Meddler Nation: Why Americans Should Learn to Mind Their Own Business

Can we curb the urge to mind other people's business?

| January/February 2000

No smoking. Buckle up. Curb your dog. Friends don't let friends drive drunk. It's as though the entire culture has embraced a collective peer pressure to get us to behave ourselves: Friends don't let friends . . . do anything.

"We meddle in the name of almost everything: health, safety, efficiency, the bottom line, God, “the children”--you name it, and there will most likely be someone there to meddle on its behalf," say sociologist Charles Edgley and behavioral science professor Dennis Brissett in their new book, A Nation of Meddlers (Westview Press). "We meddle with virtually anyone who crosses either our path or our vested interests. And we meddle with just about anything people do as long as it happens to be something we ourselves do not do. We have become a nation of meddlers."

Edgley and Brissett note that most meddling is supposedly done for the good of the meddlee. Smokers, drinkers, and overeaters would be healthier if they didn't smoke, drink, or overeat—and their bad behaviors have social costs, such as increased health-care and insurance expenses. This is where the meddlers butt in.

Often, the meddlers resort to "benevolent coercion" to encourage misbehavers to seek professional help, the authors note. "The alcoholic is offered treatment instead of jail time; the schizophrenic, therapy instead of mental hospitalization; the drug addict, counseling instead of a court appearance," Edgley and Brissett write. "The offering of such Faustian deals defines a situation that may be technically “voluntary” but hardly free. It is an offering that one refuses at one's own peril."

One consequence of the growing meddling industry is professionals who "interfere with some in the name of protecting others," the authors warn. Among the culprits are divorce lawyers, family therapists, psychiatrists, and religious zealots who increasingly reject America's historic laissez-faire secularism (the first coin minted in the United States bore the motto mind your business) while striving to reduce risk.

Another consequence is the growth of government in the form of new laws governing behavior. Many states have passed legislation banning smoking from public buildings; some communities even try to keep smokers off crowded downtown streets. "It dawns on few of us that the more we ask government to meddle into the lives of others, the closer we get to creating an apparatus that will in all likelihood eventually meddle in our own," Edgley and Brissett note.

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