Dec 10, 2013
Who’s Your Nanny?
Posted on Feb 19, 2011
In considering how the national political dialogue about the so-called nanny state melds with emerging paternalism in the corporate workplace, two questions come to mind.
First, how will libertarian/tea party support for freedom for private businesses be reconciled with a world where employers deploy digital camera surveillance in the workplace, track keystrokes on employee computers, make greater use of advances in genetic medical predictions and, of course, wield the power to choose one job applicant and reject another? How can that world of corporate hiring and firing freedom be reconciled with the supremacy of a citizen’s right to do with her person as she pleases?
The second conceptual conundrum is: If tea-partying libertarians defend the rights of private businesses to engage in “nanny corporate” supervision, why is it wrong for the government to engage in “nanny state” hectoring?
Of course, the government has engaged in giving citizens paternalistic advice for a long time. Who has not risked disobeying the commands of America’s surgeon generals? Would former Surgeons General C. Everett Koop or Joycelyn Elders (to name a couple of the more publicized officeholders) have been supplied with a government uniform and the title of “general” if they did not intend to project a commanding personification of the government “warning” (as it says on the cigarette pack) to not smoke, or advising citizens to eat broccoli? Why such advice coming from the wife of the commander in chief is so obnoxious to tea partyers says a lot about their real complaint: the messenger and not the message.
Yet Palin and the tea party have focused their sarcasm on Michelle Obama’s efforts to promote healthy nutrition and exercise for children. Apparently they are unable to comprehend that advocacy and enforcement through legalized sanctions are very different things.
White House advocacy is depicted as if it is based on a law already passed and enforceable. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. No person has been (or ever will be) forced to eat vegetables or to engage in a healthy lifestyle to deter obesity as a product of anything Michelle Obama has advised.
The same cannot be said of private employers that are engaging in something more than “nanny” advocacy. A real sanction of continued unemployment or imminent termination hangs Damoclean-like over the heads of workers in American corporations.
Employers, unlike Michelle Obama, rely on a type of law: the swift and severe law of supply and demand for workers. That law is being wielded by employers as they ratchet up their interest in the health characteristics and personal behavior of potential and current employees. Michelle Obama’s “nanny state” has only the bully pulpit to exhort. The bosses at the plant have more than a megaphone. They have the power to hire and fire people who must tow a line of personal behavior that is most advantageous for the corporation’s bottom line.
A flight attendant who smokes on the ground is perfectly capable of flying without smoking, as passengers must do. But airlines, it appears, may legally decide to refuse employment to a flight attendant who smokes because he or she may draw down more future health benefits as a result of the collateral impacts of smoking on his or her health.
Are Ron and Rand Paul, Bachmann and Palin on the side of the airline employer? Or are they on the side of Americans who, the tea partyers argue, have a birthright to engage in any personal behavior they wish to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else? Shouldn’t a libertarian say: “As long as the flight attendant doesn’t light up in the restroom of the plane, it doesn’t hurt me, and the attendant’s personal freedom to smoke in the airport lounge or at home should not be curtailed by the government. And the same logic applies to a private employer.”
Two future possibilities bear watching.
First, some states have enacted a few weak controls over private employers with regard to inquiries into areas of personal privacy during the hiring process. It will be interesting to see what position tea party supporters take at the state and local level when legislation is proposed that private businesses be prohibited from intruding into the personal lives of employees regarding conduct that occurs at home, or at least not in a close nexus with the workplace.
Second, what if all kinds of employers, even ones in the public sector, were encouraged to reject applicants for engaging in personally harmful behavior like smoking? Two current employees of the federal government who might see this as an unwarranted employer incursion on personal freedom come quickly to mind.
They are John Boehner and Barack Obama. The former is intransigently committed to his freedom to smoke cigarettes, saying in a televised interview:
“Tobacco is a legal product in America,” the new House speaker said. “The American people have a right to decide for themselves whether they want to partake or not. There are lots of things that we deal with and come in contact with every day, from alcohol to food to cigarettes, a lot of the things that aren’t good for our health. But the American people ought to have the right to make those decisions on their own.” (From Politics Daily, “John Boehner and Tobacco: He’s Not Ready to Give Up Smoking”.)
The latter might support a restriction on smokers in public employment, as long as the law does not take effect until February 2017.
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