October 19, 2009
Lisa Snyder is the kind of neighbor everybody likes to have. Every school day, the Michigan mom welcomed neighborhood children into her home—kids whose mothers have to leave for work an hour before the school bus picks up the kids. Snyder didn't charge anything—she just wanted to be a good neighbor.
But then someone reported Snyder to the authorities—and the state of Michigan told her to stop babysitting, or else. The Michigan Department of Human Services said if Snyder wanted to take care of unrelated kids in her home, she had to get a daycare license.
It's an example of laws gone wild—too many regulations, and too little common sense.
And that's not even the worst example. Last March an Indiana grandmother named Sally Harpold was arrested for buying two boxes of cold medicine in less than a week. That's illegal, if the combined boxes contain more than three grams of pseudoephedrine. They did—which put Harpold in violation of state laws regulating methamphetamine, which can be made from pseudoephedrine.
Harpold—who was handcuffed and booked—wasn't running a meth lab. She was buying medicine for her three sick grandchildren. But the local prosecutor was unapologetic. Harpold, she said, ought to have known the law.
That might be easier if there weren't so many local, state, and federal laws to keep track of. While Harpold is catching up on her legal reading, maybe the prosecutor can take care of her sick grandchildren.
Happily, in Michigan, common sense prevailed. Governor Jennifer Granholm ordered the Department of Human Services to work with lawmakers to change the daycare law to protect people who are simply trying to be good neighbors.
Sally Harpold was not so fortunate. She had to go into an alternative punishment program, and pay attorney fees and court costs.
With cases like these, it's no wonder Americans are growing increasingly distrustful of government—and of the growing numbers of laws and regulations that are making daily life, well, difficult!
Part of the problem is that we have lost the biblical view of the role of government, which is to preserve order, restrain evil, and promote justice. Government has no legitimate interest in slapping the helping hands of citizens like Lisa Snyder. Rather, government should promote neighborly charity! When it comes to helping a neighbor in trouble, government is not the answer. Good neighbors are.
The Reformers understood this, and called it "sphere sovereignty." Each institution—family, church, and the private associations—knew their job.
In Catholic social teaching, it was called the principle of "subsidiarity," recognizing that the interests of individuals are best served by the institution closest to them.
In both traditions, government should perform only those functions which can't be performed by these "intermediate structures."
But the other part of the "laws-gone-wild problem" is we ourselves. As the moral order of society breaks down, government—and its laws—step in to fill the void and to prevent chaos.
Indiana banned buying too much cold medicine because of the plague of methamphetamine. When we can no longer master our own cravings and inclinations to evil—in other words, when we can no longer govern ourselves—we invite government intervention. And grandmas like Sally Harpold get dragged off in handcuffs.
Time to wake up and apply biblical teachings to the role of government and the individual.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.