American public policy is schizophrenic.
I attribute this to our unique history: despite our tendency to think of America as a creation of the Founding Fathers, their generation was preceded by the Puritans and other religious dissenters who first colonized our shores. Constitutional historian Frank Lambert calls those initial settlers the “Planting Fathers,” and reminds us that in the 150 or so years that elapsed between Planters and Founders, the Enlightenment occurred, and dramatically altered prevailing beliefs about government and liberty.
The Puritans defined liberty as “freedom to do the right thing.” (And they, of course, decided what “the right thing” was.) The Founders—influenced profoundly by thinkers like John Locke—defined liberty as freedom to pursue your own life purposes free of state interference, so long as you did not thereby harm the person or property of others. While it was the Founders’ version that informed our constitution and legal system, our Puritan heritage remains alive and well. These two very different notions of what government ought to do have been duking it out in the body politic and even within our individual psyches ever since.
The Puritan approach—sometimes described as an overwhelming fear that someone, somewhere, might be having a good time—gives us laws aimed at making us godly and upright. The Founders’ approach can be seen in the equally wide-spread American attitude of “live and let live.” We still don’t seem to have noticed that the two approaches are largely incompatible.
The result of these warring impulses is a large measure of incoherence in our public policies. To be blunt, we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. On the one hand, most Americans have agreed with the Founders that government—especially at the federal level—should be limited in size and scope. But in order to deal with all those people who stubbornly refuse to do the right thing, we keep giving government new powers and building new bureaucracies. Historians note that, despite the conventional wisdom, big government didn’t begin with FDR and the New Deal; it began with the federal infrastructure we created to enforce Prohibition.
The disconnect is visible everywhere. Americans want freedom of speech—but not freedom to say that! We want freedom of religion—but maybe not for the Wiccans, or the Nation of Islam. We take pride in America’s scientific leadership, but stem cell research isn’t the “right thing,” so we send that research to competitors overseas.
Here in Indiana, some legislators are making noises about requiring schools to teach “Intelligent Design.” These are the same people who tell us that they support home rule and local control of public schools. They are the same people who have enthusiastically endorsed Administration efforts to recruit employers and jobs in the high paying fields of biotechnology and information technology—precisely the employers least likely to locate in a state seen as hostile to science.
One of these days, policymakers are going to have to choose between Enlightenment logic and their inner Puritans.