We Americans have grown accustomed to a large measure of government control over our persons and property. Such serious intrusions on our liberties as zoning laws, public schooling, and government regulation of food and drugs are so taken for granted that to question their beneficence is to risk being read out of the public debate. In such circumstances, camouflaging such doubts through fiction may be the only effective way of getting people to drop their unquestioned assumptions and get them to think the unthinkable.
James Payne’s satirical Princess Navina series is an attempt to do this. Princess Navina Visits Mandaat, the second book in this series, describes a country in which progress is measured by the weight of legislation passed. Some of this excess tonnage calls for mandatory attendance at religious services, inspection of every piece of meat served in restaurants, and special permits to walk on the street. So pervasive is the need for permits in Mandaat that the title character is heard to lament, “All these permits. Permits to turn on the water, permits to turn off the water, permits to open the door, permits to close the door. Why there’s even a permit to pick up coins off the floor if they should happen to fall!”
This is a work of imagination but not, unfortunately, of fantasy. The difference between Mandaat and the United States in the 1990s is of degree, not of kind. In Mandaat, an anonymous functionary justifies his regime’s policies on the grounds of “how stupid and selfish human beings can be when left free to act on their own.” In the United States, FDA chief David Kessler echoes, “If members of our society were empowered to make their own decisions … then the whole rationale for the [FDA] would cease to exist,” in defending his regulatory turf. The leaders of both countries are all too eager to enact laws which, while counterproductive, make them and their subjects feel better. As Mandaat’s chief apologist so bluntly puts it: “The passage of laws has almost nothing to do with making things better. The real purpose of legislation is reassurance.”
In Mandaat, reassuring legislation has been passed to the point of driving virtually all activity underground. Princess Navina discovers this to be the case quite literally, as she comes into contact with Mandaat’s resistance movement. Called “nibblelaries,” they seek to subvert Mandaat’s regulatory strait-jacket not through a futile frontal assault, but by “nibbling” at the laws until they become unenforceable.
Payne’s allegorical treatment of the perils of over-regulation and the mindset behind it can be read in about a half hour. That admirable brevity, along with Diana Schupell Reid’s charming illustrations, makes it suitable for children. Those lucky enough to read it or have it read to them will be instructed as well as amused.