Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Who's Your Daddy?

I recently had a conversation with some friends in which I found myself in the minority. All of those present considered themselves quite patriotic individuals, but it turns out that we had very different ideas regarding the appropriate role of government.

One friend lamented that in his opinion, there has never been such a high level of distrust of the government as there is among the public at present. I replied that this is only partially true or at least only partially reflects the current state of affairs. I agreed that among the public there is a significant degree of governmental distrust, but at the same time, I contended, the public is clamoring for even more government intervention.

Why this paradox? It is due to the current paternalistic nature of government. We chafe against government meddling in our lives. Government does a patently awful job of managing almost everything in which it is involved due to bureaucratic inefficiencies. Yet as the role of government has expanded we have increasingly come to see it as the only available vehicle for gaining our desires.

Until recently, most of my children have been completely dependent upon my wife and me for all of their support. When they earned money, it was ostensibly by completing family chores. I am glad to pay my teenagers to mow the lawn because I would otherwise have to do it myself, and the process hopefully helps them develop an understanding of the production-pay relationship that governs our world.

While my children learned some responsibility, they still had only a single benefactor. As is the nature of children beginning to come of age, my children grate against the reasonable constraints established by my wife and me. And believe me; we do want this to happen. Otherwise, our children never learn to grow up and separate themselves from us. But despite their occasional dissatisfaction, they constantly appeal to us as parents to fulfill their desires.

As government grows, its tentacles invade more portions of our lives through endless regulation. Regulation is a way of coercing people to behave in ways that moral people (like ourselves, of course) should behave. This necessarily creates a paternalistic relationship between the government and the citizen. The bureaucratic organization seeks self sustenance and growth above all else. Although the Founders intended government to be the servant of the citizens, it continually works to become the master with citizens as subordinate entities. That’s simply the nature of the beast.

The more paternalistic government becomes, the more the individual — capable of functioning more independently — increasingly finds dissatisfaction with the relationship. But as the government increases its role as benefactor, the individual increasingly sees government as a major outlet for fulfilling desires. Thus, individuals grate against governmental constraints, while simultaneously appealing to government for more services.

Last year, my two oldest children began delivering newspapers (by my wife’s design). I wasn’t happy about this. I was a news carrier for over half a decade in my youth, but at that time it was afternoon delivery except for Sunday mornings. The schedule functioned reasonably well. Now our local paper is delivered early every morning, and it is frankly a huge pain in the tail for the whole family.

My children’s earnings from this venture don’t really amount to much when considered in light of the total cost of their support, but they suddenly have a revenue stream separate from their parents for creating disposable income. Suddenly, all kinds of possibilities have begun to come to view for my children. Instead of appealing to me for a new gaming or personal media device, my children have simply bought their own. They now talk in terms of what they will do with their future earnings instead of talking about plans they are impotent to carry out.

The change has been particularly interesting to watch through the eyes of my 10-year-old, who took over his oldest brother’s route when that brother went away to work at Scout camp for the summer. His newfound sense of self direction and personal capacity has bled over into every portion of his life.

Oh, my children still grate against parental authority with regularity. But they also see that they will eventually be able to seek other kinds of jobs. This is a good thing. What starts out as a desire to personally fund what I view as superfluous junk can eventually grow through successive jobs to become complete self sufficiency. This will help me do my job as a parent to transition from the role of sole provider to a more independent role. Just as I long ago quit thinking about dissatisfaction with my parents, my children will eventually lose their need to chafe against my authority as they become increasingly independent.

Likewise, if government’s paternalistic role diminishes, so will both dissatisfaction with government and desire for more government services, as citizens become more independent. Alas, this seems to be a pipe dream. Our major political parties now bicker about how or how rapidly government will provide more services, rather than debating how to increase liberty. And citizens who are increasingly wards of the state in one way or another will continue to clamor for these services, even as they gripe about the government.


Anonymous said...

I like the example of your children. I posted my thoughts on this subject as well but I guess trackbacks don't work here.

Charles D said...

Paternalistic nature of government? Are you kidding? The Republicans and their fellow travelers in the Democratic Party have intentionally undermined government programs, filled key management positions with unqualified political hacks, then have the audacity to say that government is inefficient! What hypocrisy!

The metaphor here is a family in which the parents intentionally shirk their responsibilities to their children and when the kids turn out bad, say "See, parents are no good at bringing up kids."

Scott Hinrichs said...

This is why we need smaller government. The filling of positions with "unqualified political hacks" has been going on since the Washington administration. That's not going to change. Government is simply not the best vehicle for accomplishing many of the tasks we have come to ask of it.

Anonymous said...


Just because it is a dysfunctional family does not mean that government is not paternalistic.

Charles D said...

If you've ever working in a large US corporation, you know that the best people hardly ever wind up in the top jobs even in the vaunted private sector.

That said, I disagree with your premise. Certainly Democratic administrations have appointed their friends and acquaintances but almost without exception they have been reasonably qualified for the job and have, at the very least, believed in the mission of the agency they were hired to lead.

Republicans have made it a standard practice to appoint people to head government agencies who do not believe in the mission of those agencies, and/or who have no qualifications whatever for the job. The "everyone does it" argument is simply not factual.

Scott Hinrichs said...

DL, your 'Dems do it right, while Repubs do it wrong' is ridiculous and laughable. There are at least as many examples of incompetent cronies on the Democrat side as there are on the Republican side.

I've been listening for years to the argument that big government and socialist policies are sound if the right people are in charge (which would just happen to be people that agree with whomever is making the argument). The problem is that *nobody* has the capacity to make these grand systems function properly. This is why I am a fan of small government.