Over on the Cato Institute’s blog, David Boaz wrote about a pretty shocking example of state over-reach:  a woman in Michigan who kindly watches a neighbors’ three children while they wait for the bus in front of her house in the morning (for no pay) is being told by the Department of Health and Human Services that she either needs to get a license to run a childcare center or stop helping out her friend. Boaz writes: 

This is what people mean when they warn that an ever-expanding government threatens the values of neighborliness and community. When the government provides services for free, or when it erects obstacles to individuals’ providing those services, it reduces private provision and simultaneously increases the demand for government services. If you make it illegal for neighbors to watch one another’s kids, you weaken ties of neighborhood and community.

It’s an important point.  Women’s groups like NOW focus on how big government assists women when they create government programs to provide for daycare or government-run schools, but ignore the costs.  And often times when government begins providing a service, it crowds out private providers and leaves us with worse options.  This may be the private preschools that will go out of business if there are “free” government-provided options.  But it also might be family and friends who get crowded out.  I might ask my mom or a friend to watch my kids a morning a week for me, but if everyone knows I could drop my kids off down the street at Uncle Sam’s daycare center for no charge, then why should I impose and why should they feel at all like helping me?  There’s a real loss in that–the loss of an important, long-term relationship for my kids, and the loss of a sense of importance and responsiblity within the community. 

Often when we talk about whether government should get involved in subsidizing pre-school and other such programs, we focus on issues of efficacy — do test scores and studies that show whether kids are better off as a result of more formal education at age 3?– and the burden on taxpayers.  Those are important issues to be sure, but secondary to this more fundamental issue of government eroding civil society.