If a memoir of the United States government could ever be compiled, a significant portion would have to be dedicated to good intentions causing disproportionate unintended harm. The state’s growth has been significantly fueled by the government attempting to address real social issues while lacking the proper authority and the capacity to solve them. We can call this phenomenon the bureaucratic delusion. There are very few forces known to man more destructive than gray-suited bureaucrats believing that they must do something and that they are properly equipped to do so.
This bureaucratic delusion has turned the American constitutional republic into a leviathan that reaches into almost every aspect of private life.
There are staggering and easily observable costs to these government failures. Education quality is continuing to decline despite spending more per student than any other developed nation. Our bureaucracy has spent over $25 trillion on the war on poverty but the poverty rate has remained consistent for the past 50 years. The quality of healthcare has certainly not improved at the rate costs have risen and the innovations within healthcare most likely occur in spite of government meddling.
However, another, not so easily observable cost to the bureaucratic delusion exists. There is a social cost that can have far longer-lasting and more impactful consequences for a free society.
One of the first lessons you learn in economics 101 is that incentives matter. When the government interferes in areas of society improper of its authority and absorbs responsibility rightly belonging to another sphere, it incentivizes a potential change in behavior that can have lasting effects. The more the state intervenes in social affairs the more the citizenry is incentivized to abdicate personal responsibility or what is traditionally referred to as a civic duty.
Recently, Senator Josh Hawley wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post advocating for legislation that would set an age requirement of 16 to access social media. He argues that social media is causing loneliness and depression in teens who are in a very formative time of their lives and therefore the state needs to take action. Senator Hawley assures us that such a law is not meant to replace parents but to support them. Most parents, according to the Senator, don’t want their kids on social media anyways.
All of the above may be true. Depression in teens, especially teen girls, has been on the rise since 2010 and the rise appears to have accelerated since the pandemic. However, a law such as what Senator Hawley is proposing would violate the sovereignty of parents and guardians. This legislation would further the governmentalization of social affairs. In this case, it would be in regard to one of the most important jobs a person can have, being a parent.
These are real problems that need to be addressed. But this is a problem the government is not suited to address.
More importantly, it is a sphere of society that is so important and demands that the sovereignty for parents to be respected so they can freely choose what is best for their individual children.
Senator Josh Hawley is likely very well-intentioned. He sees a real problem in society and feels some sense of duty from his position of power to do something about it. However, it is necessary to look beyond the near-term problem of the day, as serious as it may be, and consider the long-term, moral implications of well-intentioned policy. Does the policy truly assist spheres of society to fulfill their responsibilities or does it incentivize the abdication of duty and the erosion of virtue?
This is a very critical question that must be asked. A free society requires a virtuous citizenry.
There may be no clearer evidence of well-intentioned governmentalization of social affairs causing disastrous consequences than education policy in the United States. We all agree it is important to provide a good education for all children. This sentiment has permitted us over the years to allow the state to absorb more and more responsibility for educating children. Parents and guardians were lulled to sleep by the delusion of believing in a well-intentioned government and abdicated far too much of the responsibility of educating their children to the bureaucracy.
The costs have been staggering and those of us who are parents are now just waking up. The quality of education has eroded even as taxpayers spend more on education every year. Far worse than the erosion of the quality of education, children are being indoctrinated in values antithetical to the values of their parents. Parents, who are now more aware of the failure of state education than ever before, are finding out how difficult it is to reclaim sovereignty once it has been surrendered to the leviathan.
Well-intended politicians and concerned citizens should heed the lessons learned from the failure of public education in America when considering a policy to address other social concerns. Does the policy assist other orders of society in fulfilling their responsibilities or does it violate the sovereignty and absorb authority not suited for the bureaucracy?
For those of us who recognize a role for the government in society, albeit a limited one, the above should be a key guiding principle when considering legislation. Does the proposed policy assist individuals in fulfilling their responsibilities or does it subvert it?
Considering education again, support for school choice policies is growing, and this presents an opportunity to shift government policy from a place of subversion to assistance. Placing the power back in the hands of parents to decide where and how their individual children can best be educated. An education policy that looks like this assists parents by providing more choices while encouraging them to fulfill their responsibility as the party primarily tasked with educating their offspring and preparing them for adulthood.
For a free society to persist and flourish it requires a virtuous populace. The government cannot instill virtue but it can incentivize the abdication of the responsibilities from which virtue emerges. If we truly want a free society for future generations we citizens must guard our rightful sovereignty jealously from politicians who suffer from bureaucratic delusion.