Blogs > Liberty and Power > One Cultural Root of "Parental Socialism"

Aug 13, 2005 2:17 pm


One Cultural Root of "Parental Socialism"



My long-time friend and partner in Austrian crime (and L&P contributing editor) Pete Boettke has a nice new entry at The Austrian Economists blog. Pete is addressing James Buchanan's contributions to political economy (and runs down a great list of Buchanan aphorisms that generations of grad students have tried to take to heart). Specifically, Pete talks about the varieties of socialism that have been threats to economic and political freedom over the last 100 years. He notes that the 21st century version of socialism has a new twist to it, according to Buchanan:

But Buchanan claims in his essay "Afraid to Be Free: Dependence as Desideratum" that the new threat in the 21st century comes in the form of:

(4) parental socialism --- where the individuals invite the government to meddle in their lives to protect them from themselves and provide security in their lives from the vagaries of a life left to their own making.

That's my emphasis, which is to distinguish this form of socialism, which involves individuals asking to be saved from themselves (parental) from forms where elected leaders or self-appointed elites simply believed they had to save others from themselves (paternal). Pete argues that Buchanan believes parental socialism has arisen because:

Autonomy is losing its appeal. The learned helplessness we have acquired by living in a political culture of preferential treatment and protection from ourselves may have left the modern mind incapable of accepting the responsibilities of freedom. We are instead afraid to be free.

I think there's much truth to this, but I want to take it a step further. It's not just the political culture that creates this demand to be saved from ourselves, but other aspects of the culture as well. In particular, I want to talk about parenting and the family.

Part of the unwillingness and inability of many (especially young) adults to take responsibility for their own lives comes from being raised by parents who protected them from either having to choose (by doing it for them) or accepting responsibility for the outcomes of the choices (by trying to constantly bail them out of situations of their own making). In addition, too many parents operate in a climate of fear, where they will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that nothing "bad" ever happens to their children. Think of the parents who will only allow their child to play on a playground full of soft rubber equipment and mats so that the horror of a scraped knee or bruised shin will never be experienced. Or consider the way better-off parents have taken quickly to getting children diagnosed with learing disabilities the moment school gets tough or they are unable to live up to parental expectations. Although some such disabilities may be real, it can also be a convenient way of excusing self-responsibility. Consider further the umbilical cord of the cellphone, with so many college students constantly connected to parents - and not because just the parents want that connection, but because the students themselves often cannot make a decision without parental involvement and help. As this wonderful piece from Psychology Today terms it, we're fast becoming "A Nation of Wimps."

Having worked with incoming college students closely for four years, the future scares me. We have too many students arriving at college unprepared for the sorts of decisions they will have to make and for taking responsibility for the results. For example, a group of our students, in the wake of the alcohol-related death of a fellow student, demanded that the university provide a "drunk bus" from campus to the village so that they could drink heavily and not have to worry about getting home. Their argument was that they should be able to do whatever they want and that WE should be making sure it doesn't kill them. This is "parental socialism" at its core.

We also have students who are unprepared for failure, having been cushioned from it for 18 years by parents who believe that any negative outcome for their kids reflects some sort of failure on their part. My own diagnosis of much of this cultural problem is that too many parents want trophy kids and that the over-psychologizing of parenting has frozen parents into mortal fear of doing something "wrong" and damaging kids for life. Think of the vast literature on potty training. Ask people who parented before the 1960s about whether they needed a manual to train their kids, or feared deep psychological damage if they did it "too early" or "wrong." They will, rightly in my view, laugh in your face. (The psychologist-columnist John Rosemond is excellent on this issue and many others, though I don't agree with him on everything. See in particular his Bill of Rights for Children, which captures his approach well.)

I once said to a group of students that the sign of a good parent is that he or she is unafraid to make his or her children cry (e.g. by saying no and sticking to it). They were horrified. For thousands of years, humans made it to adulthood fully functional despite a world much scarier than that of the 21st century. It's a fascinating question why we've invented this culture of "safety" and fear around our children. Perhaps with the demise of real fears (childhood illnesses, widespread grinding poverty in the West, and children being killed while working), we create new ones, in a sort of "dark side" parallel of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. One test of this hypothesis would be whether or not these sorts of parenting practices and views of responsibility are directly correlated with a society's wealth. My own casual empiricism about my own students (both across differences in income within the US and between US students and those coming from poorer regions outside the US) suggests the hypothesis is correct.

And those of us who teach know these kids - they don't know how to react to a poor grade and work to improve it; they take all criticism (from faculty and peers) of their ideas or skills as being personal (or being the result of faculty political bias, rather than consider the possibility that they need to do better); and faced with personal crises, they are frozen into complete inactivity. And they expect their parents to make it all right. Once again, the cultural roots of parental socialism in a nutshell.

I don't consider myself a Randian or an Objectivist of any stripe, but this issue is an example of ol' Ayn being right on the mark in emphasizing the linkages between cultural practices, philosophical ideas, and the political-economic order. I invite, no I urge, Chris to chime in here and make this argument better than I can. It seems to me it's precisely the sorts of things he's talking about in the last few chapters of Total Freedom.

The challenge for those of us who cherish economic and political freedom is enormous. Without changes in the culture, specifically the culture around parenting, it will be increasingly difficult to convince people that a free society is a good society. As Chris and others have said, recognizing the central role of culture in this way inverts a famous feminist slogan; in this analysis, the political is often the personal.


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Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 8/18/2005

My own university, Louisiana State, has had a "drunk bus" for a few years now. I can't recall whose idea it was, however.


Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 8/13/2005

Steve, thanks for the plug regarding Total Freedom; I think you're right that Rand would have recognized the linkages here between cultural practices (including pedagogical ones), philosophical ideas, and the political-economic order. So much of what goes on in politics is simply the reproducing of personal and cultural dynamics; if one fails to deal with the latter, odds are that little will change in the former.

Interestingly, Barbara Branden, one of Rand's early associates, once suggested to me "that the inability to live with uncertainty .. is the root of dogmatism, true belief, fanaticism, etc." For Branden, "maturity is precisely the ability to live with uncertainty ... perhaps even to welcome it as a challenge." (I deal with this issue briefly in Total Freedom.)

I think, to a certain extent, that one will find commonality here with Hayek as well, who argued in The Road to Serfdom that "the most important change which extensive government control produces is a psychological change, an alteration in the character of the people." That is probably one of the worst consequences of political intervention, but it is also a reciprocally reinforcing cause of continued political intervention.

In the end, this desire to create a risk-free environment for children is but a microcosm of the same political movement to create a risk-free "secure" environment for adults through various mechanisms of constructivist "planning" that aim for some kind of illusory perfect efficacy, whereby every action brings about a known effect.