On the radio I heard a shill for some agglomeration of sugary drink manufacturers inveigh against NYC mayor Bloomberg’s attempted regulation of soda sizes. “We believe New Yorkers are smart enough to make these decisions for themselves,” he said.
If you’ve been to New York, if you’ve been to America, then you might be tempted to question this praise. Most Americans watch many hours of television a day, most of our children rarely read, most of us are overweight. We are not a people who have distinguished ourselves, in the past two generations, by the smartness of our choices.
The right-thinking person doesn’t oppose a ban on gigantic sodas because he trusts the average American to make good decisions. He opposes it because he believes that if you give Mayor Bloomberg the right to regulate your Dr. Pepper intake, you invite him to determine what foods you may eat, and which vaccinations you can skip, and what is an acceptable height for women’s heels. Then, because this is government, you invite a host of well-connected companies to infiltrate the process with money, so that what is good for you miraculously begins to align with what is good for them.
This opposition to government power doesn’t assume that Americans will always make good decisions, but it does assume we won’t destroy ourselves. Freedom is predicated, in other words, on a capacity to live rightly. “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people…” wrote John Adams, “are necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”
Imagine someone came looking for wisdom, knowledge, and virtue in America today. Where might he find it? On our late night television shows? In the comments sections of newspapers? In the average high school classroom, where students read at a 5th-grade level, and admit to lying, stealing, and cheating on exams? In Congress, which might best be described as high school for demagogues?
But that’s a silly thought experiment, isn’t it, because who in his right mind goes looking for wisdom, knowledge, and virtue any more? We’re too busy searching for our God-given portion of self-esteem and happiness.
But if wisdom, knowledge, and virtue are scarce, what happens to freedom? Failing to instill in children lovingkindness, perseverance, and self-restraint eventually necessitates a mighty and merciless police state. Whether our feral offspring consume our substance and freedom, or we relinquish both in order to obtain protection from them, the equation remains undisputed—governance of the self is essential for political self-governance.
We have gotten ourselves to a place where we don’t even know how to sufficiently restrain evil and insanity from arming itself and slaughtering schoolchildren. Some people talk about restricting guns and others about distributing more of them, but the truth of things is that we grow sicker by the year, and so we face two unappealing options: an armed populace increasingly unmoored from reason and virtue, or a populace disarmed by politicians unsavory enough to be elected by people who can’t be trusted with firearms.
The the thing is this: people talk about banning sodas and banning guns because we are destroying ourselves. There are good reasons to oppose both bans, but this opposition makes little sense unless we resolve to do our part to build up wisdom, knowledge, and virtue.
The difficulty is that these essentials are maintained in the institutions of community—families, churches, friendships, workplaces, schools—that we have allowed to become denuded. There are any number of causes for this erosion, and it can be quite pleasurable to sort through them, but I suppose when it comes to repairing these institutions it really just comes down to each of us picking up his allotted share of the burden.
Which is to say: loving one another less selfishly, serving one another more fully, training up our children more faithfully, praying more fervently. I know I stink at all those. Maybe some of you do, too. The good news is that there isn’t a whole lot of competition out there making us look bad. The bad news is that this means it’s up to us.
It’s hard work and it’s generational work and the people who call themselves conservatives used to understand that, though now they busy themselves with agonizing over how to “get their message out,” as if the problem might be solved by marketers and election consultants. The problem can only be solved, however, by each and every one of us, and that is because each and every one of us is the problem.