Nanny State Bingo

I've always been a bit put off by the Nanny-metaphor used by libertarian-leaning conservatives to evoke outrage over some policy of governmental overreaching.  Regulations for salt in fast food?  The "nanny-state" dictates what we eat and our salt-intake.  Rise up, salt patriots!  Raise taxes on unhealthy food?  The "nanny-state" has instituted a fat tax, that nudges us away from the unhealthy foods we want and love.  Fast food diners unite!  I get it.

The point of the metaphor is that it invokes the paternalism of a caretaker who micromanages a youngster's day in a way that interferes with the child's growing autonomy.  The child ends up healthy, but browbeaten.  An overbearing Mary Poppins — "Smile Children.  Eat your brussels sprouts and then we'll all sing a round of 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat!'"  Sometimes, as George Lakoff said, it's all in the metaphors you use.

But now the "Nanny State" metaphor has come unhinged from that original usage.  See, as a particularly weird example, Michele Bachmann's use of the metaphor in saying that tax deductions for breast pumps as medical supplies are evidence of nanny state:

I’ve given birth to five babies, and I’ve breastfed every single one of these babies. To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies, I mean, you wanna talk about the nanny state — I think you just got the new definition of the nanny state.

First, why is the fact that she breastfed her children relevant?  Is it that she's making a contrast between her breastfeeding and pumping?  If that's her game, I"ll let working mothers the world over at her.

Second, tthe government isn't going out and buying the pumps.  The people who use them are.  The government then gives them a tax break — just as the government would give you a tax break for buying any medical technology.  I thought Bachmann would be for tax breaks.  Huh.  But I don't see how a tax break ammounts to the same intrusion as a tax hike, like with the former.  In those cases, the government nudges with taxation (a negative reinforcement) citizens away from harmful choices (salt and fat).  In this case, the government incentivizes positively good choices.  It doesn't mandate them and it doesn't punish those who don't take part.  It just seems very different.  On this model, isn't every government program nanny state? Meat inspection?  Nannies who won't let us eat a  little poo in our sausage!  Law enforcement?  Nanny police.  Military protection?  Nanny state with guns! 

The point, of course, is that once you start doing your political thinking just with catchwords, you lose sight of the core metaphors they got their power from. Did 'nanny state' just jump the shark?

18 thoughts on “Nanny State Bingo”

  1. I assumed she meant to convey that issue affects her. Because a breast pump is used for breast feeding and she said "my breast pump", wouldn't that be the charitable assumption? 
    Concerning your second point, your distinction between "the government going out and buying" it and the government giving you money to pay for it through a tax break seems asinine. I'm sure Bachmann didn't mean that literally, and it being a radio interview, it seems some charity should be given there too. Her real argument is that the government shouldn't pay for breast pumps, and as such, you're creating and arguing against a strawman.
    As far as the metaphor, the government using positive reenforcement (tax breaks) and negative reenforcement (taxes) to influence people's personal choices are both consistent with the nanny state metaphor. After all, positive reenforcement and negative reenforcement is how parent's raise their children (and how people train dogs for that matter). The argument is that it shouldn't be the government's role to make decisions concerning our personal choices.
    Amazingly, after your weak argument against the metaphor, you proceed to try to cash in on your weak argument with absurd examples that aren't even justifiable by the fallacious criteria that you yourself set. Meat Inspection has nothing to do with the government incentivizing personal choices, and I certainly don't how to apply your "it doesn't punish those who take part" distinction to it. Regardless, I enjoyed the colorful "won't let us eat… poo" strawman.
    Furthermore, I thought the point of this site was to critique the logic used in editorials. You picking a single quote from a radio interview really makes it seem like you're picking some low hanging fruit here. You don't like libertarians. I get it. But you of all people should know that this isn't the way to argue against them. 

  2. Hi Tristan,
    Glad to see that you like informal logic. Learn some before you post here.
    First lesson. Read the post.  I mean read it, not emote as words you don't like appear on your visual field. The argument is about how 'nanny state' metaphors work.  I show how Bachmann doesn't follow the formula. You call my argument 'asinine' on the basis of the fact that Bachman didn't mean it.  Really? That's basis for calling an argument 'asinine'?  Fail.
    Second lesson. There are dialectical obligations you take on for calling 'straw man' on an argument.  You have to show that there is a better case that was plausibly there.  You say that Bachmann is objecting to the govt buying breast pumps.  Two things.  1. The government isn't buying the breast pumps. It's a tax break. The same break people get for buying medication or medical tech for their home use. Not a better case. 2.That's not nannying in the way all the other uses of the metaphor have been used. You haven't proposed a better case, you've proposed a dumber case. Moreover, you later concede that the Bachmann case is 'low hanging fruit.'  Not much of a case that I've straw manned. Fail.
    The absurd examples are of what happens when you take Bachmann's lead and don't pay attention to the metaphor, but use it however you like. It's a rhetorical technique called reductio ad absurdum.  Please learn to read.  Until then, don't post here anymore.

  3. Let me apologize. I should of been more humble in my critique of your poorly reasoned argument. 
    First off, I call your argument asinine on the basis that you have an obligation to argue against WHAT SHE ACTUALLY IS ARGUING rather than YOUR OVERLY LITERAL, UNCHARITABLE INTERPRETATION. I can't imagine that you actually believe that Bachmann means that the government literally sends officials to "go out" and purchase breast pumps for people. The government giving a tax break for a specific type of purchase is a form of helping pay for that purchase; in that respect, the government IS paying for breasts pumps. THAT is Bachmann's objection, so your statement "the government isn't going out and buying the pumps" is asinine. 
    And it is irrelevant to the discussion about the nanny state metaphor whether the government is also giving the tax break for other medical supplies, because that only provides evidence that it is fair in light of other tax breaks (although, it's classification as medical supplies is probably debatable).
    Second, your argument against the metaphor is weak. You start off by defining 
    "nanny state" as "dictates what we eat…", "invokes the paternalism of a caretaker who micromanages…", and "the child ends up healthy but browbeaten". But your definition isn't sufficient. The nanny state pejorative should be more fairly characterized as opposing government policies that use economic interventionism (including tax incentives) to achieve social and economic outcomes that the government deems important. The paternalistic aspect is that the government is making decisions about what is best for us (like breast feeding) and trying to modify our behavior through a system of rewards and punishments. But obviously you preferred to make a weak definition of the nanny state, so that you could really beat the crap out of the strawman you propped up.  
    Your argument against the metaphor:
    1) "I don't see how a tax break amounts to the same intrusion as a tax hike"
    2) In the other case, "the government nudges with taxation"
    3) But in this case, "the government incentivizes positively good choices"
    4) "It doesn't mandate them"
    5) "It doesn't punish those who don't take part"
    6) "It just seems different"
    7) "On this model, isn't every government program nanny state"
    Your argument seems to imply if the intrusion isn't too great, the behavior desired is a "positively good choice", the government doesn't mandate the behavior, and doesn't punish those who don't take part, then it isn't consistent with nanny state metaphor. But that is only sufficient to beat down your strawman version of the nanny state metaphor. Premise 1, 2, 3 are all consistent with the nanny aspect of nanny state. I'm going to interpret premise 4 to mean that "it doesn't mandate that you buy the pumps"; as such, it provides evidence that it might be less intrusive, but not that it isn't consistent with the metaphor. Premise 5 is similar to premise 4 (and I suppose one could note that a tax break for one person may equal a tax hike for some other person). The only thing you might have established is that it is less intrusive, but not that it isn't consistent with the metaphor.   
    Criteria that is more fair for judging whether her use is consistent with the metaphor (AKA the "better case"):
    1) The government is using economic interventionism (in this case taxes) for a desired social outcome (in this case more breast feeding)
    2)The government is being paternalistic by using a system of rewards and punishments to influence our private behavior and personal choices so that we behave in a way that is in our best interest. 
    Bachmann's use of the metaphor is obviously consistent with this criteria.  But your unfortunate reductio ad absurdum (meat inspection, law enforcement, police, and military) has nothing to with Bachmann's use of the metaphor. Meat inspection, law enforcement, and military have nothing to do with our private behavior. I suppose many people who argue against the nanny state are also opposed to the USDA, but that is a very different example from Bachmann's use of the metaphor.
    Finally, cue obligatory cashing in on strawman and  folk wisdom: "The point, of course, is that once you start doing your political thinking just with catchwords, you lose sight of the core metaphors they got their power from". 
    (Side note: do you really believe that I don't know how to read or is it better to interpret that part as ad hominem? Thanks!)

  4. Welcome back Tristan.  Your feelings must have been hurt.  Too bad.
    1. My point about your not being able to read wasn't an ad hominem argument. It was an inference to the best explanation. You stink at identifying fallacies. 
    2. If the requirements of mandating or punishing aren't part of the nanny-state metaphor, then you get the crazy consequences I'd listed before. If you're fine with those consequences, you're welcome to them.  Reductio works only on those capable of recognizing the ad absurdum.

  5. Except for some unnecessary-to-the-argument verbiage, I'd say this was a good exchange where you both makes some great arguments.
    My thinking is that the "charitable" argument, however, is too forgiving and attempts to rationalize Bachmann's admittedly "the new definition." 
    We all know that meaning ascribed metaphors drift, becoming eventually so far removed from their original context that they become "expressions."  We also know that people attempt to reframe or twist a frame to include/exclude more people or things or to refine something for the purposes of poisoning its foundations, such as Sarah Palin's attempt to recast 'feminist' (re: great-grandmother and pioneering).
    When Bachmann says "I mean, you wanna talk about the nanny state — I think you just got the new definition", to me she is making this particular "nudge" out to be beyond the any example of institutionalizing government "nudging" heretofore seen.
    And that is what I think Mr. Aikin was aiming at: not so much how well or not well her use of the metaphor can be rationalized to fit within the bounds of its original use, how the case was made notwithstanding. 
    In fact, to say that Bachmann's use characterizes a type of unhinging to me is not accurate, but rather that the metaphor is being morphed enough to include finer nuanced things, which is typically the strategy for weakening the edges of even the best intentions. It's a type of poisoning the well.

  6. p.s.  — dang!  Not happy that the paragraph spacing apparent in the input box was not translated to the published piece.  Sorry.  Live and learn.

  7. Scott's argument is rather simple, I think.
    1) The "Nanny State" metaphor has been historically used to refer to certain government practices that force a particular conception of the good on the populace. 
    2) Bachmann has used this metaphor in a novel way that deviates from its traditional usage.
    3) Bachmann's novel usage has stretched the metaphor to the point where it can be used to refer to any government practice.
    4) This renders the new use of the metaphor (and whatever rhetorical force it may have once had)  utterly meaningless, since if it could apply to any government practice then it is identical with government itself.
    Tristan claims that Bachmann has not used the metaphor in a novel way, and so Scott has straw-manned her position. Unfortunately, whether Scott has straw-manned her or not, the reductio still holds. If Bachmann's use of the metaphor is in accordance with it's traditional usage, then the traditional usage is absurd. No matter what policies the government sets or enforces, these can be viewed as endorsing a particular conception of the good. So, the government is by definition a "nanny state" every time it attempts to set any policy.
    I'd be curious to see any example of government activities, be they tax incentives or disincentives, laws, rules, regulations, or any other things that one might think of that would not be considered paternalistic activities if Bachmann's usage of the metaphor is in accordance with its proper usage. 

  8. Hi Sigo.  You've apparently got more charity capacity than I have.  One thing to note, though, is that Tristan's reconstruction means that any time the state encourages you to pursue some course of action (even those you endorse), it constitutes paternalism.  The fact that Bachmann says that this is the "new definition" of nanny state is the overt extension (and hence evacuation) of the metaphor.
    Hi Jem.  Spot on, as usual.  (Though I'm less inclined to concede the straw man)

  9. Scott, I am too (less inclined). Bachmann is certifiable. What's the point of government if it doesn't actually contribute to the sum total welfare of society?

  10. Scott, you're like a rat scuttling into the last dry part of the sinking ship that is your argument. Or maybe you're like a sentimental captain who isn't ready say good bye to his ship. Either way, I'm ready to scuttle this ship for you. 
    The problem with your reductio ad absurdum is not that I'm willing to accept the absurd consequences, it's that your absurd consequences constitute a non sequitur.
    You argue that "If the requirements of mandating or punishing aren't part of the nanny-state metaphor then you get the crazy consequences…"
    Let's test:
    Breast feeding?
    Do they mandate breast feeding? No
    Do they punish you if you don't take part? No
    Meat Inspection?
    1) Do they mandate meat inspection? Yes.
    2) Do they punish you if you don't take part in meat inspection? Yes.
    Law enforcement?
    1) Do they mandate law enforcement? Yes, if you mean that's not optional to comply with them.
    2) Do they punish you if you don't take part? Yes, if you mean that's not optional to comply with them.
    Ditto for Military.
    None of your named consequences fall inside of this supposedly new semantic space that you've discerned, so obviously those consequences DO NOT FOLLOW from your premise. Furthermore, your argument for reductio ad absurdum hinges on your overly vague definition of the metaphor; in other words, you suppress other aspects of the metaphor to argue for the absurd consequences. Once you include "using a system of rewards and punishments to influence our PRIVATE behavior and PERSONAL choices", your consequences cannot follow from Bachmann's use of the metaphor.
    Let's test:
    Breast feeding?
    Do they use a system of rewards and punishments to influence our PRIVATE behavior and PERSONAL choices? Yes, they offer tax cuts for breast pumps in order to influence our PERSONAL CHOICES (whether to breast feed your own child). [note: I admit that a argument could be made that how you raise your child is not a personal choice, but that is debatable and irrelevant here]
    Meat inspection?
    Do they use a system of rewards and punishments to influence our PRIVATE behavior and PERSONAL choices? No, feeding people rotten meat is not a PRIVATE behavior or PERSONAL CHOICE.
    Law enforcement?
    Do they use a system of rewards and punishments to influence our PRIVATE behavior and PERSONAL choices? No, law enforcement is not concerned with our PRIVATE behavior and PERSONAL choices.
    Ditto for military. 
    In each case, it's easy to show that Bachmann's metaphor does not entail your consequences. Hence, your claim is fallacious. But I'm going to do you a favor and mend your argument a bit for you. Perhaps, you could argue that meat inspection and law enforcement (and all government programs) have the paternal aspect of the metaphor because they all try to look out for your best interest and protect you from harm. And you could argue that all government programs use taxes for desired social outcomes (safe meat, less crime, less foreign threat). You would still have the problem of overcoming the PRIVATE/PERSONAL distinction, but using my outline you would be a lot closer to making a sound argument. The problem here of course is that this has nothing to with a new use of the metaphor. Bachmann's use of the metaphor is perfectly consistent with the old use of the metaphor. 
    It seems your weak argument is a consequence of your sloppy writing. If you had done a better job forming a strict, accurate definition of the metaphor, you probably would of avoided making a weak argument. The sentence "it just seems different" is really telling in that expresses your own uncertainty in whether it is different. But everyone is prone to sloppy writing sometimes, and if you had looked at your argument carefully, you could of acknowledged some of your argument's short comings, given up some ground, and possibly salvaged part of your argument. Instead, beating your chest like a 90 pound philosophical gorilla, you denied all wrong and claimed that this is really a problem with my reading skills. Sigh… opportunity lost. 

  11. Tristan,
    From the comments above, others weren't confused by the piece. You're an outlier on this. Don't blame my writing.  Blame your English teacher.

  12. Hi All,

    I don't think Scott's post could have been more clear (and on the nose in my view).  The "nanny state" metaphor typically refers to some in the government's efforts to control how people make apparently self-regarding personal choices–eating salt, fat, smoking, etc..  Bachman has turned this metaphor into overdrive (ha ha, stole that from someone) by claiming that considering breast-pumps (for IRS purpose) pre-tax medical supplies amounts to more nanny stating.  Thus the reductio.  On that itnerpretation, any government action is nanny-stating. 

    Now, as Tristan has noticed, there is an argument to be made against such things.  I and everyone else will grant that I'm sure. 

    But this isn't where it's happening.  This post is about the dumbness of Bachman's metaphor, not about the how tenable Tristan's version of libertarianism is.  So, unfortunately, this is a matter of reading skills. 



    John, personal choices like how to feed your children? The "IRS purpose" is a different debate, unrelated to the metaphor, about what's covered under "pre-tax medical supplies" (are my contacts covered?). The effort to cover this was started by Michelle Obama as part of her to fight obesity (seems maternal/paternal doesn't it?). From the Guardian:
    "The White House hit back with a comment from the first lady's office: "Breastfeeding is a very personal choice for every woman, and we are trying to make it easier for those who choose to do it."
    Obama's interest in breastfeeding is an extension of her effort to reduce obesity levels among children. The campaign has helped foster initiatives from her husband's administration to remove barriers to breastfeeding, including legislation that obliges some employers to provide time and dedicated spaces for women workers to nurse their children in private.
    Breastfeeding is said to give protection against allergies, asthma and other ailments and is considered beneficial in America's fight against soaring youth obesity."
    Fighting obesity (fat, one of the things you listed) is a very noble goal, but when it is a government policy, I think most libertarians, not just me, would consider that part of the nanny state. But, whatever, I apparently lack the "reading skills" to make such a judgement. 
    (Forgive me if this ends up posted twice, but it seems my ability to comment has been revoked.)

  14. There’s a positive goal involving a tax break. This is not a meaningful or effective instance of the nanny state argument.

    In other matters, you’re far off (and always have been) from the topic of the post. Have enough self-confidence in your views to know when they aren’t coming under criticism or when they are justly criticized (here an instance of the former).

  15. I think tax breaks for "positive goals" (too vague IMO) is consistent with the metaphor, and I don't think it entails the absurd consequences (law enforcement is a "positive goal" but not the result of a "tax break"). However, I already argued this and apparently convinced no one, so I give up and won't comment further on it.  
    As for the other matter, I never considered this a matter of defending my own views. I considered this an instance of sloppy reasoning, the sort that this website is dedicated to exposing. In my opinion, my indignation towards the article is little different than the indignation this site expresses against people, like Bill O'Reilly, for their fallacious arguments. With that said, I probably should of made arguments without the indignation. And, as I've convinced apparently no one, it seems Scott's writing and argument is far more convincing than my own.
    With that acknowledged, Scott, I apologize for my rhetoric that was overly personal.  

  16. Well, your indignation is misplaced, as has been more than amply demonstrated.  Your indignation related to arguments no one was really making.  I and others take it for granted that there might be a libertarian case to be made against the tax breaks in question.  Whatever that case might be, this is not an instance of the nanny state metaphor.  It's really as simple as that. 

  17. Tristan,
    I would have to agree with everyone else here and say that you are missing the point of what happens to the nanny state when used in this new context or even your more generous context. 
    I further would like to make a comment about your public and private distinction, as well as your issue with positive and negative re-enforcement. (this might be a bit off topic but if I am wrong I am sure someone will let me know harshly by the tone of the overall discussion I have seen.) 
    First it seems that you dismiss the issue of meat inspection because it is in the public interest to have meat inspected and it is not a private interest. I would think that the libertarian would view my purchase of meat from a slaughter house or grocery store to be a private transaction between two private contracting individuals. Further that these individuals are free to contract as they like in the marketplace and that the reason why there would be no pooh in our food is that no one would contract for tainted meat and if one sold tainted meat the market would correct that by placing that person out of business. In fact the government inspections are preventing the market from freely finding the solution for this problem on its own. (Damn Government! Preventing us from wasting our time finding another solution to a problem that we already have a solution for!) So I think that a libertarian would really label this as a private issue and not a public issue.
    But for argument sake I will agree with you and say that the meat issue is a public matter because it is one person providing a service for another person or group of people. Now in the breast-feeding you have the same thing going on there the mother is providing a service for the baby, so why should I not look at this like it is a public matter when there are two people involved and a service being exchanged between two people? (by the way no one has asked the baby what it would like to drink and what it thinks is best for itself.)
    More than likely you will say something along the line that the child is not a person like you and me and therefore should not be given the consideration. Further that the rearing of the child is well within the parents’ rights and they should be the one's who determines what is best for the child. The nanny state  should stay out and not interfere with this right of the parents through the use of positive or negative re-enforcement. 
    Now this brings us to the problem and here is my example of the point trying to be made:
    Bob is a parent. Being a parent is a private matter and Bob should be allowed to make his own decisions about what is best for his children without the "nanny state" trying to control his behavior through positive and negative re-enforcement. Bob is a pedophile. Bob thinks that having sex with his children is the ultimate expression of love for his children. Bob thinks that growing up in the most loving environment possible is what is best for his children. Bob thinks he should have sex with his children to provide this loving environment. However, if Bob does have sex with his children he will be placed under arrest and sent to prison (the ultimate negative re-enforcement). Prison is a form of "economic interventionalism" because it fully removes you from the market and you are unable to earn. (Further someone else's freedom must be taken away because they must be taxed to imprison Bob.) Therefore, the "nanny state" says you cannot sexually molest your child because they are determining what is in the best interest of your child (not being molested) and using negative re-enforcement through economic punishment to force people like Bob to behave in accordance with this interest by way of arresting them if they do not conform to the government's view of a healthy household.  
    This is a bit of an extreme example but shows how this new definition of the nanny state can be applied to anything that the government does. Any time they ticket you or imprison you the government is economically punishing you to force your compliance with a particular behavior that they have deemed in your best interest. Therefore whenever the government does anything they are being a nanny state.
    Hopefully this makes sense and is on point. 

  18. Well join the party. I'm done with this argument, but since you took the time to reply here are my thoughts: your argument doesn't successfully overcome my private/public distinction. When I say personal choices, I mean choices that about your own behavior that don't affect the rights of other people. Meat inspection, like you acknowledge, governs interactions with other people. While you're right that many libertarians are probably opposed to meat inspection, libertarians are also for the government enforcing contracts between people. When people buy meat, they are probably under the assumption their meat comes poop free. What vehicle of government you use to enforce this is really a argument about what works best. Regardless, selling poop-meat is not a personal choice. The child is a special category of personal choice. There has to be some balance between what are undoubtably personal choices (like whether you breast feed him/her) and what violates the child's rights (molesting him/her). But this semantically gray area is irrelevant to the concept of personal choice in general. But, again, I'm done with this. I don't think the metaphor entails any of the consequences posed, and everyone else does. It's acknowledged and accepted. 

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