Our Washington Nannies Know What's Good for Us

JAMES J. KILPATRICK

November 09, 1991|By JAMES J. KILPATRICK

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Dr. Antonia Novello, surgeon general of the United States, called a news conference the other day in one more effort to take a little of the fun out of life. This do-gooding wet blanket wants to kill advertising for beer.

When will the federal nannies leave us alone? When will government recognize that Washington, D.C., is not the fount of all wisdom? Fifty years of covering government have imbued me with a firm conviction: In laws, rules and regulations purporting to protect us from our flaws, our masters are wrong at least as often as they are right.

Our masters? People in government are supposed to be our servants. Under what authority does Dr. Novello throw her weight around? Who gave her power to dictate rules for the advertising of a perfectly legal product?

The lady demands that breweries ''voluntarily'' ban advertising that might appeal to young people on the basis of lifestyle, sex, sports or ''risky activities.'' She has a meeting scheduled for December 11 to put pressure on the major brewing companies. If they have any backbone at all, they will tell the surgeon general, politely but firmly, to get off their backs.

When a federal bureaucrat calls for anything ''voluntary,'' run for cover. In the weirdo world of Washington, only a thin and vulnerable line separates voluntarism from compulsion. Given half a chance, Congress and the executive agencies will go for compulsion every time.

In the case at hand, there is no evidence -- repeat, no evidence -- that beer commercials inexorably lead children down the primrose path to a drunkard's grave. A linkage never has been convincingly demonstrated.

Sure, some teen-agers who watch TV will get their hands on beer. Some of them will get plastered; some will stop at a single swallow because they don't like the taste. It's a free country. At least it used to be a free country.

I have had it with the nanny-nanny-nannies. Where measures are devised truly to protect the public health and safety -- and I emphasize that word ''public'' -- of course the measures should be adopted. Only some wacko Libertarian wants to knock down the stop signs and sell contaminated fish.

As for alcohol, of course we must have laws against drunk driving. We can justify laws against narcotic drugs because of the clear danger that addiction presents to society as a whole. Nothing is wrong with regulations to protect workers from serious occupational hazards. Government has the power, and should exercise the power, to punish fraud and deception in the marketplace.

But the surgeon general is talking about beer. She is talking about restricting the breweries to TV commercials that would show a grim, unsmiling grandpa holding a can of the dreadful stuff, while an unseen narrator recites a somber message: ''According to the surgeon general, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.'' Thank you, grandpa.

If beer advertising were deceptive, it would be one thing. If beer were an unlawful product, as it was in the days of Prohibition, its advertising could be prohibited. But those TV commercials of leggy girls and sun-bronzed men are not deceptive. The characters appear to be having a good time. They are enjoying themselves.

Their apparent pleasure is what irks the surgeon general and her stuffy predecessor. Dr. Everett Koop foamed mightily at the sight of anyone enjoying -- actually enjoying! -- a cigarette. It was more than Dr. Koop could stand. He saw it as his bounden duty to protect smokers from themselves. Down with coffin nails! Zealots are always ugly, and Dr. Koop was as zealous as they come.

For the record, I don't smoke cigarettes, and I don't really like beer, but I do love freedom. In the famous Olmstead case of 1928, Justice Louis Brandeis said something that should be daily pounded into the brains of surgeons general. The right to be let alone, he said, is ''the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.''

He added, in that same great opinion: ''The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.'' Carve it in stone above every governmental office in the land!

James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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