Matthew Stokes: On freedom and our growing government

Matthew Stokes: On freedom and our growing government

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News columnist

Celebrations of America’s independence usually invoke the word freedom early and often.  Of course that is for good reason, as the Declaration of Independence lays out both natural freedoms derived from God, as well as a specific list of freedoms that were violated by King George III.  More than any other concept, freedom is the idea that has permeated American culture and politics since our nation’s inception. Americans – first the colonists and then subsequent waves of immigrants – distinguished themselves from their European forebears on the grounds that America provided all manner of freedom – political, religious, economic, cultural – that did not exist in Europe.  Though America was marked from the beginning by slavery and later by Jim Crow, those two phenomenons were ended in large measure by calling upon the idea of freedom as laid out in the American founding. More recent advances in civil rights have followed the same trajectory.

In our time, we tend to toy around with the idea of freedom.  Social media users are familiar with the “I thought this was America!” meme every time someone – usually a Floridian – is arrested for a bizarre and eccentric crime.  In more serious moments we recognize that despite a litany of public policy challenges, Americans still possess an extraordinary amount of freedom, more than practically any other large scale society in the history of the world.  In one sense, it is not something we take for granted. In another, there are increasing blindspots in our approach to understanding and cherishing our freedom.

The deeper fear is not so much that one’s rights as a parent are infringed upon when it comes to health care or education. That is all tricky enough, and as a parent, I don’t want the government making those decisions for me or my family.  But this isn’t just a matter of rights. The more the government steps in and does something for you, the less likely you are to do it for yourself. Every parent knows if you make your child’s lunch every day all summer, then your nine year old never learns to make her own turkey sandwich. If a government official is standing over the shoulder of a parent, over time that parent will lose the ability to act as a confident and independent parent. And while I recognize that the old structures of extended family and community can be overbearing in their own way, there is a world of difference between in-laws and great aunts on one hand, and a government bureaucrat on the other.

There has been a lot of really great journalism about the plight of pregnant mothers in Alabama.  Within that work there has been the constant call that the state must do more for these women and their children.  The most common solution offered is an expansion of Medicaid, though it should be noted that the majority of the vulnerable women in question are already eligible for Medicaid.  Even so, there are compelling reasons to think that the more vulnerable among us stand in need of financial and medical assistance to provide some degree of stability within their lives and those of their children.  We should not so quickly dismiss these concerns.

The long-term goal of any aid policy should be to help people reach a stage of independency. In fact, any program should have a path to help participants reach a point of independence.  So much of this conversation has been off-putting not because it proposes helping the underserved, but because it speaks of those in need as though they are part of an underclass that is incapable of helping itself. 

It may be true that some number of our fellow citizens stand in need of aid right now, and we should address those needs, but if we are to remain a free people, we must see to it that poverty becomes a temporary way station, not a permanent status of life. Left unchecked, the desire to aid those in need can create a permanently dependent class of people who suffer from what President George W Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectations. If there exists a class for whom government existence is a necessary fact of life, it seems likely that two things will happen.

First, we should be concerned that government assistance will, over the long run, crowd out civil society. Caring for others is hard and expensive work. Anyone who has done this sort of work for a church or charity knows it takes a tremendous toll on all involved, and besides, there are only so many hours in the day. While we may prefer the work of a local charity to that of a government office, we have a tendency to let those officials take the reins when the opportunity presents itself. Not to mention, government programs must be funded, and higher taxes tend to correlate with lower levels of private charity. 

Second, there is a real risk that the class of dependents will grow. While many of our programs are limited to those in severe need, skeptics rightly fear that the levelling tendencies of democracy will force new programs and regulations upon those who were not the original targets of their aid.  So while a pre-K program may work wonders for those without the resources to afford private pre-school, skeptics worry that the expansive hand of government might crowd out private, voluntary arrangements for early childhood education. 

There are real problems in Alabama. They exist in the Black Belt, in Appalachia, and in our urban cores. There are women and families who need urgent assistance in pregnancy and in caring for their children. Republican leaders have been wise to reimagine ways in which the government can assist without creating a perpetual welfare state. The state’s media intelligentsia and progressive leaders are fishing a shallow pond when they find hypocrisy in every refusal to expand government services.  And while we often dare defend our rights in awkward and inopportune ways, the objections to expanded government programs are well-founded. 

The state is not just limited in its capabilities; it is limited, as we all are, in its ability to see how a particular program will work over the long run.  It’s often lost in policy discussion, but part of the reason conservatives have often opposed government intervention is not cruelty or malice towards the less fortunate.  Instead, they oppose heavy programs out of a grounded concern that when government serves as a caretaker to the people, the people lose the ability to care for themselves.