Perhaps next time Esther is having trouble putting Timothy to bed or getting Matthew to finish up his dinner, we’ll let the government sort the problem out for us. Thankfully, it hasn’t come to that yet, and it is still unusual for government to be called upon to sort out the minutiae of toddler problems. Yet still, the sandbox incident should give us pause for reflection. It illustrates the ever increasing tendency for people to view government as occupying an arena that was once the domain of individual responsibility. It was the responsibility of the parents, not the government, to sort out the problem in the sandbox.
This event serves to illustrate the way centralized power is progressively swallowing up local responsibility, how government is gradually taking away our freedom and ability to be responsible for ourselves.
Of course, there are some areas where government does have legitimate responsibility over us. We read in Romans 13:4 that God has established government to execute wrath on those who practice evil. Civil rulers do have responsibility - albeit a limited one – towards the citizens they rule over. Yet by its very nature, government cannot be responsible for every aspect of our lives. There are many areas where people must learn to behave responsibly without laws forcing them to do so.
Once I complained to my neighbour at how loud his music was. “Oh Robin,” he said, “you’re perfectly welcome to get the counsel out here and I’m sure they’ll be satisfied that the sound is well within the legal limit.” This man, like many people in Britain and America today, simply do not know how to behave responsibly apart from the law. What is being lost is the middle ground between government control and social chaos, where public virtue and responsibility keep things in balance. As this middle area becomes eroded, as people cease having a concept of individual responsibility and public virtue, a great vacuum is created which excessive law and excessive licentiousness then compete to occupy. So you get what seems to be a paradox: a society where there is more and more control at the same time as being more and more freedoms. Our government gives people the freedom to register as a different sex but not the freedom to sell bendy cucumbers in the supermarket.
John Fletcher Moulton pointed out that the greatness of a nation can be seen to the extent that there is “obedience to the unenforceable…the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and…the way they behave in response to that trust.” It is this “obedience to the unenforceable” that is being slowly lost in the Western nations of today. Many citizens do not even have a concept of responsibility outside the law. This was confirmed in a conversation I had with Victoria Gillick about some of the pregnancy counselling she does. Often Victoria will talk to women who are considering getting an abortion, and she will ask, “If abortion was illegal, would you still consider having one (i.e., secret back-street abortion)?” The answer she always gets is no, because unconsciously the girls assume that if something is legal it must be okay and if it is illegal it must not be okay.
As individualism and ethical subjectivism continue to plunder any sense of responsibility to the unenforceable, we should expect to see government compensating for the result by making more and more laws to cover an increasing range of scenarios. What happens then is that people begin to see government rather than local responsibility as the engine to bring cohesion and order to society. So if there is a problem, it’s the government’s job to fix it. That is why not long ago there was a debate in parliament on whether the government should take measures to prevent obesity in children. There is legislation from Europe to limit the amount of noise in the workplace – something that could affect the dynamics permitted in concert symphonies. In 2004, the EU passed legislation preventing people from working at too high of altitudes. The legislation was protested by professional mountain rescue teams in Scotland who were worried about the effect it might have in their rescue work. The law, which was designed for the protection of people working on high building sites, requires signs to be posted telling people they are up very high. The Tory, Jonathan Evans, said: "If this legislation is implemented as it currently stands then activity centres will be legally compelled to post signs to tell people they are up high. This is madness - most people know that when they climb a mountain they will be up high."
It is not just the European Union that is seeking to micromanage our lives. As early as the 16th century, the 2nd Earl of Pinbrook said “Parliament can do anything but make a man a woman and make a woman a man.” He didn’t live long enough to see the ‘Gender Recognition Act’, which declares that if a woman acts like a man for the two years, she can have her birth certificate amended to say that she was born as a man (and visa versa).
Of course, we could go on and on. When faced with such inane legislation, what people often don’t realize is that it is irrelevant whether we happen to agree or disagree with the ends such laws are trying to achieve. In some cases they are good ends (who would dispute the need for children not to become obese?). The important point, rather, is that all such legislation is outside the sphere of government’s responsibility. These laws spring forth from an administrative view of government, where government is seen as a giant engine to administer social good over the citizenry. This is over and against the older view which saw the purpose of government as being purely negative – to avert anything threatening the lives, property or safety of its people. Speaking of this shift, John Laughland writes about
A prime example of a ruler with a managerial agenda was Clinton. Clinton was a social engineer who wanted to use his position to impose an egalitarian agenda onto the American people. Woods writes how under the Clinton administration,
…in 1995, the Pentagon let it be known that “special permission will be required for the promotion of all white men without disabilities.” The Food and Drug Administration’s “Equal Employment Opportunity Handbook” advised that such clerical and secretarial requirements as “knowledge of rules of grammar” and “ability to spell accurately” should be de-emphasized when seeking to fill such jobs, since those requirements may make it more difficult to attract “underrepresented groups or individuals with disabilities.”
Most absurdly, perhaps, was the case of the U.S. Forest Service: Criticized for not having hired enough female firefighters, the Forest Service posted a job announcement that proclaimed, “Only unqualified applicants may apply.” A later announcement read, “Only applicants who do not meet [job requirement] standards will be considered.” We now know that as a result of this bizarre policy, critical friefighting positions were left vacant for lack of unqualified applicants.”