The Nanny State

Time magazine recently gave us a cover that beautifully illustrated our current budget crisis. It was a picture of a gleaming butcher's knife. Next to it were the words: "This time it's for real." The message was unmistakable: Whether Americans are ready or not, Congress is poised to start cutting into all those government entitlement programs. The current controversy over balancing the budget is one of the most important political debates in my lifetime. This debate is about more than just economics. It's about our very souls. If we Christians want to participate in this debate, we have to understand the world view that drives the welfare state and, by extension, our huge federal deficit. Remember the presidential debate in Richmond, Virginia, in 1992? A grown man with a ponytail stood up and said, in essence, "We are your children. What will you do to meet our needs, to take care of us?" What a mortifying sight. My friend Bill Bennett expressed my feelings perfectly when he said that he wished one of the candidates had responded: "I am not your father, your priest, or your rabbi. I am only running for a political office. Satisfy your own needs. Take care of yourself." That's sound advice. But for 60 years Americans have done just the opposite. We've supported a world view driven by a desire to use government to eliminate all risk and suffering from life—to serve as a safety net when the consequences of our own behavior catch up with us. Take, for example, the argument of sociologist Christopher Jencks. If people prefer single-parent families, Jencks writes, government should "invent ways of providing such families with the same . . . necessities of life available to other kinds of families." In other words, the government should bail them out. The ultimate object of this world view is, as Professor Henry Mansfield of Harvard puts it, "a riskless existence protected by a caring government." But, Mansfield warns, "there are always new sources of insecurity and expensive new remedies." That means we'll go broke trying to pay for all these remedies, or we'll saddle our grandchildren with the bill. But the most important reason we shouldn't ask government to create a risk-free society is spiritual. A big part of our rebellion against God is our attempt to undo the consequences of the Fall without the Cross of Christ. That's why we seek these utopian schemes to use government to reduce or even eliminate the consequences of sin. Of course, we can't really undo the consequences of the Fall, and our efforts to do so have backfired badly. The welfare state has robbed people of their self-respect and their dignity. It's led to citizens who develop an almost childish refusal to take responsibility for their own lives—people like the man with the ponytail in Richmond, who treats politicians as if they were parents. You and I ought to tell our legislators that we've outgrown our federal nanny. And then we need to go back to the same resources our parents and grandparents relied on: Family, friends, church, and, most of all, the provision of our Living Lord.


Chuck Colson


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