I’ve written several times about the virtue of faith and the associated vice of desperation. This virtue is not the saving faith taught by Christianity, but is instead an ethical matter—a disposition towards acting as though the world will ultimately unfold as it should and a knowledge that whatever my personal responsibilities may be, I am not ultimately responsible for fixing the world. Those who lack this virtue can tolerate no harm to anyone, and are therefore driven to save the world from itself no matter the cost. The most extreme examples of this kind of desperation are, of course, the dictators and utopians of the 20th century who, in their quest to rebuild society so that no one would ever again suffer, starved and murdered tens of millions of people who stood in their way.
But vices are not found only in extremes, and the desperate need not be powerful to be dangerous. Though they may not murder millions, petty bureaucrats and busybodies are entirely capable turning lives upside down and tearing families apart. One Maryland family had a particularly close call with the desperate this past December when their children (aged 10 and 6) were caught walking home from a park by themselves. A local busybody who witnessed them deemed it necessary to call the police on the matter. The police deemed it necessary not only pick up the kids, drive them home, and lecture their parents on the dangers of the world, but also to notify Child Protective Services. A couple of hours later CPS agents came to their home with an ultimatum: immediately sign the safety plan they provided, or they would take the children away.
As Ron Burgundy put it, “Boy, that escalated quickly.”
Any sane person would consider the removal of children from their parents to be an option of last resort—carried out only in the most extreme cases when the abuse or neglect is more severe than the act of tearing a family apart. But how were these children being neglected? Exactly what danger were these children actually in by being alone half a mile from their house? “They could have been abducted!” “They could have been raped or murdered!” Tragedies like these do happen, to be sure, but do we have any reason they were about to happen in this case? Were they in a dangerous part of town? Was there a suspicious person following them? Was there any evidence at all to suggest that these scenarios were going to depart the murky land of “maybe” and become a reality? There doesn’t seem to be.
The problem with preventing every scary “maybe” that crosses one’s mind is that it is a never-ending task. There is no limit to the imagination’s ability to come up with threatening scenarios. Like it or not, we live in a world in which bad things can happen. Escaping the possibility of danger can only be accomplished by escaping life altogether. This is precisely why the drive to prevent all harm to anyone is synonymous with tyranny. Now that I’m a father, I find these stories quite troubling—as though my choice is between being a helicopter parent and having my kids taken by CPS. At the risk of sounding older than I am, back when I was a kid, I was free to move about the neighborhood (with specific streets acting as boundaries that expanded as I got older and more responsible.) It worked out pretty well.
Of course, some precautions are quite reasonable. Looking both ways before crossing the street, for example, does not meaningfully inhibit life, and cars travel down most roads on a regular basis. On the other hand, looking both ways before crossing your lawn because a passing car’s brakes might fail and it might skip the curb is not reasonable at all. It could happen (and probably has), but there’s no reason to suppose that it actually will happen to you in your lifetime. Some imagined threats simply aren’t tangible. Accordingly, we must ask what the tangible danger to these children was in this case. What danger stood a good chance of passing from the realm of “maybe” into the real world? Considering the known facts of the case, the biggest threat that came closest to harming these children was CPS agents coming to rip them away from their loving parents. But the busybodies and bureaucrats weren’t protecting the children from this danger—they were the ones inflicting it by protecting them from a maybe. Few people appreciate just how dangerous busybodies can be in the nanny state era.
There is no rubric or flowchart when it comes to deciding which risks to mitigate and which risks to live with. All we have are an ongoing series of judgment calls. When it comes to children who have not yet acquired good judgment, the responsibility to make these judgments falls to those who know them best, who love them best, and who are closest to the situation. The vast majority of the time, these people are parents, not bureaucrats.