Personal Freedom

The Propaganda of the Paternalistic State

I recently returned from a vacation with my family in California, where I grew up. Our days were filled with fun activities, family outings, and sights that brought back great memories. Despite my efforts to have a break from working in and thinking about politics, there was an ever-present reminder of how bad California’s overreaching, paternalistic state has become.

California outlaws using cell phones while driving. The various restrictions and regulations which prohibit and seek to punish the act of talking on the phone while driving are voluminous, but they aren’t hidden in obscure pages of the state’s legislative code. Instead, drivers are incessantly reminded of them.

In a 20 mile stretch of freeway, I counted easily over a dozen large, bright, electronic signs reminding drivers of the law, the associated fine if you were to be caught, and a statement saying that “it’s not worth it.” Apparently it’s not enough to criminalize the action—lawmakers feel they must provide propaganda to encourage increased compliance.

California is not alone in this, of course. Sticking to the subject of vehicle safety, there is a nationwide “click it or ticket” campaign run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and funded with millions of dollars by Congress. Each state, including Utah, participates in the program, and individuals are frequently reminded through billboards, radio ads, and other advertising methods that the state demands that they wear a seat belt while operating a vehicle.

Not only does a paternalistic or nanny state have to show others who’s the boss—it has to educate and remind them of that fact along the way. Still worse, it uses taxpayer dollars to do so, coercing citizens into funding the very programs that push propaganda back onto them.

The uses and methods of such propaganda are varied, and routinely exploited by the ruling class. Given the media coverage and widespread understanding of the no-cell-phone law in California, it’s unlikely that many drivers are unaware of it; throwing it in their faces every mile or two along the freeway is overboard and indicative of the unbalanced relationship between the state and the citizen.

Of course, much of this situation can be attributed to the myriad malum prohibitum laws on the books—prohibitions against things that are not inherently evil nor which violate another’s liberty. Propaganda is not needed to remind people not to kill one another, not to steal, not to vandalize one another’s property, or any number of other clearly wrong actions. Individuals generally accept, understand, and abide by such standards.

But when the state exceeds those self-evident bounds and begins to demand compliance with a lengthy list of mandates, it then deems it necessary to persuade, threaten, and coerce people into compliance who may choose to behave differently. Encouraging people to act responsibly is a good thing. Forcing taxpayers to fund propaganda campaigns to facilitate that encouragement is not.