The responses to a commentary of mine published in The Salt Lake Tribune last week portend a very disturbing trend for Utah. Defending the recently vetoed sex education bill, I argued that the bill’s focus on abstinence-only was not only good public health policy because abstinence is the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, but it represents wisdom beyond its focus because its underlying presumption is a basis for freedom.
Critics of my newspaper commentary have mocked and ridiculed me for connecting lasting freedom with good behavior. I tied together a couple of ideas that our Founding Fathers knew well: Freedom requires us to be our better selves; to become better, we surround ourselves with good and stable influences to help us, like marriage and family, religion and community groups; and those helpful influences include government in a limited role.
Critics from the left and right countered vehemently that my definition of freedom was a fabrication, even a utopian view. They argue that freedom is being left alone, that freedom is doing whatever one wants to do, and that government has no role in telling us how to behave. In fact, they’ve argued that government is the antithesis of freedom.
Now admittedly, from my perspective, most of their comments are idiotic. Most of them are immature, even juvenile, comments reflecting the caliber of Tribune readers and Utah’s counterculture among anti-religious, anti-establishment, civically irresponsible people characterized by personal dysfunction and bitterness.
One guy told me to mind my own business – don’t impose my morality on him – and that he would take care of his own kids. To which I responded that I encourage him to take care of his own kids – in fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way – but then wondered aloud why he does so using my tax dollars through a government program designed precisely to empower strangers to tell his kids what to do. And, by the way, he calls that “parental choice.”
Government is an extension of us. If we’re corrupt, so too will our government be corrupt. But if we believe in freedom, we should expect our government to help us in that quest. There is no breach of personal liberty, let alone freedom, for a government program such as our public schools to mandate good instruction upon students whose parents have thrown those kids upon its mercy. This is why the “parental choice” argument over sex education is specious. I’m sorry if it hurts your parental psyche, but you already gave up huge portions of “parental choice” when you decided to have perfect strangers in government schools teach your kids for the better part of eight hours a day.
Part of the current culture war is the delusion many people have when they insist that neighbors pay for their government services, such as education, and still think their neighbors won’t expect them to be their better selves. A culture of dysfunction is not freedom. And while we can dicker over the finer points of the effectiveness between sex ed programs, one thing that shouldn’t be in disagreement is the idea that freedom requires us to be our better selves.
And that idea is at the center of the sex ed debate. Will the gold standard of instruction be personal responsibility or personal dysfunction? Do we help our youth to be their better selves by placing guardrails at the top of the cliff? Or do we assume they’re hell-bent to drive off the cliff and that government’s role is to simply help them pick up the pieces of their lives after they’ve fallen? Those questions are what the culture war is all about.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.