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Wednesday, January 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist
You do not need a helmet to read this column


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The Tacoma/Pierce County Board of Health has banned smoking inside bars, taverns, restaurants and bowling alleys, and outside of these establishments within 25 feet of the door. The penalty for smoking is $100; for an owner, $100 a day.

In August, the King County Board of Health banned riding a bicycle without a helmet in Seattle. It was banned outside the city already. The penalty: $30.

Seattle has just passed an ordinance banning any recyclable paper, cardboard, glass and plastic bottles in the ordinary garbage can, effective Jan. 1, 2005. Enforcement begins in 2006.

After two warnings, if the garbage collector notices a pop can, a cereal box, a milk bottle or a sheet of paper in your trash, he will leave your entire week's trash on the curb, and you can figure out what to do with it.

What these measures have in common is their itch to manage the citizen, to tell him what is good for him and make him like it. Typically, such nannyism is championed by liberals — a group that once believed in tolerance and personal freedom. They still believe in tolerance in the matter of sex — safe sex, anyway — but not in much else.

I am old enough to remember TV ads for the Marlboro Man, and it was not long ago that we had billboards of Joe Camel. Now my government protects me from the sight of large cartoon camels, and subjects me instead to revolting images of a man with gum cancer.

I prefer Joe Camel. Today's instructional billboards treat us like sixth-graders in health class, or citizens of the old communist China.

Decades ago, I rode a bicycle from Edmonds to Wenatchee without a helmet. Bicycle helmets didn't exist then. Things have changed, and to wear a helmet today is a matter of common sense. But to require one changes more than that; it is an assertion of government power.

"But it saves lives," people say. "It lowers medical costs."

So might interference in a lot of things that are none of the government's business. Do we want mandatory calisthenics? They had it in "1984."

Public health can go only so far into the private realm in a civilized country. A government that undertakes to manage the people's medical costs will soon be instructing Dick and Jane in right living. Matters of individual choice take on a social aspect, and freedom is lost.

This is hardly new. Washington's liquor law, which prohibits a teenager from having a glass of beer with his dinner, even when accompanied by his parents, is no less ridiculous because we are used to it. That is the old Prohibitionist and Blue Law nannyism, inherited from the progressives of the past century.

To this we add a nannyism in the name of the children, under which adults are treated as kids. Other nannyism comes in service of the environment — mandatory recycling, for instance.

Seattle is only the second U.S. city to do this. Why do it? Because Seattle was acclaimed when it recycled 44 percent of its garbage. In 2001, that figure slipped to 38 percent. Officials want to be acclaimed again, so they have set a goal of 60 percent.

That is, our government set a goal that we will recycle 60 percent of our garbage. No city has done it, and we cannot be trusted to do it without compulsion. Therefore, compulsion.

Similarly, city employees did a study of the tree cover in Seattle. It was shrinking, they said, and that was bad. It sent the wrong message about global warming. In 2000, the City Council dutifully required that anyone cutting down a tree of more than 6 inches in diameter on a vacant lot must first ask the bureaucracy for a permit.

All this nannyism is in the pursuit of some good — green trees, clean lungs, uncracked skulls and the wise management of trash. What is lost is the idea of people defining their own good — a restaurant owner deciding on his own smoking policy, a parent deciding whether a child needs a bicycle helmet, a resident deciding in what manner to empty his wastebasket.

Yesterday's liberals, who now call themselves "progressives," do not trust us to define our own good. They want to do it for us. They remind me of Nurse Ratched.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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