I love oxymorons. Jumbo shrimp. Icy hot. ACC football. All good fun! But I was thinking last week about how we Americans often want things that simply cannot go together. The push that got this ball rolling was serving as a driver for some nice folks from our local homeless shelter to a free activity at a children's museum. (Lest you think that my own stony heart came up with this idea, no, my lovely bride was the one who volunteered, but I was happy to be involved.) Just conversing with a couple of moms and their kids on the ten-minute ride was perplexing. If you've read this intermittent blog all the way back to the beginning, you know that I struggle trying to balance the requirements of my faith with the realities of this fallen world. As a Christian, I want to help the poor, but as a teacher of history and economics, I often wonder if our "help" does any good, or even harm. Well, as I listened to these very-nice folks, what struck me is that they seem completely incapable of making economic and lifestyle decisions in their own best interest. If only I could help them--not just with a ride, or a handout, or a job, or a place to stay--but with guidance, with the ability to learn from others' mistakes, with boundaries. I support my children, but I also get a say (the deciding say) in their decision-making. If I pay the rent, and I buy the groceries, then I also get to make the rules. But we don't want that for our poor. We want to help them economically, but not take away any of their autonomy or dignity. But it doesn't work.
I teach my students in US History that our country values both liberty and security, but that the balance between them is ever-shifting. Perfect freedom isn't safe at all--imagine highways with no lanes, no speed limits, no rules, and no signals. But perfect security is not free at all--imagine that same highway with zero percent chance of a traffic fatality, with cars traveling 3 mph and made of bubble-wrap. Often when we get scared, we trade liberties for safety (whether economic freedoms, or others, like the ability to board a plane without being groped). Sometimes we go too far and, to our credit, try to go back and make it right (like with Japanese intenment in WWII). Sometimes we differ over where the balance belongs (how strong a social safety net? is the Patriot Act a good or bad idea?). But at least we seem to understand that we cannot have either liberty or security perectly.
Why then, can we not get this logic through our head on other stuff? We want $1.50 gas, but also don't want to drill where the oil is. We want high spending and also low taxes. My school wants to field 58 sports teams and yet also wants them all to be championship contenders. Pick one! But stop demanding the impossible!