On this date in 1901, the state of Connecticut passed the first speed limits for motor vehicles. This was an incremental step, or so it seemed at the time, as the concept of regulating the speed of horse-drawn wagons and other conveyances had been around since the mid-17th century. It was a logical one, too: The new "horseless carriages" were dangerous at almost any speed, as the ensuing century of gruesome carnage on roadways of this (and every other) country would demonstrate.
Connecticut set the speed limit at 12 miles per hour in the cities and 15 miles per hour on rural roads. Inspired New York City officials unveiled a comprehensive set of traffic laws two years later. Although such statutes were obviously necessary, they also revealed a congenital desire on the part of civic authorities to regulate human activity. For our own safety, we are invariably told. And these experts are usually right. But not always. The impulse to protect citizens from one another -- and themselves -- has led to some incongruous results, while also generating a backlash. That same dynamic is playing out now in the face of a lethal virus.
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A decade ago, as part of an effort to protect the city's children from any manner of misfortune, the city of Chicago began enacting stricter new curfews for teenagers. In 2012, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation allowing the use of cameras in nabbing motorists who speed and run red lights. Virginia, where I live, did the same thing, only to curb the practice later when cameras proved to be less discerning about the variables of driving than traffic cops.
To those who complained about the occasional mistake or the idea of diminishing freedom, however, then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had a terse retort. "The victim is a child hit by a car going 10 to 15 miles an hour [over the speed limit] near a school zone," he said. "The victim is not a speeder."
The phrase "nanny state" was initially imported from Great Britain where it was coined in the mid-1960s. In our generation, it was perhaps personified best by former New York mayor and erstwhile 2020 presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. It was already illegal to carry a firearm when Bloomberg arrived at City Hall in the Big Apple. Under his regime, you'd better put apples in your kids' lunch boxes instead of Fritos, parents, unless you wanted trouble with school authorities. Under Mayor Mike's reign, smoking in saloons became a thing of the past in New York. So did the pleasure of bringing your family dog to outdoor cafes and bars. Trans fat in foods was an early target. So was plain old fat: Per hizzoner's desire, the calorie content of food is printed on all restaurant menus in NYC.
No health fad escaped the watchful notice of the New York City food police. Soda pop at lunch? Not so fast, you high school sluggards. Salt in those french fries? Hold on there, pal. Using food stamps to purchase a birthday cake? Fuggedaboutit.
Such meddling proved contagious. From California to Florida, such strictures were passed at both the state and local levels. One Florida congresswoman proposed codifying into federal law prohibitions against using food stamps to purchase any snack food. But the most incongruous example of nanny statism was in Chicago.
Carl Sandburg's onetime "hog butcher of the world" became a place where animal rights activists could convince the aldermen and the mayor to outlaw foie gras, apparently out of solicitude for geese. That ban, a cause of ridicule even among other "nanny state" regulators, was later overturned, but not so the assaults on smoking, trans fat, and cellphone use -- along with the elimination of hundreds of neighborhood pubs.
Carl Sandburg once lauded Chicago as a "stormy, husky, brawling" metropolis that stood out in contrast to others -- "a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities." It's unlikely the great poet would pen such words today about a burg chosen by Reason magazine as the American big city offering the least in the way of personal freedom to its citizens.
It's all done in the same of safety, of course, usually the protection of our children.
"I think that you've got to understand that if you save even one life, you are saving the whole world," Gov. Quinn said when he signed the legislation allowing Chicago to use cameras in pursuit of traffic violators. "I mean, what do you say to a parent that's been there from the day their son or daughter was born, and they're killed by a speeding motorist next to their school, or their park?"
It was a touching sentiment, one with which any parents would concur. Yet it also signaled a Manichean mindset that would result a decade later in a nation unprepared to weigh the tradeoffs inherent in dealing with the current pandemic. A national conversation -- dominated by two increasingly ideologically extreme political parties and a highly partisan media -- quickly devolved into absolutist camps. Nothing to see here, said one side, the "Wuhan Flu" is just the latest seasonal bug. That's crazy, said the other side: COVID-19 will be much worse than the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic unless we close down the economy and ban physical contact between human beings.
The truth, as almost always is the case, is proving to be somewhere in the middle.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.