Short-Sighted Compassion

In our country, many parents have the means to give their children everything they ask for. But the greatest gift may be something that money can’t buy. And therein lies a lesson for public policy.

I once knew a college student whose parents could have given her everything she needed.

“Sally,” I asked her, “Why are you working two jobs?” She explained to me, matter-of-factly, that she had been in a car accident, so she had to pay for the higher premiums that resulted. Though her parents had given her the car, they also insisted that she pay for its upkeep and insurance. At a young age, Sally was learning responsibility, and today, she is a responsible young woman who exercises a lot of leadership.

On the other hand, I also knew another married couple, Bart and Brenda. Not only did they pay for their child’s college tuition, they gave him $50,000 in spending money. They were then distraught and confused when he had drug and alcohol addictions. Their support was not the only factor leading to that troublesome outcome. But the story is an example of what can happen when we just give people whatever we think they want rather than something that will last, which is a sense of responsibility and ownership, and an environment in which they can succeed.

Somewhat like Bart and Brenda, people on the Left may feel that a moral, kind, approach to policy is to use the wealth of the country to build a government that can offer help at every turn. (Think of the Obama administration’s advertising campaign featuring “Julia,” who receives cradle-to-grave public benefits.) But an overly generous safety net can harm those who would otherwise take care of themselves.

An all-encompassing public sphere, much like an over-indulgent parent, stunts responsibility and robs the dignity of those it claims to help. Freedom is not an abstract concept; it’s something essential to the development of children into responsible adults, and essential to a good society.