In the morning after the kids are off to school, my wife and I both like to settle down in our respective favorite spots and catch up on the news. She sits at the kitchen table with the Washington Post and the county newspapers laid out, while I'm on the computer scanning the latest technology, politics and sports news, and checking my Facebook and Twitter profiles. Every now and again, one of us will share a topic from our reading rituals with the other and, as you can imagine from our reading choices, the discussions can get interesting.
The Post featured an editorial written by two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in which they decried the nation's obesity epidemic and its impact on military readiness. They demanded federal action to deal with the problem and zeroed in on school lunch programs, which constitute up to 40% of a child's daily nutrient intake. They asked Congress to pass a "robust child nutrition bill" to get junk food and high-calorie beverages out of the schools, update and strengthen nutrition standards, provide funds for schools to offer more nutritious meals, and develop programs to encourage children and parents to adopt lifelong exercise and healthy eating habits.
My French/Swiss wife, the avid Washington Post reader, is also a school teacher. I might also add that she's on a fitness crusade in which she's disappearing before my eyes; her discipline in dieting and exercising has her weighing 55 pounds less than she did in October, and she says she's not done yet. As proud as I am of her, she's trying to shame the rest of us into working out and eating better, so her success is becoming a burden to everyone in the household who's not gotten their act together like she has (grin)! Finally, one of our daughters is excessively overweight and a borderline diabetic, so this isn't a abstract problem for us.
I tell you these things about her so you can place her response in the proper context. In a nutshell, she's all for federal intervention to make our children eat more healthy foods at school. It's all about the outcome; if people don't take the initiative to do the right thing themselves, then they should be forced to do it.
My reaction, being the right-wing zealot I am, was a bit different. What business is it of the feds that they have to get involved? We can and should use persuasion and incentives in our families if we care about our children and their health. Local school boards have the authority to make decisions on what menus to offer or what is allowed in vending machines on school property, but if they choose not to act, whatever the reason, that is their right and Washington should butt out.
And now you know how fights get started in my house!
Later that morning, I read an article on the Web critical of the recent public health crusade against food that is bad for us. Legislatures and city councils around the country are attempting to ban fast food restaurants in commercial zones, or ban the use of salt in food preparation at restaurants, or even ban the inclusion of a toy in children's meals if their calorie count is too high. The nanny state is on the warpath, and the authors asked:
"...do we really want Big Brother slapping our friends and neighbors back into line for acting on impulses that, while maybe not healthy, are human and simply make our workaday lives a little more pleasant?"
It seems that in our rush to solve all the world's problems and eradicate anything that might bring us harm, we've forgotten about liberty. You remember liberty - the main reason we separated from England and fought a war to establish a new nation? The unalienable right that comes after "life" and before "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence?
The sequence of those unalienable rights wasn't an accident, by the way. Without life, there is no liberty and, without liberty, we cannot pursue happiness to the fullest extent of our being.
When we lived in Germany, I marveled at how willing the Germans seemed to be to give up their individuality and freedom in the name of order and security. Not only is the desire for order over liberty part of the German ethos, it's also the result of being ravaged by two world wars and begging for survival at any cost.
It's been a slow erosion in this nation, but that same desire for security over liberty is gradually overtaking us. We are looking to the government to smooth off the rough edges of life, protect us from as many harmful things as possible, and make us comfortable.
People scoff at our concerns about the loss of liberty, saying we're exaggerating the threat when we warn our current path leads to tyranny and oppression. Besides, they sniff, all that liberty stuff was well and good when we were fewer in number and not spread out from coast to coast. It doesn't work nearly as well given our nation's current size and scope. Only big government, they proclaim, can govern a big country.
Except that's not true.
We weren't designed to be governed from Washington, DC, no matter how big we became as a nation. We were designed to be self-governing, and the principle of governing at the lowest level possible doesn't change with size or scope, because the first level of governance is always the same - ourselves and our families.
In fact, in terms of reach and influence, the architects of our constitutional republic lived in a nation where the people were much more inaccessible than we are today, even though we are larger. If anything, modern travel and technology has made our nation smaller than it was in colonial times. Even so, that is not relevant to the principle of self-governance. It doesn't matter how large we become, because ultimately the first level of governance doesn't reside in Washington, but in our own homes.
The role of the federal government is to ensure our common rights are protected, public safety is assured, and our nation secured from external threats - that's it. In fact, government was designed so that it would be very difficult for a federal administration to enact large-scale, overreaching legislation that would expand its influence at the expense of individual liberty. The purpose of checks and balances, the Bill of Rights, and the 10th Amendment, is to restrain government and defend liberty.
That is why the recent passage of health care legislation was so frightening. We were lectured about putting too much emphasis on process over the substance of the bill, but the process is critical to the founders' intent to constrain government so it cannot wreak havoc on a large scale. In bypassing the constitutionally prescribed process for enacting legislation, the Obama Administration and the Congress ignored the intent of the designers to minimize government power and maximize individual liberty. In doing so, they set a dangerous precedent for future administrations to ignore the public will and force legislation on the American people "for their own good."
And that brings us back to the main issue I have with these well-meaning proposals to make us healthier, happier and safer. The only way they can create their utopia is to exert control over my actions and deny me my liberty. You see, they only care about liberty if it advances their view of what the world should be. The true test of devotion to liberty, however, is not when it suits your beliefs or your vision of the world, but rather when you object to liberty's outcome, whether it's the Rev. Fred Phelps and his cult's vile protests at the funerals of fallen service members, or fat people waddling out of McDonald's with their supersize Double Quarter Pounder meals.
If you're a so-called "progressive," liberty was paramount when George W. Bush was President. You railed against the Patriot Act, the War on Terror and all actions you perceived as being anathema to liberty. You took to the streets in loud and often violent protest, and when you were criticized for your destruction of public property and assaults on law enforcement officers brought in to restore order, you cried, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."
Fast forward to 2009, and an unexpected mass protest movement of everyday Americans rises up against runaway federal spending, the massive expansion of government, and the diminution of individual liberty and free enterprise. All of a sudden, dissent is "un-American" and its practitioners are Nazis, racists or worse. Never mind that this mass protest movement leaves the cities and towns in which they gather clean and unscarred by violence, and treats law enforcement officers with the utmost respect. Nope, they're a threat to the republic and must be marginalized, criticized and demonized at every turn.
Er, what happened to liberty in this instance? Just because you object to their message doesn't mean they can't express it.
When Jesus Christ told the congregation gathered on the hillside in Galilee, "But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!," a lot of people didn't get His meaning, and many today still don't get it - unless you keep reading. In Matthew 5:46-48, he says:
"If you love only those who love you, what good is that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect."
So what does that have to do with liberty? Jesus was raising the bar for his followers, telling them they had to extend love to even the unlovable and unlovely - otherwise, they were no better than anyone else.
In the same manner, the founders established a lofty standard for liberty, and created a system of government that would allow it to flourish. Liberty has to be universal, or it isn't liberty - it's tyranny of the majority, or tyranny of the powerful.
In his signature work On Liberty, British philosopher and public servant John Stuart Mill didn't believe the state should intervene in an individual's life even for their "own good:"
"His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns him, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
I'm not surprised these generals want to pass some edict to make the world into what they think it should be. They're military men - they're accustomed to giving orders and having them followed without question. To them, every problem looks like a nail, and every solution is a hammer.
Similarly, "progressives" strain to find linkages between someone's ill-advised life choices and "the common good" so they have an excuse to meddle. My wife's favorite excuse is that our taxes end up paying for the shortfalls of others. My retort would be that if government wasn't sticking its nose in areas for which it isn't designed or designated, we wouldn't have to pay for their mistakes. They would not only have the freedom to make their own decisions, but the responsibility to live with the consequences of those decisions.
The individual's sovereignty over his or her own person is as characteristic of America as the Stars and Stripes, and if we don't defend individual liberty for people with whom we disagree, no one will stand for us when we're the ones under siege.
There's one other aspect to this issue that bothers me. The nanny state is attempting to achieve equality of outcome rather than equality of choice. That isn't how the world works, however, and it's not how we grow as individuals or a nation. If we are not left alone to make our own decisions, and to fall flat on our faces when we make the wrong ones, we cannot become mature human beings.
Responsibility and accountability make us adults, and when we absolve people of them, either by denying them the opportunity to choose wrongly, or bailing them out when they do, we place them in a permanent state of arrested development. In other words, we end up a nation of children - whining, entitled, selfish children, squealing how unfair life has been to them and how someone else has to fix it.
We have an obligation to put liberty first, even if it means people won't always make the best decisions for themselves. Benjamin Franklin famously said, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." When we allow the practical to overrule the philosophical, we open a Pandora's Box that cannot be closed. The slippery slope argument is always ridiculed until we find ourselves at the bottom of the hill, with the avalanche descending on us.