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The Devout

Arnold Kling reports Richard Layards proposal that "the state should act to try to make family life more manageable, through better school hours, flexible hours at work, means-tested childcare, and maternity and paternity leave. Parenting classes should also be compulsory in the school curriculum and an automatic part of antenatal care." And, as usual, Arnold cuts directly to the core of the matter when he points out that

As far as I know, there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the solutions proposed–flexible work hours, compulsory parenting classes, etc.–have been shown to have an effect on the problem–divorce and broken homes. But I do not think this really matters to Layard. His happiness depends on imposing his policies on everyone else.

But let’s give Layard as much benefit of the doubt as possible; let’s try to imagine the best possible mind-set that he might experience to prompt him to offer such recommendations. He sincerely wants people’s lives to be improved…. he genuinely wants to help them…. he prays for happy outcomes.

Yes, he prays. He doesn’t think of his ruminations and demands for intercession as prayer, but I submit that that’s just what they are: prayers.

When, say, a Roman Catholic prays for the tsunami victims, he asks a higher power to relieve these victims of their suffering. He might pray, for example, "God, help them find new houses, feed them, and help them find lost loved ones." These are worthy sentiments and goals. And given the Catholic’s beliefs, he need not worry about how God will actually carry out answering these prayers. Being omnipotent and omniscient, God will make no mistakes in answering the prayers – no "Oh dear, I thought you asked me to ‘help them find new spouses’." Nor will God need any instructions or supervision on how best to actually carry out these tasks. The praying Catholic need never give a moment of thought to the specific means, the details, that God might use to solve the problems. All that the devout petitioner must do is to request the desired outcome, and he can then rest assured that God knows just the best means of achieving these outcomes.

And being benevolent, God will not abuse his power. Having the power and the go-ahead to override ordinary natural forces when helping the prayed-for tsunami victims, God will never, ever use this power for any goals other than those that genuinely help people.

For someone who believes in the Christian god, such prayers make sense. It would be pointless not to call upon this super-power for help – and it would be pointless to suffer anxiety over the possibility that God will abuse his power or use it negligently or recklessly or in ways that result in harmful unintended side-effects.

People like Layard, I dare say, have in their heads some image of government much like that of an all-powerful, all-benevolent deity. See a problem, turn government loose on it. Sure there are countless administrative details that must be chosen, implemented, and monitored when government tackles a problem, but we can trust the good motives, the democratic spirit, and administrative-law judges to somehow, sort of, well-enough typically kinda ensure that these dull but all-important details are dealt with wisely. And government being mostly good, we need not fear that it will abuse its power.

Of course, I don’t really know what Layard has in mind. I’m speculating. But my thesis fits the pattern of what I witness over and over again in American proponents of active government. Certainly, someone who does think of the state as a kind of at least semi-god would naturally find opposition to use of this state as evidence of inexplicable meanness or small-mindedness.