View Electronic Edition

The Body Politic

The metaphor of the Nation As Family is part of the conceptual systems of both liberals and conservatives. In that metaphor, the government is a parent. But what kind of parent, according to what model of parenting? Liberals apply the Nurturant Parent model. Conservatives, on the other hand, apply the Strict Father model of parenting to the Nation As Family metaphor. There are, of course, far more than two forms of morality and politics, even among conservatives and liberals. But set within normal human minds, the two family systems and moral systems that I will be outlining give rise, in a systematic way, to a considerable number of actual moral and political positions, each of which is a variation on one of the two systems.

The Strict Father Model

...A traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall family policy.

He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment. The punishment is typically mild to moderate, but sufficiently painful. It is commonly corporal punishment—say, with a belt or a stick. He also gains their cooperation by showing love and appreciation when they do follow the rules. But children must never be coddled, lest they become spoiled; a spoiled child will be dependent for life and will not learn proper morals.

The mother has day-to-day responsibility for the care of the house, raising the children, and upholding the father's authority. Children must respect and obey their parents, partly for their own safety, and partly because by doing so they build character, that is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are a vital part of family life, but they should never outweigh parental authority, which is itself an expression of love and nurturance—tough love. Self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that a child must learn. A mature adult becomes self-reliant through applying self-discipline in pursuing his self-interest. Survival is a matter of competition, and only through self-discipline can a child learn to compete successfully.

The mature children of the Strict Father have to sink or swim by themselves. They are on their own and have to prove their responsibilities and self-reliance. They have attained, through discipline, authority over themselves. They have to, and are competent to, make their own decisions. They have to protect themselves and their families. They know what is good for them better than their parents, who are distant from them. Good parents do not meddle or interfere in their lives.

The Nurturant Parent Model

...A family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one. If two, the parents share household responsibilities.

The primal experience behind this model is one of being cared for and cared about, having one's desires for loving interactions met, living as happily as possible, and deriving meaning from mutual interaction and care.

Children develop best through their positive relationships to others, through their contribution to their community, and through the ways in which they realize their potential and find joy in life. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being cared for and respected, and through caring for others. Support and protection are part of nurturance, and they require strength and courage on the part of parents. The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents, not out of the fear of punishment.

Open, two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial. If parents' authority is to be legitimate, they must tell children why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance. The questioning of parents by children is positive, since children need to learn why their parents do what they do, since children often have good ideas that should be taken seriously, and since all family members should participate in important decisions. Responsible parents, of course, have to make the ultimate decisions and that must be clear.

Protection of innocent and helpless children from [certain] evils is a major part of a nurturant parent's job. Crime and drugs are, of course, significant, but so are less obvious dangers: cigarettes, cars without seat belts, dangerous toys, inflammable clothing, pollution, lead paint, pesticides in food, diseases, unscrupulous businessmen, and so on.

A fulfilling life is assumed to be, in significant part, a nurturant life, one committed to family and community responsibility. Self-fulfillment and the nurturance of others are seen as inseparable. What children need to learn most is empathy for others, the capacity for nurturance, cooperation, and the maintenance of social ties. When children are respected, nurtured, and communicated with from birth, they gradually enter into a lifetime relationship of mutual respect, communication, and caring with their parents.

The Government As Parents

It is natural for liberals to see the federal government as a strong nurturant parent, responsible for making sure that the basic needs of its citizens are met: food, shelter, education, health care, and opportunities for self-development. A government that lets many of its citizens go hungry, homeless, uneducated, or sick while the majority of its citizens have more, often much more, than these basic needs met is an immoral, irresponsible government. And citizens who are not willing to support such governmental obligations are immoral, irresponsible citizens.

Conservatives, on the other hand, apply the Strict Father model of parenting to the Nation As Family metaphor. To them, social programs amount to coddling people—spoiling them. Instead of having to learn to fend for themselves, people can depend on the public dole. This makes them morally weak, removing the need for self-discipline and willpower. Such moral weakness is a form of immorality. And so, conservatives see social programs as immoral, affirmative action included.

Take a simple example: college loans. The federal government has had a program to provide low-interest loans to college students. The students don't have to start paying off the loans while they are still in college and the loans are interest-free during the college years. The liberal rationale for the program is this: College is expensive and a great many poor-to-middle-class students cannot afford it. This loan program allows a great many students to go to college who otherwise wouldn't. Going to college allows one to get a better job at a higher salary afterward and to be paid more during one's entire life. This benefits not only the student but also the government, since the student will be paying more taxes over his lifetime because of his better job.

From the liberal moral perspective, this is a highly moral program. It helps those who cannot help themselves. It promotes fulfillment in life in two ways, since education is fulfilling in itself and it permits people to get more fulfilling jobs. It strengthens the nation, since it produces a better-educated citizenry and ultimately brings in more tax money; and it is empathetic behavior making access to college more fairly distributed.

But through conservative spectacles, this is an immoral program. Since students depend on the loans, the program supports dependence on the government rather than self-reliance. Since not everyone has access to such loans, the program introduces competitive unfairness, thus interfering with the free market in loans and hence with the fair pursuit of self-interest. Since the program takes money earned by one group and, through taxation, gives it to another group, it is unfair and penalizes the pursuit of self-interest by taking money from someone who has earned it and giving it to someone who hasn't.

No Alternative to the Nation as Family?

If one is disturbed by the Nation as Family metaphor, whether in conservative or in liberal discourse, one might ask whether there are alternative, non-family-based metaphors for politics, or even whether it is possible to have a metaphor-free conception of government.

Governments have armies and judicial systems, and so governments have in part been modeled metaphorically as armies or as judicial systems. Thus, the American government has a top-to-bottom chain of command, as in an army.

In recent years, the American government is conceptualized as a Government as Business metaphor which is to be run efficiently and not lose money. But, what kind of business should it be? The present wisdom has been one specializing in customer service. Taxes, from this perspective, are seen as payments for services rendered to the public, and the impersonality of a factory-like bureaucracy is to be replaced by a more personal form of service.

The government is seen from this perspective as just selling its services to the public for tax money. According to this view, there is no morality in government, just services for sale. It then becomes a practical, not a moral, question as to whether a particular government agency works better than private enterprise. Government as a service industry becomes subject to cost-benefit analysis. Under this model, if the private sector can do a better job, then it should.

Let us take as examples two very different cases. First, Michael Barzelay's example of the Minnesota state motor pool [from Breaking Through Bureaucracy , University of California Press, 1992] is a perfect example of the government-as-service-industry concept. The job of the pool is to provide cars to state officials for the performance of state functions. There is no issue of morality here, just one of efficient operation. If the state motor pool cannot provide better and cheaper service than Hertz and Avis, then it should go out of business. So far, so good.

But compare this with the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has not just a practical mission but a moral mission—safeguarding the environment, which includes choosing a moral view of the environment. There is no neutral view of the environment; there are only moral views. The EPA's job is not merely to carry out morally neutral functions like measuring air pollution. Its regulations, its forms of testing, its research projects, and its sanctions all come out of a moral vision. Parts of its job could be farmed out to the private sector, but its overall job could not, because the market does not incorporate inherent values, such as the inherent value of nature that emerges from the Nurturant Parent model. It is at points like this that family-based morality enters crucially into government. The same is true of the moral missions of the arts and humanities endowments.

The point of these examples is that the policy debates are not matters of rational discussion on the basis of literal and objective categories. The categories that shape the debate are moral categories; those categories are defined in terms of different family-based conceptions of morality, which give priority to different metaphors for morality. The debate is not a matter of objective, means-end rationality or cost-benefit analysis or effective public policy. It is not just a debate about the particular issue, college loans or the EPA. The debate is about the right form of morality, and that in turn comes down to the question of the right metaphor of the family. The role of morality and the family is inescapable.

Adapted from Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don't ,

© by George Lakoff. University of Chicago Press, 1996. Used with permission.