If You Give a Mouse a Cookie

Have you ever read, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”? If you haven’t, it’s a children’s book about a mouse that, after receiving a cookie, wants a glass of milk. After a series of more rodential requests, the mouse requests once more a glass of milk, and then another cookie to go with the milk. It’s a classic example of a slippery slope, the idea that a relatively small first step will lead to a chain of events ending in a negative, disastrous result. Slippery slope arguments are often fallacious, but not necessarily. Today, I will be presenting an argument that good-intentioned Catholics should not seek government assistance in eradicating evil, and should instead embrace a more liberated approach.

What is the purpose of civil government? If you were to ask King Henry VIII of England, the government can do anything from raising taxes and waging war, to legislating morality and regulating the religion of a geographic area. I’m not terribly fond of this idea, considering what followed from Henry’s takeover of the Church of England (executions due to perjury and seizing of property, including monasteries), Others suggest the government should provide for the basic needs of its people, including defense and health, or that the purpose is to ensure that our money, resources, products, or even lifestyles are protected from severe loss or discrimination. These are not terrible ambitions, and we should want some of these things for ourselves. The issue I struggle with—and one the Founding Fathers did, too— is if this is the proper domain of government.

The Framers, through the Preamble of the Constitution, wrote that the proper function of government is to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Here’s what that means, in order:

  1. 1. Arbitrate between opposing interests
  2. 2. Maintain some means (typically police) of continued civil peace
  3. 3. Raise an adequate fighting force for national defense
  4. 4. Preserve the overall benefit of the nation
  5. 5. Safeguard man’s natural rights

All of these are the essential functions that governments have had to fulfill for nearly any civilization. Almost every government has had some form of courts, police, military, and they generally like to make sure their people are well-off, by laying roads, building hospitals, etc. Governments, however, have not always recognized natural-born rights. This was a unique concept the Founders enshrined in the Declaration of Independence; that the rights of man are not granted by the state, but endowed by the Creator, and that the state’s function is merely to secure those rights.

There are three essential rights according to the Declaration: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Committee of Five, who wrote the Declaration, took these from John Locke, an English philosopher. What do they mean? Life: your life or person, as an individual in civil society, is yours, to do with as you please, excluding any action that infringes upon the rights of any other. No one can take it from you (murder) or damage it (injury). Liberty: you are free to engage in any activity you see fit, providing, again, that you do not infringe upon the rights of others. Murder, fraud, and slavery are not allowed. The last right can be property, your property, and that theft from and by any person or institution is forbidden. The pursuit of happiness is similar: you are free to engage in a lifestyle that would lead to what you consider happiness, providing it does not infringe upon the rights of others. This includes the purchase, ownership, and sale of property, among a number of other things. It is broader.

These are the rights the Fathers resolutely believed that we, as individuals, are born with, rights that could not be taken away from anyone or by any institution, including—especially—the government. In fact, it is important to note that the state has no natural rights. It can be granted powers and privileges by those with sovereign power (a king or a people), but there is nothing inherent to a government that gives it a natural right. It derives all of its existence from the organizing power—individuals.

As such, the government must give way to individual liberty, to our trivium of rights, which are intimately connected. Each relies upon the other to be strong. Let me provide a common example that shows how important they are to each other and to our everyday life. These rights allow us to:

  • Go to a bar
  • That someone owns
  • On a Saturday night
  • In a car
  • Designed by an automotive expert
  • Built by a laborer
  • Sold by a salesman
  • In order to drink sinful amounts of beer
  • That someone made
  • And was sold and bought
  • And then the next day be able to go to Confession
  • Worship in the Mass
  • In a building constructed by a parish

I could go on and on. There’s an almost infinite amount of free choices we make that rely upon life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. This is the American Dream, that we have liberty to be good and joyful people. Yet, it also means we have the liberty to be bad and vicious people. That’s not attractive, though, and that’s the problem. 

We can’t stand the ugliness that comes with freedom. We can’t stand the fact that some people throw their lives away, are racist, or are irresponsible with their choices. We can’t accept that freedom means a businessman can build up an empire while many go homeless. Or that a kid excels in school because he lives in a “good” neighborhood, but another fails because he’s in the inner city. We shouldn’t like these things; they are not what we should want, and we should strive to solve them. But, we cannot invoke the state and its power of force to change these things. To invite the state to meddle with society’s ills and fortunes is to court a developing tyranny, which has no ambition other than to maintain power. The change and improvement to our communities must come from within, from the efforts of individuals freely engaging each other.

If it’s not already clear, I’m advocating for a society that limits how much the government can do and regulate. I want it limited so that the good man can be free to be good, even if it means the bad man is free to be bad. There is precedent for my position. St. Thomas Aquinas believed the Eternal Law, the wisdom of God that guides the universe, is not fully known by man. The Natural Law is man’s participation in the Eternal Law, is inscribed on his heart, and can be known fully through reason. The Human Law, the civil law, or sometimes custom, is narrower in scope, and though it should not contradict the Natural Law, it should not be identical, either.

It is impossible to regulate all human action. Human Law, according to Aquinas, though it must not promote evil, should nevertheless permit evil actions in order to prevent greater evils, like civil unrest. Evil actions can occur so long as they do not threaten societal stability or the natural rights of others, such as life and property. Aquinas’ tolerance of evil is not a complicit support of sin, far from it. Aquinas did not want people to sin, but he also did not want human law to interfere where it need not interfere. We can draw a parallel of tolerance in the Eternal Law. God is all-powerful, but allows certain evils to take place in the universe, though he can prevent them. Why? Because God respects and values our free will so much that he would permit the damnation of all men in order to preserve it.

Of course, free will and the Founder’s notion of liberty are not exactly the same. Liberty as the Founders saw it was freedom from obligation; freedom as the Church sees it is enslavement to Christ. We can, however, reflect God in our own human law through the preservation of liberty. Liberty allows for terrible things, but it also allows us as citizens to shun terrible things, to criticize charitably, and to offer guidance. It puts the burden of moral responsibility upon our individual shoulders, and not the collective state’s.

But shouldn’t the government promote the virtue of traditional marriage, or discourage the vice of online pornography? Those are good things to do, but they exceed the basic, outlined interests of the state. The state should be limited in specialized interests, lest we risk endangering our rights. One day it’s welfare programs directed at assisting married families and bans on pornographic websites. The next day the government expands the programs to include polygamy to increase the population, and establishes a prohibition on “questionable” websites. Before you know it, there’s a bureaucratic agency set up to ensure “the genetically defective” are not procreating, and any type of website that “upsets the established peace” is removed and their owners arrested. If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to ask for a glass of milk. If you give the government authority, it’s going to take your freedom.

When we put up with evil in civil law, though we are burdened with eradicating evil as a community, we are free to do just that. If the civil law does not tolerate such evil, it becomes exceedingly likely that the civil law will not tolerate the truth, either. It will not tolerate freedom. We can grant power for a singular purpose, but it is impossible to grant it in a singular fashion. Power is a neutral tool, that, once accumulated, can be manipulated for far different purposes than originally intended. We should instead restrain our passions and desires to help others to our own initiative, as individuals and communities of individuals. I urge you not to risk your freedom to preach the Gospel by legally silencing evil. The less we give to the government and the more we embrace liberty, the freer we are to do God’s good work.