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David Coleman

David Coleman

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Michele Bachmann Versus Michelle Obama: A View of the Nanny State War

Posted: 02/23/11 11:24 AM ET

Corporations are pursuing more intrusive engagement with the personal lives of employees. A recent story in the New York Times ("Smokers now face another risk from their habit: it could cost them a shot at a job") reported:

More hospitals and medical businesses in many states are adopting strict policies that make smoking a reason to turn away job applicants, saying they want to increase worker productivity, reduce health care costs and encourage healthier living.... The new rules essentially treat cigarettes like an illegal narcotic. Applications now explicitly warn of "tobacco-free hiring," job seekers must submit to urine tests for nicotine and new employees caught smoking face termination.

At the same time, over the past few months Tea Party leaders like Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have criticized Michelle Obama, her husband and his Nanny State administration, for telling parents what their kids should eat, how much they should exercise and whether they should sit for hours each day watching TV.

Michele Bachmann (followed by Sarah Palin) attacked Michelle Obama for a recent speech where the First Lady advocated breast feeding for poor mothers in light of the research that breast feeding infants can reduce obesity tendencies in children.

"I've given birth to five babies and I breast fed every single one of these babies," she added. "To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies? You wanna talk about the nanny state, I think you just got a new definition."

Something has to give: either the reverence accorded individual freedom for American citizens, or the freedom for corporations to insist upon employment rules that help pad the bottom line of corporate balance sheets.

On the one hand, the Tea Party position is that the Founders intended to establish a country where people are free to engage in any harmful, self-destructive behavior they damn well please. Such freedom is quintessentially libertarian: Jane Q. Citizen has her liberty and freedom from being told by the Nanny State what to do, even if doing or not doing it makes one ill, disabled or likelier to die at an earlier age. Economic freedom to contract with any employer and the employer's economic freedom to dictate the terms of the contract it is willing to enter with the employee are bedrock principles endorsed by many Tea Party members.

Then, it must logically follow that Libertarian/Tea Party members (and their fellow travelers within the Republican Party) see nothing wrong with businesses being free to not hire smokers, obese persons (as subjectively defined by the hiring employer) or applicants with "preexisting" genetic proclivities (determined through medical history and DNA testing) that make them targets of cancers, diabetes or heart disease.

In considering how the national political dialogue about the so-called "nanny state" melds with emerging paternalism in the corporate workplace, two questions come to mind.

First, how will Libertarian/Tea Party support for freedom for private business employment practices be reconciled with a world where employers deploy digital camera surveillance in the workplace, track keystrokes on employee computers, use advances in genetic medical predictions and, of course, wield the power to choose one job applicant and reject another. How can that workplace freedom in hiring and firing employees be reconciled with the supremacy of a citizen's right to do with her person as she pleases?

The second question is this: If Tea Party/Libertarians defend the rights of private businesses to engage in "nanny corporate" supervision, why is it wrong for the government to engage in "nanny state" hectoring?

Of course the government has engaged in giving citizens paternalistic advice for a long time. Who has not risked disobeying the commands of America's Surgeon Generals? Would Generals C. Everett Koop or Jocelyn Elders (to name a couple of the more publicized office holders) have been supplied with a government uniform and the title of "General" if they did not intend to project a commanding personification of the government "warning" (as it says on the cigarette pack) to not smoke or advising to eat broccoli? Why such advice coming from the wife of the Commander in Chief is more obnoxious to Tea Partiers' says a lot about their real complaint: the messenger and not the message.

Yet the muses of the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, have focused their sarcasm on Michelle Obama's efforts to promote healthy nutrition and exercise for children. Apparently they are unwilling to recognize that advocacy (using the megaphone of her association with her husband's bully pulpit) and enforcement through sanctions (legal or economic) are very different things.

But as the New York Times article pointed out, the same cannot be said of private employers who are engaging in something more than "nanny" advocacy. Real sanctions of continued unemployment or imminent termination hang Damoclean like over the heads of American workers.

Employers, unlike Michelle Obama, rely on a type of law: the swift and severe law of supply and demand for workers. That law is being wielded by employers as they ratchet up their interest in the health characteristics and personal behavior of potential and current employees. Michelle Obama's "nanny state" has only the bully pulpit to exhort. The bosses at the plant have more than a megaphone. They have the power to hire and fire citizens who must tow a line of personal behavior that is most advantageous for the corporation's bottom line.

Are Ron and Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin on the side of employers? Or are they on the side of Americans who, the Tea Partiers argue, have a birthright to engage in any personal behavior they wish to do as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else? Shouldn't a Libertarian say: "As long as employees don't light up in the plant restroom, it doesn't hurt me. The employee's personal freedom to smoke at home should not be curtailed by the Government....or by a private employer?"

One future possibility bears watching: what if all kinds of employers, even ones in the public sector, began to reject applicants for being smokers?

Two current employees of the Federal government, John Boehner and Barack Obama, might see this as an unwarranted employer incursion on personal freedom.

Boehner is intransigent in his commitment to his freedom to smoke cigarettes, saying in a televised interview:

"Tobacco is a legal product in America," Boehner said. "The American people have a right to decide for themselves whether they want to partake or not. There are lots of things that we deal with and come in contact with every day, from alcohol to food to cigarettes, a lot of the things that aren't good for our health. But the American people ought to have the right to make those decisions on their own."

President Obama, on the other hand, is said to have currently quit. But given the possibility of relapse, he might support a restriction on smokers in public employment as long as the law does not take effect until February, 2016.

A longer version of this article appears on the Truthdig website.