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What Is a Nanny State?

Jacob Queen
Jacob Queen

The term "nanny state" is often used to describe a country or government entity in which there is a perception of too much regulation of the citizens. It is particularly associated with governments that have major restrictions on the personal behavior of their citizens — mainly the regulations that seem to be designed to protect citizens from their own bad judgment. When most people use the term "nanny state," they intend it as an insult or at least a criticism. People who have libertarian viewpoints are often particularly opposed to the idea of a nanny state, but people from all sides of the political spectrum might occasionally use the term, and they might use it to describe very different things.

Regulating Behavior

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When people describe nanny states, some of the most common things that come up are restrictions and regulations that are designed to protect a person’s health. For example, laws that prohibit smoking or laws that outlaw the use of certain drugs are often described as "nanny state" regulations. People who oppose these laws believe that people should be able to make their own decisions about the kinds of behaviors in which they engage in and take responsibility for the resulting effects on their health, if any.

Incentives Instead of Restrictions

Sometimes a government that is perceived as a nanny state might not actually outlaw certain behaviors. Instead, the government might make laws that enforce tax penalties on behaviors that are considered undesirable while giving tax credits for behaviors that are encouraged. This sort of approach, even though it is less aggressive than mandates and restrictions, can often be just as unpopular among people who oppose any kind of nanny state policies.

Supporting Viewpoints

Some people dislike the term "nanny state" because they believe that government should be doing more to encourage correct or healthy behavior. For example, some people might favor outlawing dangerous foods so that people are healthier or enforcing the installation of devices to limit the speed of cars to reduce the number of traffic accidents. People who favor these sorts of measures often argue that even though the restrictions might inhibit an individual’s personal freedom, they still may be worthwhile because of the potential benefits to the whole society, such as reduced healthcare costs and increased safety and lives saved.

Opposing Viewpoints

Many people who dislike policies that are associated with nanny states are actually in favor of government regulations in many situations. It also is generally true that the idea of what a nanny state represents sometimes varies depending on the political opinions of the person using the term. For example, some people might use the term when talking about almost any kind of regulation, but others might use it only in reference to regulations that are related to personal behavior.

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