Ideological rhetoric not only lionizes heroes but also deplores villains. It tells us what we should like and what we should hate. Neoliberal ideologues, in this regard, typically praise deregulation, privatization, and the market economy while condemning the “nanny state” as especially villainous. If we reflect critically on the nanny-state rhetoric, we might be able to limit the persuasiveness of one of neoliberalism’s most-favored notions and in the process recognize who is most powerful in our society.
For starters, casting anything related to a nanny in a negative light is curious. Popular culture, after all, includes an abundance of perky, resourceful, and indomitable nannies, all of whom are devoted to the well-being of those under their care. Thoughts of Mary Poppins, Fraulein Maria in “The Sound of Music,” and Nanny McPhee win a warm spot in just about everybody’s hearts. I always enjoyed the resourcefulness of Fran Fine, who was played by the feisty Fran Drescher in the popular 1990s sitcom “The Nanny,” while my favorite boyhood nanny was the large anthropomorphic dog Nana in the Peter Pan stories. She wore a charming bonnet, built castles out of toy blocks, and lovingly made the beds for the Darling children.
How and why does the image of a nanny become a negative one for the neoliberal ideologue? The threshold problem with suspect nannies from the neoliberal perspective is that they somehow oversee not children but rather adults. In fact, according to neoliberal rhetoric, these nannies treat those adults as children, giving them more advice than they need and suffocating them with over-attentiveness. Villainous nannies become mini-dictators in the lives of those they look after.
Apparently, coordinated bands of raging nannies are even able to take over the government and establish a menacing and freedom-denying “nanny state.” According to the ideological rhetoric of the Cato Institute, a neoliberal think-tank that spends a great deal of time attempting to direct the nation to the right:
One of the most disturbing trends in government over the last 30 years has been the collection of laws, regulations, and binding court decisions that make up the “nanny state.” These laws represent government at its most arrogant. Their message is clear: politicians and bureaucrats know more about how to live your life than you do.
The laws and regulations of the “nanny state” that are cast as especially alarming and over-protective are often found in the public health area. These laws and regulations purportedly dictate such things as speed limits, motorcycle helmets, informative cigarette- packaging, and bans on the consumption of large sugary soft drinks – the proverbial “Big Gulp.”
If we reflect on the nanny-state rhetoric, we might quickly recognize how misleading it is. The last time I looked, nannies for adults were hard to find. Laws and regulations of the sort noted above do not truly control people’s lives rather promote the health and well-being of adults and children alike. Sophisticated business interests rather than wild-eyed nannies are actually the most powerful forces in our political economy.
Indeed, it might bear underscoring that business interests themselves provide crucial financial support for the neoliberal campaign against the nanny state. Exploiters and profit-seekers, after all, have the most to gain if laws and regulations promoting the public’s health are removed from the books and suspected nannies are driven from the halls of government.