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Making better people

When I first started homeschooling, people would ask, “They let you do that?” I had to work to keep calm when answering, not because I was irritated at the questioner, but because of the too-common assumptions behind the question. “They” (the government) “let” (gives their consent to) “you” (Me: a private, free citizen) “do that?” (Choose the education model and content I feel is best for my child.)

Um, yes, they do “let me.” Primarily because they don’t have the power to stop me because of the hard won battles that many families fought before me. I’m thankful for those early homeschoolers, as well as those continuing to stand against those who want to outlaw homeschooling today. What’s more troubling than those who try to take that right from citizens (because statists gonna state, like scorpions gonna sting and snakes gonna bite), is those supposedly free citizens who act like chattel, who look to the government as a master that can tell them what do to and how.  The default position for many people is not “What right has the government to intrude in this area?” but “Do I have permission to do this? Do I need to fill out a form? Whom do I call? Do I need it notarized?”

The natural tendency of all governments is to grab power and assert authority over every area that they can. More troubling, we have a tendency to go along with them. First, we demand the government step in and fix whatever problem: “There ought to be a law!” And then we’re shocked to find that the government is interfering in every area of our lives. Three examples of attempts by the government (or more precisely, by people who hold government power) to make people “better”:

In Florida, a 90-year old man was threatened with arrest and prevented from feeding the homeless.

In Berkley, California, the voters passed a tax on sodas to try to reduce consumption of the drinks.

In Philadelphia, a judge rubber-stamped a decision to seize a thriving art studio through eminent domain and put up a grocery store.

In each of these scenarios, the government — or people who wield government power — are trying to make people and communities be what they believe people and communities should be.  They use the power of government — and that’s the ultimate definition of government: the monopoly on the legitimate use of force — to shape communities, to push people into the “right” lifestyle.

What right does the government have to outlaw charity or prevent someone from helping their fellow man? Yet in many areas, such charity has been outlawed. And where it hasn’t been banned outright, ridiculous regulation throws needless barriers in the path of those trying to help.

What business does a municipality have nudging people to choose one drink over another? Honestly, a lot of people probably don’t have a problem with a “sin tax” on soda. “Sodas are bad for your health, and unhealthy people cost us all money! Why shouldn’t we discourage harmful behaviors that cost society money?” Okay, where is that line? Certain hobbies are riskier than others, do we tax athletic equipment at a higher rate than chess boards? But a sedentary lifestyle also leads to health problems, so let’s put an extra tax on the chess board, too. The bigger question is what business does the government have in interfering in the legal behaviors of people?
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What right does a city have to take the private property from one citizen to give it to another? Oh yeah, the Supreme Court said that one was okay.

And that’s the issue. If we look at these individual situations, we get our dander up. “What right do they have?” And angry Facebook posts and tweets go out. But in general, when we see someone acting in a way we don’t like, or a situation we wish were different, we say, “There ought to be a law.” And the government is happy to comply. After all, the government is just composed of people who want to make things better (by their definition of better), who want to make people better (again: according to their belief of what a good person is.)  And if we say “There ought to be a law” to make my neighbor be who I think he ought to be, what right do I have to complain when demands the same for me? The problem is we all think we’re the “good people” the government ought to be using its force to make. We think our ideas of best should have the power of the state behind them. We only push back when we don’t agree with the definition of “better person or community” being pushed.

Honestly, it is this prevailing attitude that got me riled up when I heard President Obama say that women leaving the workforce to care for their children “is not a choice we want them to make.” It’s just another politician on the campaign trail saying that mindless “this is how the government can make it all better” crap they all say. Why get worked up? Because the government has no business making any value judgements about what choices and trade-offs families make when it comes to work and family balance. Because individuals will use government power to nudge — and when that doesn’t work, to force — us into making the “right choices.” And those who make the wrong choices will be punished.

In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis has one of the antagonists say, “Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest–which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taking charge of.” That pretty much encapsulates this form of governing: some people wielding the power of the state to make other people into the “right” type of people who live in the type of communities. They want to make people better, whether we agree with their definition of better or not.

Behold, the definitive statement on the attempts of government to make us better people:


One response to “Making better people”

  1. […] government “lets” me choose my child’s method of education. I find they question irritating, but that’s just cause I’m a ‘winger. For most people, it’s a legitimate […]

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