During the campaign to push health-care reform, President Obama and his progressive supporters have repeatedly made a dubious distinction between freedom and responsibility. Those who oppose government-mandated or government-run health care are berated for shirking their responsibility to help create a fair and just society. Worse yet, they are chastised for placing personal freedom over responsibility to their fellow man.

Unfortunately, this false dichotomy between freedom and responsibility is embedded in the progressive worldview that currently dominates our national political leadership. Worse, it represents a grave danger to any society built upon progressive principles.

Progressives tend to view society as something that needs to be ordered from the top down. Those at the top are given the task of making key decisions and ordering society as they see fit. Government “experts” determine how to provide health care, who should go to college, what we should eat and what kind of cars we can drive. And, like parents of rebellious teenagers, they remind us that the restrictions and rules they have imposed upon us are all for our own good.

It is easy to see how individual freedom runs afoul of this way of governing. Anyone acting freely — that is, in a manner not in accord with the principles laid out by the government — is not acting responsibly and needs to be reprimanded. In the progressive mindset, individual freedom easily gets a bad name.

This is not to say that people don’t abuse their freedom. It happens all the time. However, the cure for this is not to take away freedom but to encourage the responsible use of it. The problem with progressive governments, which have their hands in every aspect of our lives, is that they actually discourage responsible use of human freedom. Why should a citizen act responsibly if the government is going to take care of him regardless of how he lives his life?

Universal day care provided by the government does not encourage responsible parenting. Rather, it allows those who neglect their children to continue their irresponsible behavior, often in good conscience. After all, the government is taking care of the kids for a few hours each day. In this environment, the government gradually encroaches upon the natural role of the parent, deciding, among other things, what moral values should be instilled in day-care kids.

John Paul II recognized this problem in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. “By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the social assistance state leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients.”

John Paul recognized that it is best to deal with problems and issues such as poverty, child care and health care not universally but locally. “It would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied,” wrote John Paul, “by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbors to those in need.”

This traditional Catholic insight, known as the principle of subsidiarity, is not unique to John Paul II, but has been echoed by Pope Benedict in Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love): “We do not need a state which regulates and controls everything, but a state which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces that combine spontaneity with closeness to those in need.”

When state control violates the principle of subsidiarity, contrary to the delusions of the progressive worldview, individuals become less responsible for their neighbors. Data on individual charitable giving bears this out. Charitable giving is much higher in the United States than in the European progressive democracies that bear a striking resemblance to the “social assistance state” that John Paul warned about. Even in this country, charitable giving is significantly higher among political moderates and conservatives; self-described liberal progressives give much less. It seems that many who put their trust in government to solve problems feel disinclined to do anything about it themselves.

This is the problem with the progressive nanny state. It numbs our better instincts and saps our personal responsibility. It does this because it loses sight of the individual in its desire to advance society. In the case of health-care reform, Obama and his supporters have tried to sell their package as a way to reduce overall costs and improve our country’s standard of care. Whether one is buying this or not is irrelevant, because the premise behind health-care reform is deficient. As Pope Benedict indicates in Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), “Progress of a merely economic and technological kind is insufficient.”

Progress that champions a cold cost-benefit calculus for the allocation of health-care resources is progress we can do without. A bureaucracy that views human beings as commodities to be herded through a health-care system — in some financially expedient manner in order to help minimize the impact on the national debt — can hardly be called progressive. Nor is it progress to look to expand federally funded abortions or mainstream euthanasia, even though it may make financial sense in the short term.

In the long term, though, “progress” that marginalizes human life will have devastating effects.

Pope Benedict hit the nail on the head in Caritas in Veritate. “When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life,” he wrote, “it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good.” The ever-declining birth rates in European progressive states where abortion and euthanasia are embraced aptly illustrate this point. When life is no longer valued, there is no value attached to having and raising children. Parenting gets in the way of “more pressing” concerns, such as how much paid vacation the government will provide.

When the government denies the sanctity of life, strips man of his freedoms and subsumes all responsibility, the human person wanders aimlessly through a state of self-indulgence. There is nothing to strive toward, and no reason to behave responsibly, if the government is poised to take care of everything. Private virtue is no longer needed, and individuals gradually lose the ability and desire to shape the moral norms of society.

When it comes to health care, our system certainly has its share of problems. But a government takeover is not the answer. Do you really want a pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia government making your health-care decisions? It would be far better to empower local communities and individuals to take action and find solutions that best address local needs and leave health-care decisions in the hands of the people.

Daniel Kuebler teaches

biology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.