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Editorials • April 1, 2007


I am a registered libertarian.  As a libertarian, I have always found the two dominant political positions in US politics a bit puzzling.  The combination of values which congeals into American conservatism does not seem to me a natural fit.  The same can be said for the opposing values and liberalism. 

George Lakoff is a professor of cognitive linguistics at UC who has proposed an elaborately drawn metaphor which equates the government with a family.  He then presents two models for its role, each of which is driven by a different model of parenting.  In his own words:

I read the "Contract with America" and found myself unable to comprehend how conservative views formed a coherent set of political positions. What, I asked myself, did opposition to abortion have to do with the flat tax? What did the flat tax have to do with opposition to environmental regulations? What did defense of gun ownership have to do with tort reform? Or tort reform with opposition to affirmative action?... The answer is that there are distinct conservative and progressive worldviews. The two groups simply see the world in different ways.

... I worked backward. I took the various positions on the conservative side and on the progressive side and I said, "Let's put them through the [family] metaphor from the opposite direction and see what comes out." I put in the two different views of the nation, and out popped two different models of the family: a strict father family and a nurturant parent family.

Wikipedia elaborates better that I could:  Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family. Conservatives would subscribe more strongly and more often to a model which he calls the "strict father model" and has a family structured around a strong, dominant "father" (government), and assumes that the "children" (citizens) need to be disciplined to be made into responsible "adults" (financially and morally responsible beings). However, the "children" are "adults", and so the "father" should not interfere with their lives: the government should stay out of the business of those in society who have proved their responsibility. In contrast, Lakoff argues that liberals place more support in a model of the family, which he calls the "nurturant parent model", based on "nurturant values", where both "mothers" and "fathers" work to keep the essentially good "children" away from "corrupting influences" (pollution, social injustice, poverty, etc).

Like Milton Friedman, the subject of last month's editorial, George Lakoff is an activist academic.  (That is about all he shares with Milton Friedman.)  In additions to books and lectures, he heads a progressive think tank, the Rockridge Institute, which concentrates in part on helping liberal candidates and politicians with re-framing political metaphors.

To my mind, Lakoff's family metaphor may help explain the political motivation of left and right.  However, what Lakoff overlooks is that any “family” of 300,000,000 souls is, by definition, dysfunctional.  (Never mind 7 billion!)  A polity is not a family and cannot really function as such.  One would only subscribe to either paternal model of governance if one believed that it was the proper role of government to father us, i.e. to take care of us and mold us into some kind of right-thinking (or left-thinking) adult.  My libertarian sensitivities reject the role of parent for the state.  I think the point that Lakoff is missing is that we are not children; we are already adults.  Why else do they let us vote? 


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