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September 24, 2007

influence of parents

Libertarians and free-marketers like to think we are free except when we are constrained by laws and governments. Liberals and socialists like to think that people are affected substantially by the state--potentially for the good. None of us takes seriously enough what we know in our bones. We aren't free, because we begin as completely helpless little beings within mini-states called "families" where the adults have enormous power. How they raise us largely determines what we will value and how we will make our way in the world.

I write this with no autobiographical intent. My own parents did as good a job as is humanly possible in helping their children to develop autonomously. And my wife and I are, to quote Bruno Bettelheim, "good enough parents"--I am not plagued by guilt on that score. But the experience of being a parent does bring home the enormous power that role gives you: a power so great as to make almost any government seem almost marginal.

To illustrate the point .... America's Promise uses survey questions to gauge the degree to which parents are supportive of, and close to, their own teenage children. These questions probe subjective impressions of "closeness" plus the frequency of talking frankly about important topics. America's Promise classifies parents into three tiers of involvement.

Look at the differences in opportunities that children obtain, depending on the closeness of their family relationships. For example, if your parents are very interested in, and emotionally close to, you, there's a two in three chance that you'll have safe places to play and work and constructive ways to use your time. If your parents are uninvolved, your odds fall to one in five.

These results are not controlled for anything, such as family income or parental education. It would therefore be a mistake to draw causal inferences. Maybe the root cause is something like money rather than the subjective attitude of parents. Nevertheless, these correlations are striking and they make both libertarian and left-liberal political theories seem inadequate.

September 24, 2007 7:09 AM | category: none


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