We Are NOT Family

From Obama’s 2011 State of the Union Address:

We are part of the American family. We believe that in a country where every race and faith and point of view can be found, we are still bound together as one people; that we share common hopes and a common creed; that the dreams of a little girl in Tucson are not so different than those of our own children, and that they all deserve the chance to be fulfilled.

Now, it’s true about people’s dreams being similar, but the implication that other people’s dreams and wishes should be as important to us as those of people we’ve chosen to love and support is not just wrong, it’s pernicious.

This metaphor of the nation as a family seems superficially attractive. It feels warm and fuzzy, and very humanitarian, to want the whole country to treat each other as they would their intimate loved ones. But, it’s not possible or desirable. We don’t actually know enough about strangers to push them towards what we think is best. And we don’t have enough resources (or, again, knowledge) to divide what we have among the needs and wants of everybody in the country. We’re all better off if we divide our attention and resources in a way that reflects what we actually know, and what we can actually improve.

Hayek understood this. From The Fatal Conceit:

Part of our present difficulty is that we must constantly adjust our lives, our thoughts and our emotions, in order to live simultaneously within the different kinds of orders according to different rules. If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e. of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we were always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of world at once.

The family metaphor is very convenient for tyrants. If we’re a family, why shouldn’t our wealth be redistributed? If we’re a family, why shouldn’t some have to pay for the health and education of strangers? If we’re a family, why shouldn’t the government (parents) be able to force endless rules upon us (children) for our own good, and call upon us to constantly sacrifice our own preferences for what the government has determined is for the greater good of the family?

But, we are NOT a family*. We are nation of free individuals.

If we can remember that, all of our families will be better off.

* This does not apply to members of my actual family (of smartasses).


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