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The Helicopter State
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The Helicopter State

The government can’t love you, and when it works from the premise that it can, folly or tyranny follow.

Well, I’m back, and I’m not really happy about it.

On a mundane level, D.C. in August is just a terrible place. I think it’s legitimately sad that millions of Americans visit D.C. this time of year when it’s literally the worst time to walk around the Mall and see the sights. I mean, I get why people visit Death Valley in August—because they want to brag that they visited the hottest place on Earth during its hottest month. But no one in their right mind would say, “I want to wait in line to go to the top of the Washington Monument when D.C. is most like a Louisiana prison hot box.” Or, “You really can’t appreciate the majesty of the Lincoln Memorial unless you first climbed a lot of stairs in the hot sun with biblical swamp ass.”

But unlike the Taliban, I’m not looking to talk about the climate. As readers and listeners know, we dropped off our daughter at college over the weekend. And it’s got me in a funk.

Look, I get it, in the grand scheme of things, this is a good thing. She worked hard, got into a very good school, and I think she’s destined for great things. I’m immensely proud of her and I know that this is the best thing for her. Given all of the tragedies unfolding every day, at home and abroad, this is hardly something that should steal much—or even any—sympathy from those who truly deserve and need it.

It shouldn’t be a cause for too much self-pity, either. But this is my “news”letter and it’s largely fueled by whatever passions drive me in a given moment. And at this moment, it’s hard to think of other things (including the fact that today is my 20th wedding anniversary—though the Fair Jessica and I have decided to leave it unrecognized until we go on a trip to commemorate it).

Family is everything.

In the first G-File after my brother died 10 years ago, I wrote:

But there’s a kind of loneliness that comes with death that cannot be compensated for. Tolstoy’s famous line in Anna Karenina was half right. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, but so are all happy ones. At least insofar as all families are ultimately unique.

Unique is a misunderstood word. Pedants like to say there’s no such thing as “very unique.” I don’t think that’s true. For instance, we say that each snowflake is unique. That’s true. No two snowflakes are alike. But that doesn’t mean that pretty much all snowflakes aren’t very similar. But, imagine if you found a snowflake that was ten feet in diameter and hot to the touch, I think it’d be fair to say it was very unique. Meanwhile, each normal snowflake has its own contours, its own one-in-a-billion-trillion characteristics, that will never be found again.

Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.

I know it’s morbid, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last week. Again, this isn’t a sad occasion, but it’s a big occasion nonetheless. For 18 years, in ways large and small, obvious and discreet, my daily life has been mostly about just two people (and a few animals). It still is. But not in the same way. In the tiny little micro-civilization of the Goldberg family, the most important segment of the population has emigrated. Not from our lives or our hearts, but from our home. And that’s tough to process.

Of children and citizens.

But rather than dwell on that—which I could easily do for another few thousand words—I think I should make a larger point.

On last Friday’s Ruminant, I mentioned a conversation I had with Jonathan Adler in an earlier episode about how much of the right has redefined what “victory” means politically. Jon made the point that real victory in politics isn’t about political “wins” in Washington, but improving conditions on the ground where people actually live so they can flourish according to their own definitions of happiness and meaning. For Jon—and me—this is an argument for a “fusionist” version of conservatism infused with classical liberalism. Philosophically, this entails keeping the government, particularly the federal government—which is the least equipped branch of government to understand and respect the contours of the unique snowflakes of families and communities—restrained and constrained to specific tasks.

If you’ve read me over the years, you know I can make my argument(s) about that at great length. But it’s worth acknowledging that some forms of progressivism share at least some of that vision. Advocates of an activist government—from John Dewey and FDR to LBJ and Barack Obama—claim that they want to do something similar. They want to give people the resources to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives, too.

I think they’re wrong for any number of reasons, but the core of their mistake is how they define “resources.” Many of them believe the task of government is to provide not only physical things—financial assistance, health care, free education, etc.—but also direction about how to live and think. Not all arguments along these lines are indefensible or even necessarily wrong, even if you call them “socialism.”  

Philosophically, it’s the difference between negative liberty and positive liberty. (I’ve never liked these labels; in my book(s), negative liberty is really just liberty.) Negative liberty involves constraints on what government can do. That’s why the Bill of Rights delineates limitations on the federal government (“Congress shall pass no law …” etc). Positive liberty involves giving people tangible benefits to lift them up so they can be freed from the tyranny of need. “Necessitous men are not free men,” as FDR famously put it.

You can glimpse some of this difference in the debate over “traditional infrastructure” and “human infrastructure.” Roads, bridges, sewer lines, etc., are public goods that benefit everyone. For the most part, they are also things the private sector is ill-equipped to provide at scale. Human infrastructure starts from a similar but somewhat different premise: that the state knows how best to orient society in a specific direction. From subsidized childcare to free college education to all manner of job training, human infrastructure is premised on the idea that folks in Washington know how people should organize their lives. Obviously, these are not always hard and fast distinctions. But, say, canceling student debt fits neatly under “human infrastructure” and falls entirely outside traditional infrastructure.

I’ve written a lot about what Hayek called the “microcosm” and “macrocosm” and the dangers of confusing the two. The microcosm is the world of family, friends, and community; the macrocosm is the realm of laws, contracts, commerce, and citizenship. And the rules are different for both because the microcosm is for people you love while the macrocosm is for strangers. As I often joke, in my family I’m something of a communist. I don’t charge my daughter for food and she doesn’t pay taxes. If your best friend needs a bed or your car, you don’t charge him for it. But if a stranger wants my food or car, we’re gonna need a contract and compensation of some kind.

According to the progressive—and, increasingly, nationalist conservative—worldview, everyone should be part of the microcosm. We’re all one big family. But that won’t work. I know my daughter and what’s good for her in ways the state doesn’t—and can’t. If my friend is in need, I can give or loan him money or a bed to sleep on, but I can also speak to him in ways the government can’t. I can get involved in his life in ways the government can’t—and shouldn’t. A bureaucrat who sees only a number on a form can’t hector someone to get his act together. And if he tried it wouldn’t do much good. Families, friends, and communities—to varying degrees—can make claims on their members that the state cannot. The government can’t love you, and when it works from the premise that it can, folly or tyranny follow. We need people in our lives, not programs. Because people give us the very real sense that we are part of something, that we’re needed and valued. Programs treat us like we’re metrics in some PowerPoint slide.

In politics, it’s generally considered a bad idea to talk about voters like they’re children. I wish the stigma against it were stronger. I despise the way the most rabid fans of presidents talk about them as if they were our fathers. I can make allowances for George Washington or the Founders, because the poetry of that has more to do with their creating the nation, not ruling it like helicopter parents. If we have to use microcosmic metaphors for the government, I’d much rather we thought of the government as our neighbor. You can ask your neighbor for help, but if you abuse his goodwill to the point of dependence and exploitation, your neighbor gets to say, “Enough. The crisis is over, Bob. Give me back my car.”

But if we are going to talk about Americans as children, I wish we’d learn more from the rules of the microcosm. There’s a part of me that would dearly love to have kept my daughter at home, pretending that what was best for me was really best for her. But I know that the best thing for her is to become the best version of herself she can. And that requires cutting the apron strings, taking off the training wheels, and letting her acquire the experiences, skills, self-awareness, and confidence that can be accomplished only by doing. Clichés about how “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” can be trite, but they have the benefit of being true.

When kids are young, they require a lot of traditional infrastructure—food, clothing, shelter, etc.—but also ample human infrastructure. They need direction. They need to be told the difference between right and wrong, smart and dumb, safe and dangerous. They need boundaries and rules. But as they get older the boundaries expand, the rules get less restrictive. For parents, figuring out where the line is between positive and negative liberty is everything. You can’t live their lives for them forever, and if you try, their lives will be less fulfilling and meaningful as a result. I have a newfound respect for the attraction of helicopter parenting and a newfound appreciation for how selfish it is.

I will always—always—be there for my daughter in a crisis. But what often defines a crisis for a toddler simply becomes a problem she’ll have to work out on her own as an adult (even though, she’ll always be my little girl to some extent). Likewise, what constitutes a crisis for your kid may simply be a temporary inconvenience for mine—and vice versa. Giving children the freedom to make mistakes is one of the hardest, but most important, requirements of parenting. And anyone who’s been a parent knows that, however difficult it is for us, it would be impossible for strangers. We will never have perfect knowledge about when or how to intervene in our kids’ lives, but we will always have a better idea than someone who doesn’t know them at all.

So what, at long last, is my point? To some extent, I think it’s unavoidable for people in government to have a paternal instinct when it comes to citizens. There’s just something about the nature of power—and responsibility—that makes it inevitable. But as I’m learning, there’s a huge difference between being the parent of a young child and a young adult. In other words, just because you’re a parent, that doesn’t mean your kids are children.

I think government, too, should always be there for the people during a real crisis, like a war or pandemic. But that doesn’t mean the government should ever treat its citizens like children. That’s what socialism does. It’s what fascism did. It’s what lies at the heart of many forms of nationalism—and every other ism that takes it on faith that a nation of 330 million people can operate as if we’re all one family. When we turn every public policy problem, real and alleged, into a crisis—the daycare crisis, the student loan crisis, the racism crisis, etc.—the state gives itself permission to turn into a helicopter parent.

What’s true of kids is true of communities and all the individuals within them: If you don’t let people work out their problems, collectively and individually, they become filled with a sense of entitlement. No, they don’t all become welfare cases. Some become Julias under the Hubby State (as my wife wrote). Some simply withdraw from commitments that might enrich their lives. Churches have shrunk as institutions at least in part because government has crowded them out. When the government does everything for you, the people start to take it for granted that someone else will do the hard stuff. And a meaningful life comes from overcoming the hard stuff. I’m not saying the nanny state is indistinguishable from tyranny. I’m saying the nanny state deprives people of being their best.

In parenting and politics, figuring out how to maximize the opportunities that provide for a meaningful life is the ballgame. And achieving that is what real victory looks like.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.