By Andrew Wilk
I am occasionally surprised by one aspect of our many debates on government policies. We so often argue over whether a particular governmental approach to a problem is correct, cost-effective, or respectful of the rights of all — but we rarely ask ourselves whether an issue is one that government should be involved in managing, regulating, prohibiting, or enabling. Indeed, it seems almost unthinkable to look at any problem or need in our lives anymore and not immediately ponder how government should respond. Has this reflex has become a harmful adaptation that actually diminishes our ability to live happy and productive lives?
Please allow me to say that I am not a small government absolutist. We need government to protect our broad national interests, provide a temporary safety net when trouble strikes, monitor professional certifications and licenses, root out private and public malfeasance, supervise and enforce public safety and health, collect data to be used in decision-making, maintain a working infrastructure, keep public records, and ensure that a system of high quality education is available to children for free and to adults at a cost that is affordable. This is not, of course, an all-inclusive list, but it is certainly the foundation of what government should provide in exchange for our tax dollars.
The devil is, as is typically the case, in the details; within these broad categories, one could make the argument (and many do) that everything on, in, and above the planet Earth is the proper purview of some level of government — which has put us where we are now.
Some rules are necessary and desirable, and few of us want to live in a world without out-of-bounds markers. We should obey — and most do — if what we are being asked to do is both reasonable and minimally intrusive.
However, when so much of our nation's time and energy needs to be devoted to satisfying the demands of overlapping bureaucracies that provide the minimum benefit at the maximum cost, I become just a tad peckish. For a society that so prides itself on the free exercise of our rights, we certainly spend an incredible amount of time asking permission for virtually everything.
Of course, much of this is exactly according to plan, and it is difficult to argue with those who have seemingly endless faith in the ability of government to make wise and fair decisions that will turn our nation into a heaven on earth — if only all the troglodytes who block "reforms" would just shut up. The notion that governments sometimes oppress their citizens — or simply waste their money — seems an alien concept to many advocates of more and more government intervention meant to enforce correct thinking and behavior. How is it, some future historian might wonder, that a nation founded on revolutionary ideals of individual liberty came to turn over control of large chunks of its citizens' daily lives to local, state, and federal officials who have created a self-sustaining system designed to convert us into passive cash machines that support yet more government operations?
Some of this is, obviously, the result of all sorts of well-meaning individuals working on separate tracks with no thought to the negative cumulative effect of so many governmental efforts to "improve" our world. Some of the problem is the simple fact that government programs, once begun, become impossible to kill. Some of it is fallacious logic: if some government is good, more must, of course, be even better. Some of it is simply the inability to understand that, just as all wars have unintended consequences, all government interventions in our lives skew our world in ways we do not immediately comprehend.
Many intensely idealistic individuals see government as the righter of all wrongs, and their desires to help are both heartfelt and laudable. However, just as the most well-meaning of parents can harm because of a zeal to help, government can be just as guilty of over-reaching — albeit on a scale that would boggle the minds of even the most overprotective parents.
Moreover, just as we are harmed if we live in our parents' basement until we are 40, so does the ingrained habit of turning to government to solve all our problems often create difficulties. When it comes to government as overly-involved parent, the problems are obvious: destructive incentives and disincentives, dysfunctional systems that continue to thrive as zombie wards of the state, and a political class of fixers who want nothing more than our mute compliance as they busily privilege the few — and themselves — at the expense of the many.
There is much good in America — and a great many good people within it. Perhaps it is time to re-create our current system of government in a manner that exerts the lightest touch, helps those who truly cannot help themselves, and encourages a new social compact of personal responsibility and the reward of merit instead of connections. This will require us to radically rethink our relationship to government, insist on a full reckoning of past misdeeds and mistakes, and dig down deep within ourselves for strengths that we have allowed to atrophy.
We can do it, but it will require us — just as growing up has since the beginning of time — to leave the comforting dreams of childhood behind.
We know that government that empowers citizens to make their own decisions and take control of their own lives can be an incredibly positive force. However, when government infantilizes us by insisting we sit down, shut up, and do as we are told, it cuts out the very heart of what makes our country and its citizens great and places us on an express train to national ruin. We must choose which path we want for ourselves and our children — and make that choice a reality — if we are to begin to solve the many problems facing our nation today.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.