by Richard Ebeling
Whatever criticisms may be made of the Trump Administration, the “progressives” and others on “the left” offer nothing new that they have not been advocating for more than a century. It is the same old message that “society” should be viewed as an extended family with the members having obligations to each other, and government is the guiding “parent” for this societal family.
Whereas in the real world, it is individual human beings who form families on the basis of voluntary consent and agreement, the progressive’s vision of a society-wide family is imposed by control and command by government. Real parents normally view as one of their leading parental responsibilities the teaching to their children the lessons that will, hopefully make them independent and self-supporting adults. In the political “family,” the governmental “parent” invariably creates a perpetual dependency through regulation and redistribution from which the “citizen-children” find it difficult to escape.
In the political “family” government assigns the “citizen-children” to the tasks and roles and places in society that those who hold political office and who man the bureaucracies decide is desirable, good, and “just.” In the real world, individuals and families find their own places in the wider social setting of the voluntary institutions of civil society, including and especially those of the marketplace that provide the associations and relationships to solve the interpersonal problems for which human beings need each others’ assistance and cooperation.
The end result of the progressive’s notions of “family” and “parental” guidance is to depersonalize and dehumanize the potentials for a free and prosperous humane society, to, in fact, undermine all that family and parentage rightly and appropriately should be and represent.
Society is Not a Family, Government is Not a Parent
by Richard Ebeling
Few things are as clear as the bankruptcy of the political “left.” Ranting and raving about Donald Trump and “anti-democratic” trends in the United States and other parts of the world, their own vision and vista for a “progressive” and “renewed” America is nothing but the same old statist and collectivist songs they have been singing for more than a century, now.
In his July 14, 2017 daily missive in “The New Yorker” online, columnist John Cassidy rails against the Republican proposals for repeal and reform of ObamaCare. But he also states clearly his starting ideological premises:
It is worth restating what is at stake here: the principle that society is made up of people with mutual obligations, including the duty to try to protect everyone from what Franklin Roosevelt called the ‘hazards and vicissitudes of life’ such as old age, unemployment, and sickness.
Notice the underlying presumption, that it is as if society is an extended family in which everyone is presumed to have responsibilities to its other members. Clearly, in this view of mankind, it is the duty and role of the government to see that each of the societal family members contributes some “fair share” to cover everyone else’s “protections” against the “hazards and vicissitudes of life.”
Real Parents and Private Families
Within a real family, it is generally taken for granted that the parents set the direction and form of the chores and responsibilities that the other members of the family – the children – are assigned and expected to fulfill. First of all, the parents are the adults and are presumed to have more wisdom, knowledge and experience to know what has to be done and to assign each child the tasks they seem able and old enough to perform around the house.
Of course, parents are not omniscient beings that always know what needs to be done, or the best way, or who, reasonably and responsibly, might be assigned those activities among the younger family members. Everyone who has grown up in a family remembers times when they resented or disliked things that they were told they had to do, and how it sometimes seemed unfair in comparison to the chores assigned or the rewards given to a sibling.
But, nonetheless, it is, normally, the parents who determine if Johnny gets the rollerblades and, if so, which ones in terms of the cost and type. Parents usually are the ones who determine at what age the child gets a cell phone or has use of a family car on a Saturday night if they have gotten their driver’s license.
Plus, at a certain age, if any of the children want more than the parents can afford or think they should simply “give” to one of the children, they are told that maybe they could get some type of job around the neighborhood after school or on weekends to earn the money to buy what it is they want. Besides, the parents may consider it a good lesson in self-responsibility to have to earn the income to buy the things that are wanted and to learn how to wisely manage the money that is earned for when they are an adult who leaves the family nest and is, finally, on their own.
It is usually considered a proper and necessary part of parenting precisely to prepare a child for independent adulthood when it is not someone else – mom and dad – who will see that “everything is alright.”
Government as Political Parent
If the notion of a family is extended to the members of society as a whole, it is important to ask, “Who are the parents?” In the political setting this can only mean politicians holding political office and those who man and manage the government bureaucracies regulating and controlling the private and social affairs of the citizenry, and determining the distribution of income and wealth among the social “family” members via the tax system.
“Progressives” and others on “the left,” of course, parrot some variation of the chant, “participatory democracy.” But what does this actually mean? In the real world of modern democratic politics it means that coalitions of special interest groups – all asserting their representation of the “true” and “real” interests of “the people” as whole – elect those into political office who will then impose their particular sets of values and belief systems on everyone in society. This includes all those who may have voted against the promised policies of those placed in high political office, as well as those who may have chosen not to vote either out of apathy or belief that it is a waste of time.
Furthermore, our political “mommies” and “daddies” have something most real parents in modern, enlightened society no longer have: they have the legal or ethical right to use physical force and intimidation to get those under their “parental care” to do what they in political office want to be done.
Any real child actually abused or suspected of such treatment is often placed under the care of “Social Services” (which, itself, unfortunately, can be abusive and overreaching in pursuit of its mission). Real parents not only risk loss of custody over their child, but they may even face serious jail time. On the other hand, the abused “citizen-child” has no such means of escape when they are compulsorily made to conform to the dictates of those governmental “parents” holding the reins of legitimized political force. Instead, the abused citizen is more likely, himself, to end up in custody and face incarceration (or worse!), if they oppose or resist the fiscal and regulatory commands of the state
The Relationship between Family and Society
The fact is, “society” is ultimately made up of individuals who, over centuries of slow and truly enlightened thought and controversy, have come to be considered to possess certain inherent and unalienable rights to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property under an appropriate system of an impartial and unbiased rule of law. Certainly, that is the philosophical perspective that guided the American colonists to declare their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and, then, implement a Constitution that was meant to recognize and secure those rights precisely from abusive, tyrannical and corrupt government.
Individuals in society form families through voluntary choices of associating themselves due to romantic, psychological, philosophical, cultural and economic and other attractions that make two people want to “be together.” Out of this intimate relationship, traditionally through a formal marriage (but not necessarily anymore), children are often either born or adopted as part of the emotional and social sense of “family” and offspring.
Unfortunately, marriages or “relationships” do not always last, and sometimes end in divorce or separation. Unlike in that not so distant past, unwilling partners are no longer forced to remain in that marriage or relationship if it is no longer fulfilling in the broadest sense for both partners.
The government, however, does not allow unwilling societal “partners” and community “family” members to sever the relationship with political power. No matter how much an individual may disagree with what the government does, or the means through which it does it, or the burden that government imposes on the individual in pursuit of the political goals chosen by those in governmental authority, there is no divorce allowed.
The individual is a permanent prisoner of the “community” in which birth or circumstances have placed him, under the type of collectivist ethos espoused by someone like John Cassidy. The individual is viewed and treated as a perpetual child unable to find his own job, unable to plan his own retirement, and not intelligent and responsible enough to select and finance his own medical care. It is fitting that when the proponents of the modern welfare state first made the case for it in Bismarck’s Imperial Germany in the late nineteenth century, they referred to it as political care for all “from cradle to grave.” (See my article, “American Progressives are Bismarck’s Grandchildren”.)
Civil Society and Human Institutions
In the free society, human relationships among the broad population are not bound together by the compulsory dictates of political command, as is inescapable in the very nature of the modern interventionist-welfare state. Instead, human beings are interconnected by the voluntary associative relationships and institutions of “civil society” – the workplace, family, charity and philanthropy, church, cultural interests, and many others through which people find ways to better fulfill and improve their lives with like-minded people with whom they share ideas, values, and shared goals. (See my article, “Individual Liberty and Civil Society”.)
The real communities and associations of civil society are rich with diversity, variety and complexity. They overlap and interconnect people in various ways and for multiple purposes reflecting the many sides of people’s lives, interests, desires and beliefs. Each of us belongs to several of them, while not to others. Each chooses which of these associations and voluntary communities of shared interest we will join and participate in. And we can change our “memberships” in them as we find our purposes, values and wants change as our experiences, circumstances and ideas change over time.
Some of these relationships of civil society may literally involve the people next door, as in a homeowners’ association. Others may incorporate a wider circle of people in the larger neighborhood, as with a religious house of worship to which we may belong, or a service club like Rotary whose meetings we attend regularly or when we participate in a literary reading group that meets a couple of times a month; or when we work with charity organizations for which we volunteer our time and may give a monetary contribution within our local community. We may be involved with other parents through the local little league sports activities that our children participate in.
We also often are members of professional associations that may incorporate people and activities from across the entire country and other nations around the world. We sometimes share hobby interests with people who may live half way around the world, who we may come to know rather well through the “miracle” of the worldwide web, even though we may never actually meet face-to-face.
When I was a small boy, our family belonged to what was called the “cousin’s club” that connected and kept in touch our “extended family” of uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and actual cousins we were sometimes three or four “removed.” And once or twice a year there would be arranged a banquet dinner to which a large number of the members of our extended family would attend.
This, too, was one of the interpersonal institutions of civil society through which a wider sense of family, “belonging” and appreciation of origins and “roots” could be maintained across generations and over numerous “nuclear” families dispersed across the country. Knowing what was going on in the lives of the wider network of family members also provided useful information if something had to be done to help out, say, Aunt Minnie, who couldn’t get around on her own very well anymore and needed help with some of the everyday chores of life. Or Uncle Bob, who lost his job, and someone in the family needed to take him in for a while until something else might be found for him to at least partly still financially take care of himself, even though he was, now, getting up in years.
Government “Parenting” and Dehumanized Society
But when the government takes on the role of “parent” or ‘big brother” and takes responsibility for all such things, it weakens the personal and familial senses of duty and obligation most people in a free society would ethically and voluntarily feel “the right thing to do” to help, handle and work out with others in the narrower or wider circle of actual relatives.
People in the interventionist-welfare state soon are desensitized and even dehumanized to these matters. After all, “isn’t that what government is for?” Besides, “I’ve paid my taxes” to pay for those “social services.” And, in addition, “shouldn’t that be left up to the qualified experts in the government who know how to handle these things?”
As a result, government “crowds out” through taxes and depersonalizes through bureaucratization of human concerns what should be, could be, and once was the purpose and humane superiority of those institutions and associations of civil society. Detached from the spontaneous associations of human concern in a free society, the individual is left more alone facing and dependent upon the anonymous “generosity” and eligibility constraints and dictates of the State. (See my article, “A World Without the Welfare State”.)
Furthermore, is through that most important institution of civil society, the free, competitive market economy, that all of those concerns expressed by John Cassidy and others are able to be met and satisfied to a far greater and better degree that when provided or imposed by political power and planning. Virtually all the shortcomings that Mr. Cassidy, for instance, sees in the current system of medical insurance and health care, and for the solution of which he wishes to turn even more intensely to government involvement, are, in fact, due to the degree and extent to which existing political intervention, command and control have prevented the full emergence and working of a market-based system of medical insurance and health care provision. (See my articles, “ObamaCare Equals One-Size-Fits-All”, and “For Healthcare the Best Government Plan is No Plan”.)
The Market Economy as a Participatory Community
The market economy brings together into one vast network of human association, dependency, and betterment the entire populations of communities, countries and continents. Those on “the left” often speak majestically about transcending the confines of narrow nationalism and political boundaries drawn on maps. Yet, no social institution succeeds in this as effectively for material, cultural and social improvement of all mankind than the free, competitive market economy.
The market creates a shared and “participatory” community through the social system of division of labor. Each individual member is free to live his own life and follow his own course as interest, desire and conscience guides him. But he is bound together with all of the others in this “family” of mutually associated demanders and supplies. Each relies upon the productions of his global neighbors for his needs, wants, and whims from the supply sides of the market. Yet, he, in turn, can only call upon their providing him with what he demands to the extent that, reciprocally, has earned the income to buy what he wants by, first, serving others through supplying them with what they desire. We first must be voluntary supply-side “servants” guided by the market demands of others for us to, then, be demand-side “masters” who are now served by those who supply and serve us.
At this point, Mr. Cassidy and others would ask, but what about those who do to misfortune, circumstances, or “bad luck” do not have the means to fully care for themselves because of lack of sufficient financial and other resources?
But that is what those institutions and associations of civil society partly emerge for, and can do and have done much better than when government preempts them through taxes extracted and regulations imposed that makes it prohibitive or impractical for private individuals and groups to successfully undertake the necessary tasks for these purposes.
It is the reason that classical liberals and many libertarians have argued for and even insisted upon constitutionally limited government. Only by narrowing the functions and responsibilities of government to those essential duties of protecting individual liberty rather and abridging it, can the members of a free society successfully be adults free of political parents who presume to know enough to tell them what to do and how to live, and what forms of peaceful association with others will be allowed or compelled.
It is why it is important to not fall victim to or leave unanswered the misguided ideas that “society is a family” and that government should be considered our perpetual caregiving “parent.”
Dr. Richard Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.
Dr. Ebeling is the author of Austrian Economics and Public Policy: Restoring Freedom and Prosperity (2016); Monetary Central Planning and the State (2015) as well as the author of Political Economy, Public Policy, and Monetary Economics: Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian Tradition (2010) and Austrian Economics and the Political Economy of Freedom (2003). And the editor of the three-volume, Selected Writing of Ludwig von Mises, published by Liberty Fund.
He is also the co-editor of When We Are Free (Northwood University Press, 2014), an anthology of essays devoted to the moral, political and economic principles of the free society, and co-author of the seven-volume, In Defense of Capitalism (Northwood University Press, 2010-2016).