If I understand a central tenet of those who reject what is disparagingly referred to as “the Nanny State,” it is basically that individuals need to be held personally responsible for their actions. If you eat fast food for every meal and you become obese, develop diabetes, cause serious heart conditions to arise, sustain liver damage, or any combination thereof, that’s your own fault. Nobody told you to eat that stuff, especially not every day. The state has no right regulating what fast food restaurants can and cannot sell. Within reasonable limits of course, fast food restaurants have a right to sell whatever they want if people are buying it.
If that sounds right at least at some level—who else is responsible for one’s actions if not oneself?—it is a gross simplification of reality. Rational people understand that actions are not made in a vacuum. Conditions exist that don’t merely shape but are the very material of our actions. We couldn’t eat in a fast food restaurant two hundred years ago. And the reasons you might frequent one now, perhaps on a semiweekly basis or more, could be due to proximity of the restaurants, affordability, time limits, or, to be honest, laziness, or it’s just what you have a hankering for. But each one of those “reasons” has reasons too. For example, proximity to a fast food restaurant might be determined by where you live, work, or go to school, and those factors might affected by income, race, zoning laws, etc., which in turn have histories and conditions of their own.
You could keep going on like this for eternity because that’s how reality is structured. Not as discrete objects in discrete moments of history, but as inseparable interconnectedness. So when decisions are made, it is naïve or disingenuous to reduce them to “individual responsibility.” This is not to let the individual off the hook, either. One is responsible for one’s actions, the consequences of which compel more actions for which one will also be responsible. But those actions are determined by conditions just as they shape those conditions. It seems cruel to refuse someone with lung cancer quality medical treatment because they smoke. Isn’t the lung cancer enough?
One could argue that in the hypothetical fast food example I gave, one could, if one squinted one’s eyes and held it up, just right, to a blinding light, kind of see how not regulating fast food restaurants might result in more freedom—for the fast food restaurants, at least. But there doesn’t seem to be more freedom being created in the example of the person suffering from lung cancer. It might be harder to see because it’s unstated, but it is actually similar to the fast food example: it is the business that is freer. That is, just as in the first example the fast food companies are free to serve whatever they like, in the second the insurance companies, if it’s going to be too costly for them, are free to deny coverage to people who made regrettable lifestyle choices.
Because of “who”—or more accurately “what”—gains more freedom in these admittedly simplistic examples, one gets a glimpse of how a political philosophy rooted in a crude understanding of personal responsibility can lead to less freedom for individuals instead of more. Such a philosophy might be used by businesses to force people to police their actions so that those business can make more money. In fact, corporations have been doing just that.
This summer I rented a car from Dollar Rent A Car—the first car I’ve rented in a while, so pardon me if this is standard procedure—but I was taken aback when they told me that I was responsible for identifying all damage to the car before I left the rental agency. Any damage I didn’t report would be charged to me. I thought it was a brilliant bit of chicanery: I had no idea what constituted “damage” for Dollar, so I was more fine-toothed in my examination of the car than Dollar probably ever would have been. After all, if I missed a dent or a scratch or a chip in the windshield, that was my fault, right?
And yet, in being so meticulous in my assessment of damage, I was potentially making things more difficult for myself. The stringent standards I was applying to the car could be applied to me. That is, if I saw the tiny ping on the hood as damage, then when I returned the car, if it had another tiny ping on it, wouldn’t that be damage incurred while I was driving it, even if, had it been my car, I wouldn’t have considered the damage noteworthy?
A recent article from Reuters titled “Under Obamacare, Large Companies Will Punish Employees Who Don’t Quit Smoking, Lose Weight” shows how insurance companies are getting in on the game, too. One can already see the knee-jerk reactions: “The Nanny State is trying to tell me how to live my life!” But the article’s title is misleading because while it sounds like Obamacare is responsible for the companies’ punitive measures, the article reveals that it’s not. Rather, Obamacare has provisions that reward those who adopt healthy lifestyles, not ones that punish those who don’t. The insurance companies, however, seeing nothing in the law to prevent them, amplified those provisions by charging extra for the premiums of those they deem have unhealthy lifestyles.
Essentially, the insurance companies are saying, “If you want to live like that, fine. But it’s
going to cost you. Live with your choices.” In other words, take responsibility for your actions. The “Nanny State,” on the other hand, by the logic of those who hurl such an epithet around, would actually “pamper” those suffering the ill effects of unhealthy lifestyles. That is, such a worldview tells us that the “Nanny State” would spend hard-working, taxpayers’ money paying for expensive coverage of the few who, for instance, despite all medical advice continue smoking.
Of course, the insurance companies aren’t doing this to make you healthier or because they really care about some ideology rooted in a misunderstanding of what personal responsibility is. They are doing it to make more money. The rest is merely justification. One subscribing to a notion of personal responsibility that is somehow separate from the rest of the world has little to disagree with here. Note how the article reveals that those who are being affected by these insurance policies are employees who don’t belong to unions. The unions, one would presume, are able to refuse such punitive nonsense. That’s unfortunate news for those who find unions another form of others taking your money with no benefit for the individual.
It dawned on me that those opposed to “the Nanny State” would argue that all of this would be moot if Obamacare didn’t require everyone have insurance. But then I realized that surely everyone is aware that the way the health care system is currently set up in the U.S., you only receive serious health care if you have no coverage because others are paying for it. That is, those who aren’t covered aren’t taking personal responsibility. They’re leeching off others’ hard-earned money. And the anti-“Nanny Staters” wouldn’t want that, would they?
Let’s face it, it’s a broken way of thinking. It breaks the world up into little pieces by thinking that’s the way things are. Those who subscribe to it will be run roughshod by collectives such as corporations that actually understand you never truly do anything alone.