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Political Paternalism and the Problem of Freedom

Political Paternalism and the Problem of Freedom

Posted by Ed Straka on 10/16/2023

Most political problems (theory and practice) throughout history have centered on the dilemma of the “Socratic Problem.” The Socratic Problem may be stated as: “How can the individual be granted maximum freedom, yet be controlled by the rule of law for the good of society?”[i]

This never-ending conflict over the solution to the Socratic Problem is at the center of social debate here in America, as it is throughout the world. Indeed, historically, even James Madison, “the Father of the Constitution” and the third President of the United States, wrote that “every word of the Constitution decides a question between power and liberty.”[ii]

Our modern political situation here in the States is no different from what occurred historically. Granted, we live in a technologically advanced society that amplifies the options available to both explore and express our freedom, yet that freedom is counter-balanced by the fact that the government equally has the power to both monitor and intervene if we go “too far” (in their opinion) in our quest for liberty. Yet this begs the question–in my mind anyway–who determines what is the limit and scope allowable for the average American citizen? Equally important is the epistemological question of how we decide upon the standard that determines what is allowable as far as human action.


Generally speaking, there are two options available for determining how much freedom is too much. The State operating from a top-down, paternalistic position of power that will dictate the standards; or the people on the whole will speak through some sort of democratic process that allows the most participation in determining social norms by which they want to be governed at the local level.

Unfortunately, in this day and age, a religious perspective on the root of evil being sin is unpopular. After all, there are much more popular ideas and plans as to how we can solve our problems both domestically and abroad. However, all these ideas, regardless of which political party comes up with them, amount to nothing more than political paternalism: the belief and practice that the State is needful to solve all problems that society faces because the common man is much too ignorant, or at best – he lacks self-control thus the State must help him.[iii]

Ironically enough, in a section of Democracy in America entitled “What Sort of Despotism Democratic Nations Have to Fear,” a French nobleman named Alexis de Tocqueville expressed concern over what he thought might occur in time here in America if “we” were not careful. He envisioned a “species of oppression” that would be “unlike anything that ever before existed in the world,” a rule by “guardians” rather than tyrants. In other words, it was not the Russian Army that most of us born during the period from the 1940s until the early 1980s grew up hearing about and being fearful of that would become the arbiters of our freedom–but rather our own government. A giant bureaucracy with endless reams of paperwork would become the true “terror” in our lives as the endless protocol of rules, regulations, political correctness, reporting requirements, TSA agents, and ubiquitous surveillance cameras infest society.

Similar to an Old Testament prophet given a vision by God, Tocqueville saw clearly our present day and how democratic institutions would be used to control people:

That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood… For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.[iv]

The problem with “paternalism” (a.k.a. State power supposedly used for the good of the people) is that it has the tendency to project itself beyond historic boundaries.[v] As both Scripture and history make clear, the very thing the State insists it will protect the people from, it ends up precipitating in an ironic quest for power and control in the name of protecting the lives and freedom of the populace. This scenario is nothing new; indeed, in ancient Greece a man named Plato wrote of this very tendency in his book The Republic.[vi]

Sadly, here in America people have the naïve idea that their freedoms are the result of the endlessly growing governing structures and institutions that have arisen over the centuries, rather than the result of individual self-governance and the familial character of communities, which built and carefully monitored those same governing institutions, and put in place the inherent limits to protect themselves against both domestic and foreign abuse.

In American history, this “naïve idea” was not always the case. There was a time when men in power–and those they governed–recognized that the leaders were in fact stewards of the people under God, and thus needed to rule with equity and propriety, rather than manipulation and coercion. It was this recognition which, when put into practice, allowed for freedom that even to this day draws people from the four corners of the earth who hope to live their lives in freedom and peace, and with the hope of prosperity. How unfortunate that the very attitudes and practices necessary for such a society have rapidly dwindled away! Then again, we should not be surprised that this is the case. Our leaders are really a reflection of the spirit of the common American; they are humanists or, at best, humanistic in their thinking. One group believes blessing flows from individuality and subjective morality, while the other believes it flows from subjective morality and total commitment and allegiance to the State (although they would be the last to admit it).

The reason for this is that most Americans, glad recipients of a social and political inheritance of freedom, nonetheless are clueless as to how that “freedom” was thought through, planned, fought over, and instituted centuries ago. Indeed, most are unaware, as mentioned earlier, of what has truly happened in terms of our slow loss of freedom that has resulted from the move from faith and obedience to God to pragmatism both personal and political. Equally, people are unaware that when the belief in and fear of God wane, the exaltation of the State is right around the corner.

In an insightful article in the Law & Liberty online journal, author Trey Dimsdale notes:

The growth of the administrative state is coincident with a decline in the constitutional mechanisms for lawmaking that are consistent with republicanism. The growth of the administrative state and the various enabling acts that establish it has meant that most of the laws that shape our lives are not technically laws, but regulations that carry the force of law. They were not deliberated by the elected representatives of the people but promulgated by and through administrative agencies that are mostly impervious to democratic accountability. Some are even insulated from judicial oversight. This is true on both the state and federal levels of government. [vii]

Yet, in opposition to this American paternalism, is an Augustinian reality that is simply this: government interventionism, whether abroad militarily or via legislation and regulation domestically, will not ultimately change a people and make them “good,” nor the world “safe for democracy.” Nor will it make our cities safe for people who desire to live free, raise families, and work and worship as they please. Indeed, if history shows us anything, it is that those who act “in the name of the people” when taking away various freedoms “for the protection of the people” may, in fact, be the enemies of the people in the long run–particularly people of faith. Thus we see the necessity of understanding the limits of government, regardless of what political persuasion one falls under (Romans 13:3-5).

Many will view my comments above and the need to change the course of America’s centralization as needlessly alarmist, as well as sensationalistic. Indeed, for many, the very idea that God’s purposes are not bound up in a booming American economy (admittedly debt driven) or a strong military is either taboo, or deemed treacherous. All too often trite aphorisms take the place of reasoned argumentation. “Think what life was like in the old Soviet Union–aren’t you glad you live here!” Or, “If we don’t fight them [Muslims] there, we’ll have to fight them here.” Or, “Aren’t you a loyal American?” These knee-jerk reactions obscure the issue with rhetoric and should be rejected as non-philosophical and off-point in relation to reality.

Indeed, they sadly mirror the obsession of many with political solutions offered by either political party as the panacea for all our socio-political-economic problems. However, if we bet on the current political process to solve these problems, we will only end up even more enslaved than before the “national emergencies” that supposedly justify more and more government intervention and control.[viii]


“Alphabet soup agencies” have formed over the years and have become part of the American system, as Herbert Schlossberg notes in his book Idols for Destruction:

The independence of the bureaucracy from political authority means that bureaucrats do not merely enforce law or administer it: they make law. They are the law, and the old ideal of having a government of laws rather than of men can no longer be realized. The new class has found a vehicle for giving its values the force of law without bothering to take over the political authority of the state. That is one reason nothing seems to change much in social democracies when voters throw one party out of office in favor of another.[ix]

Comfortably Numb or Dumbed Down?

Unfortunately, the incipient loss of freedom that takes place in history for various people is denied by many Christians who are apathetic and have given up because “the earth is not our home.” Or they live in denial in order that they might sleep at night, and thus prefer to “put the best spin” on various political situations, both domestic and abroad, in spite of what the Bible insists about justice, equity, and the protection of human life. For others, who are satisfied and comfortable with the modern concept of the so-called “good life” American style, the status quo is fine.[x]

Yet the fact that American citizens are comfortable today does not mean they will be tomorrow. Indeed, history has been rather ruthless with those who have stepped out of bounds morally in the face of a sovereign God. The future for a city or nation that does not value monogamy or children does not look promising, as the demographics of a rapidly depopulating European continent make abundantly clear.[xi]

The future of a nation that is continually in a state of war becomes equally questionable because war means the ability to project power over others who may, in fact, begin to resist, thus driving up the cost[xii] of the conflict for the aggressor in terms of time, money, and lives. War also produces endless enemies for generations who, descended from their relatives who were the original “victims” of the aggression, seek revenge for what happened to their ancestors.

Moving Forward

For those of us with children who have a concern for the future, to do nothing for them is to guarantee their cultural demise, as well as their freedom. Thus, we must understand, similarly to the Founders, what is needed to keep State power in check besides self-government under God: a return to the idea of liberty and the principles of American citizenship upon which it is based.[xiii] Granted, this will not solve the spiritual problem inherent within all men, which is at the root of human problems (Romans 3:23), but it will at least offer guidelines as to what our own government can and cannot do legally according to our Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

It may also prompt some to think seriously about what it means to live free. As William F. Buckley once wrote, “The goal of freedom is to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.”[xiv]

Equally important is the willingness to encourage others to enter into this conversation also. It may not only save your life, but the lives of your children after you. That, and return America to what it once was: a beacon of hope among the nations of the world, rather than an empire bent on ruling it.[xv]

Here at Christian Liberty Homeschools, we continue on with the fight for freedom by continuing to offer educational materials to teach people to think rationally and faithfully, and to look at the world for what it is, rather than what political pundits and news media actors say it is:

Books to Consider:

Political Paternalism vs The Natural Order:

Constitutional Law for Enlightened Citizens:

[i] Michael Kelley, On Stone Or Sand: The Ethics of Christianity, Capitalism, & Socialism (Carson, ND: Pleroma Press, 1993), 190.

[ii] James Madison, National Gazette, January 19, 1792.

[iii] The Economist, “The New Paternalism: The Avuncular State,”

[iv] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, trans. Henry Reeve as revised by Francis Bowen, corrected and edited by Phillips Bradley (New York: Random House, 1990), 318–319.

[v] “Governments, with rare exceptions, seek to expand their power beyond the mandate to restrain evil, preserve order, and promote justice. Most often they do this by venturing into religion or moral areas. The reason is two-fold: the state needs religious legitimization for its policies and an independent church is the one structure that rivals the state’s claim of ultimate allegiance.” Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987), 172.

[vi] Interestingly enough, even Plato recognized the tendency of those in power to pull the imminent danger card by “constantly inciting wars, in order that the people may stand in need of a leader” in an attempt to maintain both their position in and control of society. The Republic, 566:3.

[vii] “The Forgotten Protection for Individual Liberty,” by Trey Dimsdale, Law & Liberty online journal; September 23, 2023:

[viii] Witness former American President Barack Obama’s passage of the Defense Authorization Act, which allows the U.S. military to arrest people for an indefinite period of time. Section 1031 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 legalizes or authorizes martial law in the United States. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) stated, “These provisions raise serious questions as to who we are as a society and what our Constitution seeks to protect...Section 1031 essentially repeals the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 by authorizing the U.S. military to perform law enforcement functions on American soil.”

[ix] Herbert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990), 204.


[xi] Patrick J. Buchanan, The Death of the West (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 97–122. See also: A Republic, Not An Empire by Buchanan.




[xv] Ron Paul, The Revolution: A Manifesto (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2008).