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Kids Sliding Down the Slippery Slope

When should government interfere in family life?

By Petrarch  |  August 12, 2011

Our recent article about a woman who was charged with manslaughter when one of her children was killed as they crossed a street revealed considerable diversity of views - not only among our readers, but also among our writers and even our editorial staff.

Diversity, as we've all been told over and over, is a source of strength which is to be celebrated.  So let's analyze all this blessed diversity that we may better celebrate it properly.

There are two basic schools of thought regarding the crosswalk incident.  Some thought the government had no business charging the mother with a crime because stupidity is not a criminal matter.  Others were equally adamant that pretty much any intervention was justified to protect the children.  These two views can be summed up as follows:

  1. Some parents are so stupid, so irresponsible, and put their children at so much risk of harm that government must intervene to protect the children.
  2. Government agencies are so venal, so corrupt, so incompetent, and so budget-mad that they harm far more children than they help; thus, they should keep the heck out of family life unless felonies are taking place.  Felonies can be handled by police and the criminal justice system in the customary way.

The arguments for the first view are pretty obvious - we're all seen grossly incompetent parenting take place in public before our very eyes, though hopefully not incidents leading directly to children's actual deaths.  The arguments for the second are a bit more subtle, but no less real.

Just what we're afraid of.

The Pragmatic Argument

The thought that government should get involved is based on two assumptions:

  1. Government intervention in family matters does more good than harm.  Since people don't want to change, government "help" should be forced on families who don't want it.
  2. We can afford the cost of "coercive intervention."

As with all government programs, the supposed good the government should be able to do is obvious.  Some parents and parental surrogates are not merely incompetent but evil.  Children may not die every day at their hands, but we don't go long between such incidents.  Untimely death doesn't include children who aren't actually murdered but whose lives are ruined by severe physical or sexual abuse.

Removing a child from a hellish home and placing them with a loving adoptive family is a recurring theme through much of modern Western literature.  We've all heard of Little Orphan Annie and Anne of Green Gables who had just such a fictional experience, and that's only the As.

Does this still happen today?  Sure it does - but we also have the story of Cinderella, abused by a cruel stepmother.  Unfortunately, there are just as many reports of situations where the government robbed children from families whose only offense was against political correctness, or whose foster parents turned out to be every bit as bad as their original ones.

Actually, there is more: an MIT study, which we've repeatedly cited, found that government intervention leads to worse outcomes on average.

Let's be brutally blunt: On average - which is the only way one can properly judge government programs that affects millions of people - abused kids are better off left in their abusive homes.

This result sounds shocking, but it really isn't: it is because if they're taken away from their families by the government, they'll generally wind up in a place that's even worse.  It's clear that government interventions in fact do more harm than good, and on that basis alone should be ended.

Love or Duty?

It was not always thus, but that's because a hundred years ago, official intervention usually didn't happen until the situation reached or approached the felony level.  Any earlier intervention that took place did so at the behest of the most local level, not some giant bureaucracy with no personal connection to any of those involved.

A hundred years before that, official intervention didn't happen at all.  Modern feminists like to decry those days as being an evil patriarchy where wives and children belonged to the male master of the house as surely as the house itself.  They have a point: few local early-American courts would prosecute a man for beating his wife and none for beating his children.  In fact, the phrase "rule of thumb" came from a law that permitted a man to beat his wife, but only with a stick no bigger than her thumb (notice, not his thumb), and Muslims still honor a similar rule today.

An abused wife could run away and stood a fair chance of not being forcibly returned, but she'd have no more than the clothes on her back and possibly premarital jewelry.  Abused minors had not even that option unless they were old enough to fend for themselves on the streets.

Over time, enlightened leaders of communities developed unofficial means of applying pressure in the worst situations: privately arranging for some other family to take in an abused child or orphan, even boycotting the services of a man known for barbarism towards his family.  In small rural communities this could be fairly effective; in large cities, much less so.

Even there, though, unofficial efforts by do-gooders prevailed.  Jane Addams' Hull House in Chicago included abuse-response as part of its do-goodery:

They acted as midwives, saved babies from neglect, prepared the dead for burial, nursed the sick, and sheltered domestic violence victims. For example, one Italian bride had lost her wedding ring and in turn was beaten by her husband for a week. She sought shelter at the settlement and it was granted to her. Also, a baby born with a cleft palate was unwanted by his mother so he was kept at the Hull House for six weeks after an operation. In another case, a woman was about to give birth to an illegitimate baby, so none of the Irish matrons would touch it. Addams and Starr stepped in and delivered this helpless little one.

For all the good they did, though, Hull House was not officialdom and had no power of law.  Its administrators personally knew the people in whose lives they were meddling and became emotionally involved with them.

Emotional involvement was crucial to their success.  Anyone who's being helped can tell the difference between people who help out of love and duty and hirelings who "help" because they're paid.  Hull House volunteers cared about their clientele and that made all the difference.

This brings us to a vitally important conclusion: there is good that can be done by private agents which government is simply not capable of replicating.

What Government Can't Do

Human parents can raise kids; government can't.

Private charities can successfully intervene in abusive situations; on average, government can't.

Actually, this truth goes far beyond the sphere of family law:

Private companies and small businesses create employment and economic growth; government can't.  In Soviet Russia there was technically no unemployment, but as the wry saying went, "We pretend to work and the government pretends to pay us."

Private investors and purchasers are able to pick economically successful investments and purchases; if there's one thing government is famous for, it's wasting money on worthless boondoggles.

Just about the only thing government is good it is destroying things, which perhaps is why even the most staunch conservatives think the government should have a monopoly on the military.  Unfortunately, by attempting to save and help families, the government has de facto declared war on them; nobody would dare to suggest that the American family is in better shape or less abuse-prone than it was prior to the Great Society of the 1960s and modern family law.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result.  Yet for some reason, humankind keeps turning to the government for solutions, even though modern governments always make problems worse.  As horrible as child abuse is - as sad as is the death of any child - we're fools if we expect government to do any better.

Yet, year after year, every instance of abuse is met by the cry of "The government should do something!"  And year after year, government meddling in families grows more intrusive, more costly, and more destructive.

But we still keep sliding down the slope of tyranny.  "Slippery slope" arguments may have a bad reputation, but that doesn't make them inaccurate, and the history of American family law provides a dire case study of their fundamental truth.

So, we've seen that even intentional child abuse is not something that government can in fact improve or fix.  The woman whose child was run over while jaywalking didn't even commit that level of crime - at most, she engaged in reckless behavior.  We'll talk about that in a following article.