The Nanny World

In Zürich, Switzerland, there's a square called Bellevueplatz with an interesting fountain. It's just a bunch of holes in the pavement that hurl out water in synchronised fashion. Sometimes the water spouts as high as 3 meters, sometimes it goes off entirely. There are no barriers to access the fountain which makes it favourite of children who run across the fountain while it is off, then narrowly escape the water as it gradually starts to pour out.

One admires how the fountain is programmed to do a complex choreography that makes it impossible to predict what will happen next, yet it always gives you a subtle hint so that you won't get wet if you don't want to.

But wait! It does not! If you stare at the fountain for a while there is a relatively rare moment in the choreography when the fountain is completely off making it seemingly safe to pass but spits out the water at the full speed and volume the next moment.

If you choose to run through the fountain at that moment and if the temperature is 10 degrees Celsius as it was yesterday (it was even snowing few days ago) you'll experience quite a nasty surprise.

Now imagine the same thing anywhere in European Union. The fountain would be safely surrounded by a fence, protecting people from their own foolishness. Yay! Nobody would get wet!

I am not sure how it would look like in US but I would imagine it being surrounded by notices about how crossing the fountain is at your own risk, how the owner of the fountain is not responsible for any damage to your clothing and possessions and so on.

While it is fun imagining it, the reality is that the fountain would not exist in the first place. We can't possibly give people an option to decide whether they want to risk getting wet or not. Can we?

Since I moved to Switzerland a year and a half ago, I've noticed that this is a recurring pattern.

You go to a thermal pool located on the roof of a four storey building and it turns out that the pool goes all the way to the edge of the roof, the barrier is half a meter wide at the water level. No fence. Be an adolescent wishing to impress girls in bikini in the pool, climb up the barrier and you'll end up as human pizza on the pavement below.

Or go hiking to the mountains, choose a path that, as you are said, is suitable for even elderly hikers and find out that it truly isn't that steep but happens to be 1 meter wide, with 60 meter precipice on one side and high-reaching rock face on the other. One wrong step, especially when it's wet and slippery, and you are dead. Nobody cares.

When I arrived, every time I met a 5 year old kid alone on an otherwise empty street I though he was lost and I had an immediate urge to help. It turns out that he wasn't lost. He was going to school. Or going home. Or wherever.

I am said that parents are actively discouraged to bring the children to school by car. Instead, school ensures their safety by doing drills where kids learn how to safely cross the road and generally, how to behave in the presence of traffic.

Now let's compare that to an experience of a kid from US suburbia: He's taken to and from the school by car. The school itself is really a babysitting facility disguised as an educational institution. The kid never wanders away from its home street. He have never been in a shop all by itself. Until he reaches 16 and gets a driver's license he haven't ever had a chance to do any decision with possibly harmful consequences.

One only shudders when imagining that these severely impaired kids are one day going to make serious life and death decisions as pilots, policemen, nuclear plant operators, surgeons, bankers and politicians.

But it's not just about kids. I've read lately that British government have put a name of a new multi-million pound research vessel on public vote. Unsurprisingly, vast majority of voters favoured the name of "Boaty McBoatface". At that point the officials in charge made an U-turn and decided to name the ship "Sir David Attenborough".

Now, while I would personally love the ship to be called Boaty McBoatface, most people, if put to the official position would opt to name the boat in somehow more conservative manner.

The reason why they voted online for Boaty McBoatface was that they haven't really believed that anybody would take them seriously: "Those guys are going to name the ship our way only if it happens to be a name they would choose themselves. So let's expose them as hypocrites and vote for something ridiculous!" Or, in even simpler words: "They won't allow an unsuitable name anyway. I don't like being despised like that. Let's vote for Boaty McBoatface and see how they deal with that! Muahaha!"

Similar story happened in my native Bratislava. The name of a new bridge over Morava rives was put to public vote. The winning name was "Chuck Norris Bridge". What makes it even more funny is that the bridge connects Slovakia to its neighbouring Austria. Slovak officials were supposed to meet with their Austrian counterparts and assert with a straight face that the bridge is going to be called after Chuck Norris. Needless to say, the bridge was called "Freedom Bridge" in the end.

Couple of months ago there was a parliamentary election in Slovakia. For the first time, the Nazis entered the parliament with 8% of the vote.

I happen to know a bit about the topic as I lived in the town where the head of the Nazi party have been elected a county governor couple of years ago.

The people who voted for him were mostly not Nazis themselves. (But let's not be over-optimistic here: The chimpanzee ethology of an urge to kill anyone who's not member of their little group is still strong in many people.) Mostly, they have voted that way to express their discontent with current suite of politicians who are perceived as untrustworthy, corrupt and generally incapable.

When asked whether they really want concentration camps in their country, the answer often boils down to: "They won't allow them to do that!"

In short, they have voted for Chuck Norris and for Boaty McBoatface.

The nanny world that's taking care of their lives and preventing them to hurt themselves since the day they were born will take care of the actual problem and will solve it in a way that may not be palatable but will at least be bearable.

I don't believe that Swiss system of direct democracy, the system where political decisions are made by public voting and government is viewed as a necessary scaffolding used to implement those decisions is the best possible one. If nothing else, voting on complex issues that involve various trade-offs is not likely to give good answer, merely an average one. It misses the necessary phase of consensus seeking. However, there's one important thing to be said for it: It trains the people to understand that any shit they vote for is be the shit they will have to live with.

Together with the fountains and hiking tracks and kids wandering around alone it makes it hard to believe, for an average Swiss person, that there is a nanny world that will protect them from any harm, even self-inflicted. If you don't do the correct thing, you'll be dead. That's how it goes. And then time passes and life is nice and weather is great and exactly when you are about to forget, Swiss government will send you some potassium iodide pills to be used in case of a nuclear catastrophe.

I don't really know why I have written this down. Out of frustration maybe. But if there's one lesson to learn from all that let it be: If you don't want to see your children in concentration camps with numbers tattooed on their little arms, let them make decisions with possibly harmful consequences. Don't make them believe in nanny world.

Martin Sústrik, May 1st, 2016

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