding without the unwieldy accoutrements punishable by a fine, even though air bags were well on their way to becoming a standard safety device. Almost immediately, air bags were deemed potentially lethal, so legislation was passed to bar parents from seating their underage children in the front seat. Within 30 years, government went from issuing an innocuous recommendation to criminalizing the choice of how and where you and your child can ride in your own car . . . using baby steps.
Those of us in red states think it’s only the hippies in San Francisco and New York City that are willing to legislate blandness into everything from soup to nuts. Not so fast, the FDA has decided to limit our salt intake with a rolling ten-year federal program that will culminate in a legal limit on the amount of salt allowed in processed food. All because a few studies show that slightly decreasing salt intake might prevent health problems in a few individuals. One scientist on the committee even admitted, “We can’t just rely on the individual to do something.” No, of course not, relying on individuals to make the right choices for themselves went out with bell-bottoms. And to think, it started with an innocent nutritional label. Baby steps.
Government and do-gooder nannies don’t even let up when the public is overwhelmingly against a prohibition. Lawmakers are lobbying the FDA to ban antimicrobial hand soap. Who, exactly, other than radical environmentalists, thinks this is a good idea? Not the public, 83% of who demand the right to choose germ-fighting products. Food service workers? Police? Teachers? Medical professionals? How about anybody during cold and flu season? Come on, raise your bacteria-filled hand if you support a ban on germ-killing soap. Certainly not the 90,000 people who die each year from preventable hospital deaths. (At least I’m fairly sure they would not have supported such a ban). But here come the special interest groups . . . tiptoeing into our homes to steal yet another product, hoping we won’t notice.
Industry has bent over backwards to kowtow to these sanctions, sometimes to the detriment of their products and their bottom lines. Corporations have taken useful chemicals out of cleaning goods and fertilizers, restaurants took a hit in receipts when they agreed to comply with smoking bans, manufacturers have added warning labels to guard the lowest common denominator from misusing items and to caution against the most obscure threat. How long until we realize all those baby steps are allowing the government to actually treat us as helpless babies? Where and when will the incremental encroachment on our liberty and the insults to our intelligence end? If we don’t make the right choices now, they may be the last choices the nannies allow us to make.
Natasha Mayer is a political consultant in Washington, D.C.