A Thin Line We Must Walk
Some recent discussions have reinforced my natural disdain for many features of what is derisively called “The Nanny State”. The underlying philosophy of the nanny state, and of the modern liberals that run it, is that the people must be protected from themselves. Instead of viewing individuals as potentially responsible citizens, they seek to deprive them of their dignity as free and moral beings by imposing restrictions on personal behavior.
But there is such a thing as reasonable regulation for the common good. Catholic social teaching has never been libertarian at its core. It has condemned economic liberalism, the doctrine of the “invisible hand” – that the private pursuit of self-interest on the part of each leads necessarily to benefits and prosperity for all. Unlike the atheist Objectivists, we do not believe that selfishness and consumerism are virtues.
We are therefore, as Catholics and citizens, called upon to find a balance between respect for individual liberty and the common good. I am deeply dissatisfied with both lassiez-faire approaches to social problems (including and especially economic problems) and statist paternalism, because in a way they are two different versions of a bad parent.
One is the kind of parent that lets their child run wild; when he gets into trouble, they give him a pat on the head and say, “oh, boys will be boys” or something similar. At the very least they fail to instill discipline in their child from an early age and end up having to punish the same mistakes over and over again.
The other is the kind of parent that is overbearing and overprotective, that approaches life in a fearful and paranoid manner. Everything is a danger, everything is a threat. They would put a leash on their child if it were socially acceptable. They fail to allow children to learn valuable lessons through experience, through hardship and failure. As a result their character is stunted, and instead of gaining the ability to make sound moral decisions, they only know how to mechanically obey laws. This is a travesty of human dignity and purpose. And it shares in common with the lassiez-faire attitude a focus on symptoms instead of root causes.
I think the best kind of parent sets firm boundaries for their children, but respects them as individual human beings as well. And the best kind of state does the same for its citizens. A good and free society must be based upon trust, between the state, the community, and the individual citizen. We must not be afraid to demand regulation and intervention where it is clearly necessary and where it clearly serves the common good. For instance, I believe the deregulation of the financial sector and the proliferation of independent lenders, who turned en masse to predatory lending practices, played the key role in the sub-prime crisis. Both Alan Greenspan, who admitted his deregulatory philosophy was mistaken, and Ben Bernanke, declared that this was a serious problem in their testimonies to Congress.
But when it comes to personal matters, such as health, education, gun ownership, and other areas of life, it is simply intolerable for the state to attempt to create a perfectly ‘safe’ or ‘hate free’ society. There is a big difference between financial institutions responsible for billions of dollars of society’s money and individual persons, families and communities. If I cannot be trusted with the food I eat, the education I wish to give my children, possession of a firearm, or any number of related things, why ought I to be trusted to vote at all? Why are we bothering with the charade of democratic self-government when it is clear that some people cannot sleep at night unless there is a cop and a video camera on every corner?
The proponents of the nanny state don’t trust you or I to live our lives responsibly. They believe that the relative handful of people who abuse their freedom, often under conditions of social breakdown and decay which are never adequately addressed, are a sufficient justification for taking that freedom away from everyone else. More fanatical and single-minded than a suicide-bomber, their shrill and hysterical calls to “save the children” or some other cause du jour fill me with nothing but contempt. Whatever this type of person wishes to take away from me, I am almost positive that it is something I ought to have.
Some people may have a problem with the distinctions I wish to make. I envision libertarians arguing that big businesses ought to have the same theoretical degree of freedom as individuals, and paternalistic liberals calling for consistency in the other direction – why not regulate people as well as businesses? My answer is that the balance between these two positions is found in Catholic social teaching, and Christian thought in general. The integrity and stability of society is a primary concern for the Church, hence the severe, categorical condemnations issued by several Popes of economic liberalism and consumerism. There is simply no Catholic ground for rejecting economic regulation, or even the redistribution of wealth. Individual liberty may not come at the price of social disintegration and everyone has an obligation to contribute to the common good.
But the dignity of the individual is also of primary concern to the Church. How we live within the context of our families and communities IS properly left for individuals, working together, without an overbearing, hysterical nanny keeping constant watch over us, to decide on their own. This is why the Church not only rejects the nanny state, but also the rigid capitalist model where the economy consists only of workers and bosses, owners with absolute authority. Instead she has proposed greater worker involvement in businesses, greater autonomy and freedom for those involved in production and services to arrange their own affairs. Both the bureaucrat and the boss at work often commit offenses against the dignity of the individual person, reducing them, as JP II once said, to an object of administration or a cog in an economic machine.
In the end our goal ought to be to produce morally capable individuals who, of their own accord, work together for the common good. This means both establishing firm boundaries while respecting autonomy within those boundaries. It means a constant vigilance to ensure that we never go too far in either direction, granting too much license or restricting autonomy too greatly. The social doctrine of the Church provides us with the insights and guidance needed to do this effectively.