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Week of: February 25, 2001

Stop Taking Care of Us and Let Us Live

by F.R. Duplantier

"By attending to the moral and spiritual health of their offspring, mothers and fathers provide a far better guarantee of longevity than Nanny can offer."

"For all the fuss over the health and safety effects of various substances, it's interesting to see how little the authorities attend to the health and safety of different lifestyles," observes British philosopher Roger Scruton. The modern nursemaid government -- Nanny, as Scruton mockingly calls her -- "is not concerned with health so much as lifestyle. . . . Health legislation is being used not to improve the state of the nation's health," he warns, "but to undermine its old, family-based values."

In the current issue of City Journal, a quarterly publication of the Manhattan Institute, Scruton asserts that the overprotective state actually "undermines society. Almost the entire energy of the health campaigners is devoted to forbidding habits that pose no conceivable social threat," he charges, "while permitting others that promise social fragmentation. School notice boards now forbid virtually nothing that the young would like to do, save smoking. Their messages about sex, precisely because they are framed exclusively in the language of hygiene, are read as permissions," Scruton complains, "and their warnings about drugs are noticeably more muted than those relating to tobacco."

Scruton points out that a responsible parent "sees health as part of a larger goal: the long-term fulfillment of his child. This," he contends, "is why it is better, not merely for society but for the individual, too, if education in the taking of risks is left to parents and not appropriated by the state. Wise parents know that their children must grow up and take their place in the community," says Scruton. "The child will need nothing so much as the love and trust of others," he emphasizes, "and these benefits can't be won without a long process of character building and moral education. No sensible parents believe that the future well-being of their child depends entirely on the chemicals that he ingests, or that they can guarantee his happiness merely by ensuring that his bodily functions conform to the surgeon general's requirements."

Scruton argues that "those risks against which Nanny warns us are also, in a measure, good for us. It is good," he asserts, "that children are surrounded by activities that are permitted but disapproved. For they have to learn to make choices and to know that something may be permitted by the law, and even encouraged by the state, despite being morally wrong. Smoking presents us with an easy apprenticeship in interdiction," says Scruton, "a way of showing to a child that something that is not a crime nevertheless ought to be avoided. It belongs, with junk food, pop music, and television, to the world of daily temptations, which is the practice-ground for self-control."

Scruton points to "other risks that a child ought to be encouraged to take, despite the fact that Nanny doesn't like them. Children should not be officiously protected from every kind of danger," he advises. "Just as their immune systems benefit from contact with hostile bacteria, so do their characters benefit from physical risk." Scruton concludes that "health is promoted far more effectively by a sober, righteous, and godly life than by a fat-free, smoke-free regimen."


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