Where do you find the largest, most intrusive and liberty-violating form of government?
You may be tempted to answer North Korea, Cuba or (possibly) San Francisco, but none of these answers is correct. The most totalitarian forms of government are found in two much less exotic places: prisons and nurseries.
Say whatever you will about any despotic government on earth, even in their wildest dreams they can only fantasize about having the sort of control wardens and mothers exert routinely. To put the matter another way, what convict (or toddler) doesn’t dream of acquiring the sort of freedom experienced by ordinary citizens in Burma or Iran? But if, as we’ve often been told, totalitarianism is so intrinsically evil, why do we embrace it in these situations?
The answer is obvious.
In the nursery, a child is incompetent and must be constantly shepherded away from self-destruction. This entails controls of every sort. He is told what to eat, when to sleep, and with whom to associate. He is subject to corporal discipline (depending on his age) and is continuously told what he will and will not be doing with his life. When his pursuit of happiness conflicts with his mother’s agenda, she regularly violates it … as has every parent since the dawn of reproduction.
In jail, a convict is not so much incompetent (although it may be so) as immoral. He is more incapacitated than shepherded, depending on the goals of the particular prison system. Like an infant, however, he is told what to eat, when to sleep, and with whom to associate. He may not be subject to corporal punishment, but restraint and harsher flavors of confinement are certainly common possibilities for misbehavior. Again, his ideals about the pursuit of happiness are never paramount and are violated on almost every level.
So this prepares us for an important question about both of these most intrusively-governed municipalities: would either of them function better with less oversight? Although there may be particular ways in which a specific jail or nursery’s governance might need tinkering, the general premise that both demand highly regulated environments is undeniable.
But since it has become fashionable for libertarians and (sadly) conservatives to say that reducing the size of government is always a good to be sought in itself, I thought it might be useful to see whether this is so. And as these two rather extreme cases clearly demonstrate, shrinking the scope or intrusiveness of government must at best be a contextual goal, not a universal principle.