Paternalism, Is it Here to Stay?
Tibor R. Machan
Or maternalism, if you wish, for what billions of people across the globe appear to want from government is being treated like children, taken care of by some elders. Yet this is an old story, indeed.
Throughout the ancient world, including in much of its political literature, the idea has been dominant that government is our care taker. All the kings had been credited with the role of “keepers of the realm,” as if they were the legitimate owners of the regions they ruled and had the virtue and wisdom—not to mention authority—to rule the rest of us.
It is only gradually, beginning with Magna Carte in the 13th century, that the myth of monarchical superiority came under serious and widespread enough criticism. At first it was only that perhaps some of the nobles in the country ought to curb the king’s absolute sovereignty; in time, especially with the emergence of the classical liberal social-political idea, the very notion of the special status of those in government started to be questioned.
With the American Founders, of course, the view that government held sovereignty over us all lost some credibility. We all are equal in having unalienable rights, to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and any other thing that doesn’t violate the rights of others. This truth took a while to surface but it finally got on the agenda within the forums of political disputation. And when Abraham Lincoln said that "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent," the point was beginning to catch on, especially in light of the Draconian paternalism of chattel slavery.
Yet, after its brief emergence, the idea of a free society began to get lost in the shuffle. The paternalists started to regain their appeal, what with all the promises they offered to save people from having to fend for themselves and only with the voluntary cooperation of their fellows. No, the temptation of taking shortcuts by way of coercion, which is the prime motivation of criminal conduct, was beginning, once again, to be yielded to and the old governmental habit reasserted itself.
By the time Americans encountered some serious difficulties in their country (due to compromises on their commitment to full liberty), via for example, the Great Depression, they started to cave in to the notion that some great savior is needed to take care of us. FDR came charging in, claiming to have the magic formula that none of the old monarchs could deliver on, namely, to provide us all with guarantees against life’s uncertainties and complications. Instead of keeping loyal to the spirit of the American Founder’s idea of individual rights, FDR invented the so called “Second Bill of Rights,” with all of its promises to guard us against adversities of any kind by way of wealth redistribution and the conscription of all for the benefit of all. It is from this attitude that millions of Americans began to look to government for protection against disease, ignorance, natural disaster and anything else they were worried about in their lives.
Which brings up, a year after it happened, the disaster that was hurricane Katrina. Nearly everyone knows by now that the disaster wouldn’t have been nearly so severe had those levies been properly cared for, just to mention one task the nanny state assumed for us. But instead of learning from this that government isn’t the answer but the problem, in ninety-nine percent of cases where it asserts its powers for our good, the cheerleaders of the paternalistic state continue to drum up support for getting it further involved in our lives.
What Katrina taught these champions of the all mighty government isn’t that the solving of our problems in virtually all cases—apart from abating of violent crimes and foreign aggressions, perhaps—should be decoupled from government. No, like the proverbial gambling addict, millions of Americans and their academic leaders want, instead, to go back to Uncle Sam for its useless "help." As if government really were the source of help for people. Never mind Hitler, never mind Mussolini, never mind Stalin, never mind Mao, and never mind all the lesser tyrants and dictators and pretenders to serving the public interest, these dreamers will not give up. So even while some around the globe are experimenting, sometimes only as a last resort, with privatization, others are clamoring for more statism.
It is time, really, to give up the myth of paternalism, of the nanny state, of the superiority of those who have a monopoly on the use of coercive force in society.