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You can’t send two sons off to college, as my husband and I now have, and expect them to succeed if you haven’t taught them some sense of self-reliance. Indeed, that virtue has long been recognized as a foundational mark of the American character. It enabled our forefathers to establish a nation that still serves as a beacon of freedom to the world. No free republic can survive without it.
Which is why, like many conservatives, I’m alarmed by the attitude one finds among many Americans today. It’s on display particularly during a heated campaign season, like we’re in now – people across the country seem to have a sense of entitlement and demand that politicians “do something” to solve every problem. Gone is the sentiment behind President Kennedy’s famous exhortation: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That line may have drawn applause in 1961, but it’s alien to the thinking of Americans who look to government as some sort of glorified nanny.
Other parents, I’m sure, are grappling with this same problem as they try to provide their children with a measure of self-reliance. Like me, they may be wondering: Where does this warped view of the state come from? What is the origin of this dependence on government, so dangerous to the concept of individual freedom?
One scholar, Ryan Messmore of The Heritage Foundation, recently outlined an answer in a remarkably thoughtful paper: “Longing for Belonging and the Lure of the State.” He traces the nanny-state view back to man’s fundamental desire to belong – that inherent need to connect with a larger community and be a part of a bigger, more meaningful whole. The nanny-state rhetoric that we hear from so many self-styled “progressive” and liberal politicians taps into that basic need, Messmore says. They exploit it to build a case for ever-bigger government.
Years ago, our sense of community was greater – and far more localized. A citizen wasn’t all alone in this vast world of ours. He knew his neighbors, and his neighbors knew him. His church, his clubs and other civic groups brought him into frequent contact with others in the community. When a problem developed, neighbor turned to neighbor.
“With the growth of the modern state, however, things changed,” Messmore says. These days, this citizen likely lives on a block with near-total strangers – and he turns to the government for help. “Today, important roles in production, education, welfare and justice administration that were once exercised primarily by families, churches and other local institutions are now deemed functions of the state,” Messmore adds.
Big deal, some may say. As long as those needs are filled, what difference does it make by whom? But it does make a difference. According to Messmore:
- With fewer and less significant tasks to perform, the social role of local institutions such as families and religious congregations has become weaker. The result is a modern-day “crisis of community” among lonely Americans. Drawing on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the past quarter-century, professor Robert Putnam argues that people have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends and neighbors, impoverishing their lives and communities.
And it’s not just a matter of loneliness. Messmore continues:
- Personal bonds and fellowship fostered within participatory groups provide more than just warm feelings; they foster trust and social connections that have been linked with improved child welfare, higher educational performance, lower crime rate, and better physical and mental health. Moreover, the existence of a diversity of authoritative local institutions is an indispensable safeguard against government tyranny.
Which is why we should regard much of today’s political rhetoric with suspicion. It sounds nice when Sen. Hillary Clinton says, “We’re all in this together,” but a dangerous notion lurks behind that chummy phrase. Likewise, when Sen. Barack Obama says his “starting point as president is to restore that sense that we are in this together,” we should think twice before nodding at this seemingly banal statement.
Yes, we are “all in this together,” but we need to teach our children to put that thought in its proper context. The connection that matters is not what exists between each American and some man or woman sitting in a distant state house or an office in Washington. It’s the connection between us and our neighbors. That’s where true belonging – and, not coincidentally, genuine, American-style liberty – can be found.
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