Ontario’s Nanny State

Premier McGuinty knows what’s best for Ontario’s children, and he isn’t afraid to use the police to back him up. Ontario is set to fine smokers who light up in a car in which children are traveling. The justification given for allowing police officers to interfere in this way is the risk to children’s health of secondhand exposure to smoke, which is considered greater in the enclosed space of a car than in a home. It’s true that there are very few good arguments to be made in favour of smoking in front of children in cars, or in fact anywhere. The leap from declaring this to be undesirable behaviour, to invoking the power of the stake to punish it, seems not to trouble McGuinty.

If it is in fact appropriate for government to use its coercive powers to prevent poor parenting, why stop there? If the harm done to children by traveling in a car with a smoker meets the standard for state intervention, then there are abundant other opportunities for legislating against behaviour that endangers children.

Watching too much television, for instance, has an adverse effect on children. Many studies have found a link between TV viewing in children, and violent behaviour and obesity. Given the great social and medical costs inflicted on society by poorly socialized and overweight children, how can Premier McGuinty in good conscience refrain from passing a law forbidding prolonged exposure to television for tots?

More recently, researchers have found that for every hour of daily TV watching, a child’s risk of developing ADHD increases by 10%. Young Canadian children watch on average 2.5 hours of television per day. How can the government not step in to prevent this? Of course, since television watching, unlike smoking in cars, takes place in private, it will be harder to empower police to identify and punish parents who allow too much television. Might camera surveillance in living rooms be the answer? Surely children deserve as much protection from the risks of ADHD as they do from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

Parents make countless decisions that have negative consequences for their children. Children born to unmarried parents, for example, are more likely to use drugs later in life, have an unplanned pregnancy themselves, and drop out of school. If we accept that the government has a mandate to override poor parental choices for the sake of children’s welfare, should we not make policy to discourage this? It wouldn’t be hard to impose fines on unmarried parents. The absence of fathers from children’s homes is strongly linked to poor academic performance. Just think of all the remedial education costs that might be saved, if the heavy hand of McGuinty were used to force parents to make better choices!

The potential to use government policy to force better parenting doesn’t end there, though. A 2006 study shows that religiosity greatly reduces juvenile alcohol consumption and drug use. The social and economic costs of substance abuse among adolescents are a drain on us all. Should McGuinty not do more to prevent this? Using the provincial government to promote religious observance is a crucial step toward reducing teen addictions. Any archaic concerns about the innate privacy of the family or religious practice must surely be outweighed by our collective stake in preventing drinking and drug use amongst underage Canadians.

Does this all seem too totalitarian yet?

In a perfect world, all parents would refrain from exposing their children to smoke, strictly limit television watching, strive to raise their children in intact families, and provide them with strong moral guidance. In a free society, perfection cannot be imposed from above, and within broad limits, such as abuse or gross neglect, parents have the right to make poor decisions. We can agree that parents should make every effort to ensure their children’s mental and physical health, while recognizing that it is not the role of government to mandate this. Indeed the damage done to civil society by so expanding the powers of the state would vastly outweigh any conceivable benefit.

McGuinty says this is not a slippery slope, despite being opposed himself to such legislation as recently as last year on precisely those grounds. He has not offered any compelling argument defending his flip-flop. If it is appropriate to use the power of the state to stop poor but not abusive or negligent parenting, why is exposure to secondhand smoke considered worse than increased risks of obesity, ADHD, substance abuse and academic failure? Once we invite Big Brother into our families, we’ll find it very difficult to ask him to leave.