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The Government Is Not a Toy

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the tensions between, coalitions within, and futures of conservatism and libertarianism. We are looking at ideas that divide conservatives and libertarians, as well as ideas that bring them together. “That is not a toy!” If you have children, you have probably said this a few times already today. I heard it so many times as a toddler (and teenager) that I’m keeping it ready for my future children since we inevitably end up sounding like our parents. I’ve already been able to use it a few times with my adult roommates. For young children, it can be hard to differentiate between what is a plaything and what isn’t. Their unbridled creativity can see the fun potential in everything. Don’t you see how the silverware could make excellent musical equipment? Or how climbing the bookshelf presents such a great physical challenge? Sometimes it can even be confusing. How are small children supposed to differentiate between play food and real food? Harmless dirt and doggy doo? Construction paper and mommy’s business proposal? Life can be tough in the world of children trying to navigate the minefield of what are and are not playthings. The boom of “That is not a toy!” could come down on them at any moment. Parents, teachers and elder siblings have to continually shepherd children until the children understand what the intended uses of certain items are, and until they can develop the critical thinking skills to determine what the intended uses of items are. While to the children this process just seems to be a kill-joy, it is ultimately for the safety of the children involved. If they do not know how to use items properly and for what they are intended to be used, they could get hurt. “Things” have purposes. Whether in the socio-evolutionary sense that humans have invented tools for specific tasks, or in the metaphysical sense of causation that “things” exist for a defined—and divine—purpose. Misusing these things will at least result in lost efficiency, but could result in great harm. And here is where I graciously make the transition to talking about conservatives and libertarians without insulting anybody. Libertarians, do you feel like when you are talking to conservatives, that you have to explain repeatedly what the proper use of government is? Conservatives, have you ever felt like libertarians were a bit too paternal and patronizing when they explain over and over again what their idea of what the proper use of government is? As someone walking in the “gray area” of philosophy between conservatism and libertarianism, I have felt as if I was on both sides of this conversation. And it is annoying on either side. Government is instituted among men for very, very specific reasons. In America we believe these reasons are to secure our inalienable rights (preamble, Declaration of Independence) and to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” (preamble, Constitution). Libertarians and conservatives agree that an abuse or misuse of government could be harmful to the American people using it. Conservatives tend to irritate libertarians when they advocate for “socially conservative” policies that are, or closely resemble, misuses of government. For example, conservatives might say that tax breaks for having a family are good, while tax credits for owning an energy-efficient car are bad. Libertarians might say the same system that allows for the first allows for the second, and the whole question of whether the government should be manipulating the tax code to influence behavior should be revisited. Conservatives might say that education is a good and proper use of government resources at a federal level, but don’t like it when the federal government standardizes irreligious, impersonal education. Libertarians might say that former cannot exist without the latter consequences, and the whole question of a federally run education system should be revisited. In my experience, this is the root of the largest disagreement between conservatives and libertarians. Libertarians honestly believe that conservatives are promoting a government system that allows for abuses. The two disagree with what are proper uses of government, but libertarians get the most indignant because they honestly believe that the misuse of government will be harmful to innocent people. They get frustrated with conservatives who don’t seem to understand that the government is not a toy. Do you think this assessment is true? If you have a comment about this article or a question for this column, leave a comment below. Also send your questions to Values and Capitalism or me, Jacqueline Otto, on Twitter.