In this space last week, I warned my readers that I’d embarked on an eccentric little journey. Inspired, somewhat, by the Tea Party phenomenon in the States, I want to write some columns in a positive spirit, on what needs doing and how to go about it. The political task I have in mind can be described in a single short phrase: “The dismantlement of the Nanny State.” But since that sounds negative, let me add, “The restoration of the state to its normal function, as the chaste guarantor of peace and good order.”
Journalists usually confine themselves to exposing and attacking, so I am consciously going out on a limb, here.
We seldom propose alternatives. Yet in doing so I am not implicitly condemning my trade, for those negative tasks are crucial to an open society. I only condemn journalists who make themselves blind to one kind of evil, in order to attack the opposite exclusively. And I can condemn myself for doing that, sometimes.
Also, for ambiguity. From want of space, I neglected last week to qualify what I mean by “state.” I am using the term only for the large polities, far removed from our everyday lives, until they intervene in them. In the Canadian context, I mean the federal and provincial governments, and in practice the larger municipalities, whose bureaucracies are distant and inaccessible to the citizen who does not devote his whole life to politics.
I exclude small municipal governments, whether urban or rural, operating on a scale where people can know each other, and can see the results of their efforts.
I may appear to be a “libertarian” in my view of the gargantuan nanny state; but at the smallest level, I might actually be a proponent of “big government.”
For it is at the level of neighbourhood and district that the will of people can be collectively expressed, and personal responsibility engaged. If they want to build cooperative school or hospital or secular charity, fine. If they want to ban franchise chain stores, let them. The state should intervene only at the point when the laws of the land are being flouted; but those laws should not restrict municipal enterprise any more than is necessary to vindicate the individual’s freedom from the tyranny of his neighbours.
And I mean real tyranny, not the abstract kind that hallucinates “human rights” to every sort of public service.
The citizen of a free country has the responsibility to provide for himself and his own, and privileges are always founded in duties. Freedom is not a free ride; it is difficult, and I’m proposing to impose not less but more onerous requirements on the citizen than simply paying his taxes and staying out of jail.
Here, too, I must make clear that my apparent “libertarianism” rests on moral, not economic, faith. My principal criticism of the nanny state is not that it is economically inefficient, but that it reduces the citizen from an adult to a child, trivializing every moral verity.
A correspondent in Virginia, responding to last week’s column, put this point so well, that I will quote and not paraphrase: “Patients are no longer responsible for their own good health; doctors and the ‘health care system’ are. Students are no longer responsible for their own learning: teachers and the schools are. And citizens, by extension, are no longer responsible for their own civic well being; someone else is.”
The most urgent political task, now and into the indefinite future, is to articulate such home truths, in direct defiance of the “progressive” Zeitgeist.
That, more than anything else, is what Reagan and Thatcher accomplished in their day: setting their faces against the statist breeze. Lord knows, they accomplished little at the practical level. But for a glimmering moment, they helped us remember that a nation is her people and not her government.
They knew that bureaucracy is an evil; but accepted it as a necessary evil, susceptible to reform and occasional “downsizing.” We need to take one step farther, and grasp that it is an unnecessary evil—that any human activity which requires a cumbersome bureaucracy is itself morally dubious; that anything which reduces the human being to a “unit” for bureaucratic purposes is in its nature inhuman.
Moreover, to invoke Wilberforce here, the evil is suffered not only by the slave. It is also suffered by the master. The power that bureaucracy confers on the individual bureaucrat—the control it gives him over other people’s lives—is morally even more destructive of him than of the subjects of his ministrations. Of course, there are good, well-meaning people working in the bureaucracies; but there were also good, well-meaning slaveholders.
I emphasize the problem of articulation, over time, because the work of dismantling “nanny” is, of necessity, the work of more than one generation. It took more than a century to get from Bismarck’s innovations in 19th-century Prussia to the bankrupt “welfare state” of today; and I cannot imagine it will take less time to undo this tragic error.