Tag Archives: Metaphor

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?