Across the country, the GOP pushes intrusive and pointless ‘Nanny State’ bills

SACRAMENTO – One of the basic tenets of American conservatism – at least it has been until the Make America Great Again movement has re-jiggered the Republican Party – is that individuals rather than government regulators are best-suited to manage their own lives and raise their families. There’s always been an authoritarian streak in social conservatism, but progressives have traditionally been the ones to promote what we call the Nanny State.

“Whether it is forcing restaurants in England to print calorie counts on menus or banning energy drinks for under-18s, the government is full of ideas about how to protect people from themselves,” explained a 2018 BBC article. Although the term is of British origin, such policies are rampant throughout the United States and California in particular. One can think of any number of recent policies that fit the bill, but they all meddle in our lives to “help” or “uplift” us.

Most of these laws – from bans on single-use plastic bags and super-sized soft drinks to limits on trans-fats and e-cigarettes – accomplish little in terms of public health or the environment. There always are endless workarounds to render the edicts pointless. The Nanny State term is ideal, as we envision a hectoring nursemaid intent on depriving us of the simplest pleasures.

But now conservatives are giving leftists a run for the money. Throughout Republican-run Western states, lawmakers are passing legislation that treats adults as if they are children by mandating a variety of mostly pointless regulations in the name of protecting kids from pornography and other internet nastiness. Everyone wants to protect The Children, which makes it difficult to push back – even when such laws impose restrictions on everyone.

The latest frenzy started in Utah, which in 2021 passed a content-filter law that requires that all new cell phones and tablets sold or activated in the state be equipped with a filter that blocks “material that is harmful to minors,” as reports note. Because the law is contingent on five other states approving similar measures, lawmakers in other like-minded states have followed suit. The bills vary somewhat, but ultimately they require some form of age-verification to disable the filter.

It’s obviously hypocritical for supposedly free-market lawmakers to mandate meddlesome business regulations. Device manufacturers don’t always know where their products will be sold or activated. Following the model of progressive California, these conservative legislatures are trying to use their muscle to create a de facto nationwide standard. But that’s the least of the problems with these proposals, which raise constitutional and privacy concerns.

If they pass, these laws will certainly get tied up in the federal courts. Previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions have made it clear that legislatures must take the least-intrusive approach to limiting public access to websites. By foisting content filters on every device, these efforts take a heavy-handed approach. Such laws, as the court found, presume that parents lack the ability to protect their children.

In fact, parents have a nearly endless array of tools. They simply need to enable the filters and voluntary verification processes that are currently offered. The Competitive Enterprise Institute lists dozens of filter blockers from social-media companies, Internet Service Providers, gaming companies, web browsers and operating systems, as well as standalone app controls.

As the free-speech group NetChoice argued in testimony against Utah’s bill, such measures only provide a false sense of security, leading parents to believe their children are protected. Even the best filters are imperfect, so parents still need to be involved. The group also notes that it will stifle market innovation by imposing a one-size-fits-all standard.

There’s also a serious slippery-slope argument. I can only imagine what lawmakers in California might propose if the courts uphold these laws. How about mandated filters to block supposed “climate-change denialism” or “hate speech”? Conservative nannies should be careful what they wish for, as they might get it (“good and hard” as H.L. Mencken said).

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The bills require age verification, which is problematic. These requirements take two forms. Either users enter their own age or the site demands actual ID, such as a driver’s license. Any 15 year old can claim to be 47, so the former are toothless. The latter are burdensome for businesses and creepy for the rest of us. A case can be made for age verification for actual porn sites, but not for every app or website. Do you want to send more personal information to tech companies?

Compounding the silliness, device-filter bills only apply to cellphones and tablets. Kids could still easily access obscene materials on their laptops, desktops and game consoles. Each child is different and these filters will end up filtering out legitimate information. I can only imagine the difficulties my daughter, who was actively involved in agriculture, would have had accessing information about animal breeding. Then again, we acted like parents – and didn’t expect the government to be her nanny.

Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.

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