In this week’s Acton Commentary I explore Presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris’s proposal to federalize day care to align school and work schedules as, “an economic growth and child development strategy”:
Economists, politicians, and even everyday people often talk of “the economy” as if it were a separate and distinct thing from the values, choices, and actions of everyday people. This is a profound mistake. “The economy” is simply a shorthand way of expressing the sum total of all of these things. The manner in which this aggregation is made is misleading reflecting only the flow of monetary exchanges tracked and measured by statisticians. They tell us something but not the whole story.
They fail to tell the story of child care provided by the parents of children themselves, extended family, friends, neighbors, community organizations, and religious groups. Family, religion, and civil society are entirely absent from Voght’s analysis. It is an example of what anthropologist James C. Scott calls Seeing Like a State, imposing, “ … schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not—and cannot—be fully understood.”
This centralizing and bureaucratizing solution, justified by supposed market inefficiencies, passes over the agency of human persons and the way in which they coordinate with each other to meet their needs. The state, seeing only aggregates, devalues and dismisses the formal and informal institutions persons act within (family, friends, neighbors, churches, etc.) to realize their values through their choices and actions. Sen. Harris’s plan is but one example of this tendency to reduce life’s challenges and opportunities, in this case of raising and caring for children, to problems to be solved by technocratic means.
This denial of individual agency and the obligations of solidarity runs contrary to the conception of the human person and the state in Christian social thought as described by Lord Acton in his essay “The Roman Question”:
There is a wide divergence, an irreconcilable disagreement, between the political notions of the modern world and that which is essentially the system of the Catholic Church. It manifests itself particularly in their contradictory views of liberty, and of the functions of the civil power. The Catholic notion, defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought, denies that general interests can supersede individual rights. It condemns, therefore, the theory of the ancient as well as of the modern state.
This tendency to crowd out the rights and responsibilities of persons and civil society in the name of the technocratic planning is what Adam Smith once called the logic of the ‘man of system’ who is:
… apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it.
The more the “principle of motion” within the human person, endowed with the image and likeness of God, is recognized the more conscience itself becomes central to our conception of social justice. Without it the notion of the human person and society itself, beyond both the state and even certain conceptions of the market, is impossible.