Andrew Webb's Reviews > Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think

Moral Politics by George Lakoff
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Oct 01, 2008

it was ok

I read this book for a logic class my sophomore year of college. Following is the paper I wrote in hopes of defusing Lakoff's argument.

In Moral Politics, George Lakoff gives us two models for running a family—the strict father and the nurturant parent. He then attempts to show that these are also the conservative and liberal models for government, and explains why the nurturant parent/liberal government model is superior to its counterpart. This paper will attempt to show that his underlying suppositions are false and that the conservative model of government is in fact superior to the liberal model.
After more than five sections and three hundred pages of reiterating the difference between the two family models, and how these models fit various political issues, Lakoff finally makes an argument for a liberal form of government in pages 335-388. However, almost half of this argument is a chapter entitled “Raising Real Children” in which he shows that that the nurturant parent model is the superior one for raising a family. He may very well be correct in this, but the time he spends discussing family reveals a major weakness in his argument regarding government.
On page 258, Lakoff uses the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden in a metaphorical sense—it represents being sheltered in infancy, while the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents leaving home and reaching independence. Whether his interpretation of the book of Genesis is correct is irrelevant. However, he is absolutely correct in saying that in childhood we are protected and cared for by our family, and that in later life we reach a state of more freedom, but also responsibility.
This brings to light a major problem in his “family” models of government—what works in a home to raise children may not necessarily work on the vast scale of government. To begin with, children and adults are very different. Parents should be nurturant and forgiving and tolerant to their children; their children are young, innocent, naïve, and need a lot of help, love, and instruction. But later in life, when the children reach adulthood, they are no longer able to have their parents fill all their needs. Should they therefore go to the government as a kind of “new parent” when their biological or adoptive parents have passed away or are no longer able to provide for them?
Of course it seems apparent that eventually adults must learn responsibility. That is not to say that the government should not help people who are truly in need and have no means of livelihood, but the role of the government is to protect its citizens and give them opportunity, helping when it is necessary. But, its role should not be that of a “parent.”
Another challenge to Lakoff’s argument lies in the “dependence” problem. That is, if the government takes the role of a loving parent, people will adapt and learn that they do not have to work to survive. Though he brings up the problem as a complaint from conservatives, no where do I see a response to it—he instead dismisses it as being unimportant next to the virtue of kindness. The problem with a government whose main aim is to be kind is the question: kind to whom? It may be kind to give money to the poor, but if that means raising taxes, it is also taking money from someone who has earned it. Whatever laws are passed, some parties will benefit and others will suffer. Of course there must be compromise, and the government must take taxes and help those who are unable to provide for themselves and their families, but Lakoff almost seems to imply a “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” manner of rhetoric.
Lakoff creates yet another contradiction on page 254 when he says, regarding the conservative and liberal interpretations of the Bible “if you have a Strict Father interpretation, you need not use the Nation as a Family metaphor to project Strict Father morality onto the public domain.” If this is true, it defuses the very basis of his argument; isn’t the point of the book that morality and religion are the backbone of American politics and government? That it is truly impossible to separate morality, religion, and politics into separate spheres?
Why is the conservative model of government superior to the liberal model? Referring back to Lakoff’s interpretation of the Genesis story, and his demonstration that nurturance is the best policy for raising children, the answer can be put very simply: the government concerns adults.
It is true that there is no one way to be a parent; if there was, surely everyone would know of this wonder method and practice it. As it is, there are thousands of books describing as many methods for raising children— empathy, reward systems, physical discipline, non-physical discipline, etc. With that said, in the chapter “Raising Real Children,” which is essentially the first half of Lakoff’s real argument, he sets forth a very solid argument for the nurturant parent model of child rearing.
But generally, children are reared by their parents (or close relatives, or step-parents, or adoptive parents). And, also generally, the only authority to which an adult ultimately answers (other than his conscience and his God) is the government. And so, the family should be organized in a manner conducive to the rearing of children, and the government should be organized in a manner conducive to the regulation of the activities of adults.
Lakoff presents many issues in Moral Politics, and they are too many to cover here. But perhaps explanation of a few key issues will serve to demonstrate why a government should behave differently than a family.
For example, he accuses conservatives of spending too much time and effort on military defense. In a family following the Strict Father model, this translates to the father’s number one priority being the physical defense of his family, at the cost of helping them in other ways.
Now, a suburban father stockpiling guns and other home defense mechanisms might be damaging to a child’s upbringing, and would certainly seem somewhat paranoid, or at least eccentric. But a major reason it would seem strange is that suburban neighborhoods are generally safe places. There are better ways to be a parent than simply waiting to shoot someone who threatens your child.
But when applied to government, spending on defense makes much more sense. After all, there are always threats to the country, recently during the Cold War, and now because of the threat of terrorism. To acknowledge a very real danger is not paranoid; we know very well that a large part of the world would like to see our country destroyed. True, our military seems so huge and powerful that it could probably scare off an attack by a coalition of five or ten other countries’ militaries without a fight… but isn’t that what we want? If the government failed to protect the country from physical danger from communists, terrorists, or other parties who would seek to destroy the country, all other freedoms and government benefits—from freedom of business, to welfare, to the most basic freedoms of speech and expression—would be meaningless. Thus, it makes perfect sense for a government’s major priority to be the physical defense of its citizens, rather than their nurturance.
Another major issue of the book is that of government aid to the poor. Of course, both sides agree that someone incapable of providing for himself (the handicapped, the recently laid off, etc.) should be given some help by the government. But for how long? Should the government give money to everyone who wants it, or only to those who are in deepest need?
Lakoff says that children need to be helped, and by continuous helping they can be trained to succeed. This is very true. Nonetheless, when the issue concerns adults, and not children, the conservative views on limited welfare fit much better than the liberal views. That is to say, children are inexperienced and need constant help and reinforcement. Adults, on the other hand, are usually physically and mentally capable of helping themselves. The conservative, and much hated, “Welfare to Work” act passed during Clinton’s administration is a good example—is a few years of welfare insufficient time for a capable adult to get back on his feet after a job loss or other crisis?
In short, Lakoff’s argument is flawed on a very basic level—the models of family he discusses are a good way to discover they most effective ways of raising children, but not regulation of adult activities, simply because children and adults are very different and should be treated as such. A liberal, nurturant, method of raising children is probably preferable to a strict, conservative method. But, when the child grows up, he will be ready to live as an adult under a government which treats him accordingly.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Rickey (new) - added it

Rickey Just by curiosity, what class did you write this paper for?

message 2: by Ash (new)

Ash Moran Andrew, Thanks for posting this. I've read Metaphors we Live by so I was tempted to get this too. But I've also recently read an amount of Austrian economics and libertarian politics (Hayek, Bastiat, Hazlitt etc) and on the basis of this analysis, I don't see it will add much clarity to the situation. (This is surprising considering how much I learnt from Metaphors We Live By.)

Andrew Webb Eric wrote: "Just by curiosity, what class did you write this paper for?"

It was actually an intro to logic class. My awesome professor thought that students debating about politics and other matters was a better way to spend class time than studying a thousand variations of "If A, then B." Constructing an argument regarding this book was our final assignment. I was quite happy with the finished product :)

Andrew Webb Ash wrote: "Andrew, Thanks for posting this. I've read Metaphors we Live by so I was tempted to get this too. But I've also recently read an amount of Austrian economics and libertarian politics (Hayek, Bastia..."

I am glad you liked it :) To play devil's advocate, I should point out that this was not an unbiased review. I was really out to slice the legs off of Lakoff's argument and receive a good grade for doing so.

However... this really is how I felt about the book. It is a long book which pretends to be important but really doesn't have much to say except "parents should provide for their children and forgive them, therefore the government should do the same to its citizens." An easy target for a logical argument so I took it for all it was worth.

If you are interested in far out libertarian ideas I recommend Ayn Rand (I've only Atlas Shrugged but I'm sure some of her other books are thought provoking as well). Her philosophy isn't flawless but it's a great antidote to the "welfare state" philosophy.

message 5: by Ash (new)

Ash Moran Thanks for the clarification. I've recently read The Road to Serfdom so I'm highly skeptical of any claims we should be moving towards socialism. I might learn something about why metaphorical reasoning leads to this conclusion, but that's not so important to me right now to go out of my way to study it.

I know someone who is addicted to Ayn Rand and actually reading Atlas Shrugged at the moment so I might pick it up at some point. I like the sound of the themes, it's just the size that puts me off!

Clif Andrew, it's a great idea to post your paper here, far better than the often very short (or non-existent) reviews.

I think you misunderstand Lakoff's logic. His claim is that we look at the world through metaphors and we judge things on the basis of the metaphors rather than on the merit of the issue at hand. In other words, we force reality into a scheme we have in our heads.

He claims that the nation as family metaphor is a good example of how faulty this process can be - because the analogy doesn't hold up. The conservative/liberal political debate is really a worldview debate about family based morality so the whole discussion is off on a tangent.

The underlying goal of the book is to show how this metaphorical but false reasoning explains the conservative and liberal views on the whole collection of political issues in a consistent way.

His closing argument is about how research on child upbringing shows that the Strict Father morality doesn't work while the Nurturant Parent morality does in the only area where these ideas might be useful and can be tested - when dealing with actual family life, not national politics.

So the Strict Father concept is doubly in error: it doesn't work where it is claimed to be valuable and can be tested scientifically, so it certainly is a false guide as a metaphor for a nation.

message 7: by Mary (new) - added it

Mary Mimouna Andrew, I loved your detailed review. Thanks so muck for writing it.

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