The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 1:14:37

Overregulating the Person

Devra Torres, Jun 01, 2012

New York wants to outlaw the Slurpee.  School bake sales and homemade lunches have fallen under suspicion.  Exorbitant fines have been levied on a peace-loving Idaho couple for moving some dirt onto a dry plot of ground that--sure enough--turned out not to be a wetland after all.  Rules and regulations are sprouting faster than the weeds on our lawn since the three-year-old has learned to turn on the sprinkler.


But I fondly remember an institution that took a very different approach.

On my first day of college, President Peter V. Sampo (center, below) of the Thomas More Institute of Liberal Arts sat us down to lay out the rules.

There were three of them. 

Number One: No hanging out in the bedrooms of the opposite sex.

Number Two: No alcohol on campus. 

Number Three was a recent addition, promulgated a couple of years earlier when a guy named Tony had enrolled.  Tony was a hunter, and he was fond of carrying his rifle around.  So, after imagining the misgivings of the other students’ parents for a minute, Dr. Sampo reluctantly instituted Rule Number Three: No firearms.

Why reluctantly?  Because the whole point of our liberal arts education was to form people on the inside, not micromanage them from the outside.  To form, not to brainwash: not the wily “consensus-building” of politicians, nor the bogus “tools and techniques” so beloved of MBA’s for making underlings conform to corporate culture and like it.  Rather, this was an appeal to the heart and intellect, so as to elicit the free consent of the person, who could then wholeheartedly say, “These are the ideas I want to live by.”  Or not.

St. Augustine has a still more streamlined rule: "Love and do as you will."

Granted, that would be an impractical blueprint for running a country, a college, or even a family.  Our intellects are clouded, our wills weakened.  Our love is not that perfect, and our minds can’t reliably discern which actions would be in accordance with perfect love, anyway.

Where, then, can we draw a reasonable line? 

Clearly, some rules and regulations are necessary.  As a new mother, I was astounded by the sheer quantity of instructions I’d never imagined a person would need to give.  I started jotting them down:

It wasn’t their fault.  They had no experience, no common sense, no civilization.  To give them liberty would have been to give them death. 

They didn’t much like my rules.  They never did learn to.  But they did gradually outgrow the need for the bulk of them. 

The thing is, the more rules and regulations you impose, the less free range you’re allowing for common sense, prudence and mature judgment.  And the less of those you have--the more atrophied they become--the more you’re forced to rely on rules and regulations.  The question is not so much “What’s the correct amount of regulation?” as “How can we develop persons who can thrive without it?” or “How can we promote the ability to outgrow the need for it?”

As I noted a few weeks ago, God doesn’t overregulate: He doesn’t impose uniformity.  He lets us stew in our own juices, up to a point.  The prodigal son’s father doesn’t prevent his departure, doesn’t chase him down.  He waits in continual readiness to take his son back, once he freely makes up his mind to return. 

In the movement from Old to the New Testament you can see the progression away from burdensome “rules and regulations” towards the “glorious freedom of the children of God,” although, contrary to stereotype, Judaism is no lifeless, heartless collection of rubrics.

In the Torah, God laid down two principles for his people:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God

with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.


Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

This was espressed in the Ten Commandments and elaborated into the 613 Mitzvot—and then Jesus distilled it all back down again.  The rules were given, the regulations were developed, and then we were reminded what it was all for.  The Law was not abolished, but fulfilled.

You might be wondering: What does this have to do with the abolition of Slurpees in New York?  

Well, it doesn't specify how many ounces of an obesity-inducing drink a citizen may legally consume.  

It indicates, though, that the answer doesn't lie in an ever-more-detailed, ever-more-intrusive tangle of government regulations.  That would be a lot like giving my preschooler sole discretion over the use of the sprinkler.

Nor do we need to abolish rules and regulations altogether.  We don't want all our little boys skateboarding into the sea.

But we don't want to remain little boys forever, either.

If you give people as much freedom as possible, they may or may not learn to use it well.  If you give them as little as possible, they never will.