Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sweet Tyranny

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. (C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970 , p. 292)

Some weeks ago I watched the History Channel’s miniseries entitled, “Hatfields & McCoys.” As I viewed the program I often thought of how different the world was in which these people lived. True, human nature is unchanged—depravity then is as it is now—but American culture and American people are quite dissimilar. (That human nature is constant while human society fluctuates may strike the reader as odd or paradoxical, but such is clearly the case.)

One of the most startling differences has to do with the notion of liberty or freedom. I was struck by the fact that these Hatfields and McCoys exercised personal freedoms which few, if any, modern Americans enjoy. (I am not at all suggesting that these liberties were consistently exercised in morally acceptable ways—far from it. But it is undeniable that these were relatively free men.)

And it’s important to note that their liberties dwarfed ours despite the fact that they lived in the post-Civil War era. (I say this because the Civil War was more concerned with States’ rights than civil rights, as the Federal government imposed its will on states which had previously viewed themselves as sovereign. The war effectively disabused the states of their illusions of grandeur. Even so, after the war’s atrocities, on the individual level, the Federal government seemed to leave these Kentuckians and Virginians unmolested.)

Certainly, there was local law enforcement and the like. (And Americans have always been litigious!) Still, yesterday’s Americans, for the most part, lived without governmental interference. They farmed, built, bought, sold, worked, and played without regulations or “licenses.” In other words, from cradle to grave they lived their lives never requiring or desiring governmental oversight.

There was no nanny state, no police state. (And let us be clear, the nanny-state is of necessity a police state.) To be sure, it was a different America then. Consequently, our people then barely resemble our people now. Americans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as a whole, were religiously, philosophically, demographically, and technologically closer to the Americans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than to us.

Consider: How would today’s citizens survive without the government feeding, clothing, sheltering, educating, healing, and policing them? Could Americans handle such liberty, such self-determination? If current economic trends continue, we’ll soon find out.

Indeed, the nanny-police state is financially and morally bankrupting itself. How shall a people live in a nanny-police state that is ethically and economically penurious? I fear not too well.

Over the last eighty years or so the nanny-police state has grown in power and influence, this to the detriment of our individual liberty and our sense of personal responsibility. (It is of utmost importance to understand liberty to be married to responsibility. We may distinguish but not separate the two.)

By and large the welfare state has eroded personal responsibility and encouraged personal entitlement. Thus, our country is nearly evenly divided between those who work for a living and those who vote for a living; between tax payers and tax consumers. This is unsustainable.

Lewis is correct: the “benevolent” welfare state—the ultimate moral busybody—is tyrannous. Think of it. The deified State that feeds, clothes, shelters, educates, heals, and polices its citizens, by definition, controls its citizens.

Personal liberty has been sacrificed for perceived security. As I contemplate the depiction of American life in the mid to late 1800’s, I realize that “the land of the free and the home of the brave” is more nostalgia than reality.


  1. What is the name of the article from which the Lewis quote is taken?

    1. The article is entitled, "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment."

      Thanks for reading.