As the ultimate private institution, the family is a stubborn obstacle to the great collective effort. Insofar as people invest in their own families, they are holding out on the state and unacceptably privileging their own kids over the children of others. These parents are selfish, small-minded, and backward. “Once it’s everybody’s responsibility,” [MSNBC host, Melissa] Harris-Perry said of child-rearing, “and not just the households, then we start making better investments.”
This impulse toward the state as über-parent is based on a profound fallacy and a profound truth. The fallacy is that anyone can care about someone else’s children as much as his own. The former Texas Republican senator Phil Gramm liked to illustrate the hollowness of such claims with a story. He told a woman, “My educational policies are based on the fact that I care more about my children than you do.” She said, “No, you don’t.” Gramm replied, “Okay: What are their names?” The truth is that parents are one of society’s most incorrigible sources of inequality. If you have two of them who stay married and are invested in your upbringing, you have hit life’s lottery. You will reap untold benefits denied to children who aren’t so lucky. That the family is so essential to the well-being of children has to be a constant source of frustration to the egalitarian statist, a reminder of the limits of his power.
Echoes of this attitude – that your children shouldn’t be privileged in your affections above the children of others - can be found in the pages of the left’s national newspaper. As, for instance, when Arabella Weir insisted that parents must make sacrifices - not for their own children, of course, which would be selfish and irresponsible - but of their own children. For the Greater Good. Children, see, must learn “who to be wary of, who to avoid, how to keep their heads down” by mingling conspicuously with “people of different abilities” and “local roughs,” including local roughs who see bookish children as prey. By Ms Weir’s thinking, if you had a grim and frustrating experience at a state comprehensive school, you should still want to inflict that same experience on your own offspring. Ideally, by sending them to a disreputable school with poor educational standards, demoralised teachers and lots of people for whom English is at best a second language. This, then, is what makes “a good, responsible citizen.”
The notion of children as collective property, something to be distributed for optimal social effect, as determined by the left, isn’t hard to find. Nor is it hard to find the penalties for thinking otherwise. As when the Guardian’s education journalist Janet Murray, who is presumably familiar with the eye-widening surveys of state schooling teaching staff, decided to spare her daughter those same physical and psychological thrills. And was promptly denounced by her readers in no uncertain terms. At least a dozen commenters called Ms Murray “selfish” on grounds that she is paying extra for her child’s education while also paying via taxes for a state system that she doesn’t regard as fit for use. (Paying twice, for her own child and for others, apparently makes her “elitist,” “uncaring” and mean.) Amid the inevitable accusations of racism and moral degeneracy, several readers took comfort, indeed pleasure, in the belief that Ms Murray would soon be fired for her heresy thus leaving her unable to afford her daughter’s tuition. Proof, if more were needed, that the Guardian is read by the nation’s most caring, enlightened and tolerant people.
For many on the left, the conventional family structure is at best problematic and, quite often, something to be disassembled. Beatrix Campbell, for instance, tells us that the typical family is “riven by power, patriarchy, conflict and the unequal distribution of resources and respect,” a description that doesn’t remotely fit any family I know. Not too long ago, the endlessly entertaining Laurie Penny – who entertains us for reasons she doesn’t quite comprehend – pointed her readers to a breathless endorsement of the fatherless family. New Enquiry contributor Madeleine Schwartz dubbed this non-nuclear unit the “anti-family,” thus signalling its countercultural radicalism and general sexiness. We were told, based on nothing much, that “a couple cannot raise a child better than one [person] can.” Apparently, the “diffusion” of the family unit – which is to say, absent fathers, hardship and subsequent dependence on the state – “is one of the most exciting things to happen to the American social pattern since sexual liberation.”
Ms Schwartz was careful to avoid actual data and striking correlations - say, between absent fathers and children’s educational failure, poverty, dependency and criminality – and so, for her, the “diffusion” of the family unit sounded very thrilling indeed, as woolly abstractions can. Buoyed by her own imagined radicalism, Ms Schwartz went on to claim, again based on nothing, that ‘nuclear’ family structures “isolate” people, rather than, say, introducing them to a potential support network of aunts, uncles, sisters-in-law, etc. You see, raising a child without a partner - and therefore without at least half of that familial support structure - isn’t isolating at all. Because somehow the “community” will fill in the gaps. Or more typically, the state and its bureaucracy, at other people’s expense. And gosh, how radical is that?
This rickety barge is kept afloat by the kindness of strangers.