Why Government Plays Nanny

nannyEvery day brings another story of a government agency banning something. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg banned large soft drinks and trans fats in restaurant food and campaigned to lower salt content. (The rumor is, popcorn is next.) South LA banned the building of new fast-food restaurants. San Francisco banned soft drinks from vending machines on public property and toys from fast-food meals. Numerous municipalities banned bake sales and lemonade stands. The Department of Agriculture issued new “guidelines”—that is, mandates—for school meals that included providing fruits and vegetables and “grain-rich foods, substituting low-fat or fat-free milk, and “limiting calories based on the age of children.”

There are bans on cell-phone use while driving, smoking in public places (some authorities propose banning it in private homes as well), drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and various other places, and the sale of incandescent light bulbs. A strong candidate for the most absurd example of banning is the U.S. Forest Service’s ban on the use of heavy equipment to repair a seriously damaged water line in Tombstone, AZ. Residents are left with the option of using shovels and wheelbarrows for the job or dying of thirst.

Why are local, state, and federal officials so opposed to letting American citizens decide such matters for themselves? The question is especially vexing in light of the nation’s education policy. Students are told how wonderful they are, how gifted and accomplished, how deserving of self-esteem and the admiration of others. Then immediately after they graduate, they are treated as incompetent to make decisions for themselves or, when they become parents, for their children.

The answer is that all the self-esteem talk of the last few decades has taken attention from, but not displaced, a much older view that is deeply embedded in all our social institutions—the view that most people are severely limited in intelligence and nothing can be done to overcome their deficiency. The older view, which was prominent in the late 19th century, derived from Social Darwinism, particularly from the work of Francis Galton. Psychology was a young discipline at the time and many members of the profession enthusiastically embraced Galton’s perspective. The following quotes are representative of their thinking:

There are great groups of men, laborers, who are but little above the child, who must be told what to do and shown how to do it; and who, if we would avoid disaster, must not be put into positions where they will have to act upon their own initiative or their own judgment . . . There are only a few leaders, most must be followers. . .  Democracy means that the people rule by selecting the wisest, most intelligent and most human to tell them what to do to be happy. H.H. Goddard

The children of successful and cultured parents test higher than children from wretched and ignorant homes for the simple reason that their heredity is better . . . [Children with low IQs] are ineducable beyond the merest rudiments of training. No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable citizens . . . . Lewis Terman

One of those pessimists, Robert Yerkes, developed a test to find out just how bad the problem was. He and his colleagues administered the test to 1.75 million Army recruits during WWI. The results revealed that the average mental age of white American adults was 13 and that, among immigrants, the average Russian’s mental age was 11.34; the average Italian’s, 11.01; the average Pole’s, 10.74; and the average mental age of “Negroes,” 10.41. To appreciate how shocking these conclusions were, consider that at the time of the test a “moron” (the term was considered scientific then) was defined as an adult whose mental age was 12 or lower.

The public was alarmed. Here was scientific proof that the vast majority of citizens were mentally deficient and nothing could be done about their condition. In response, influential people succeeded with a number of initiatives. One was substituting vocational for academic education: “students can’t be taught to think for themselves, so just give them facts to remember.” Another was to change immigration laws to keep out southern and central Europeans. Yet another was to require workers to “leave their minds at the company gate” and do routine tasks mindlessly.

The most shameful initiative was sterilizing mental defectives. H. H. Goddard expressed the idea bluntly: “We need to hunt them out . . . and see to it that they do not propagate . . . .” This program became known as the Eugenics Movement, and it was supported by many famous people, including Winston Churchilll, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Alexander Graham Bell, George Bernard Shaw, and Planned Parenthood Founder Margaret Sanger. Respected families that lent financial support included the Harrimans, the Carnegies, and the Rockefellers.

Many years after these initiatives were undertaken it was learned that Yerkes’ test had been badly flawed and poorly administered. Two notable problems: it was given in English, even though many of the recruits were recent immigrants who could not speak English; many others could not read the questions because they were illiterate. (If any individuals could rightly be considered “morons,” it was the test-makers rather than the test-takers.)

Unfortunately, though the tragic error of Yerkes’ intelligence test was eventually exposed, the more fundamental calumny about human intelligence has not yet been effectively answered. It therefore continues to influence educators, business people, journalists, advertisers, and government officials. Each group, in its own way, treats the public not only like children but mentally compromised children.

In the case of government officials, the treatment takes the form of making important decisions for us because they believe we are incapable of making them for ourselves. Of course, they are quick to add that they don’t really enjoy playing Nanny—they are just doing it for our own good. Right.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved