For reasons not worth explaining, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of George Lakoff’s Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America’s Most Important Idea, which is about the conflict between progressives and conservatives over the idea of freedom.
The book’s subtitle is a bit misleading, although technically correct. I was expecting a book about different ideas of freedom. Instead, the book is about how progressives and conservatives discuss the idea of freedom. It is literally about the battle of words over the idea of freedom, rather than about the different concepts of freedom.
Lakoff is himself a progressive, which is what liberals are calling themselves these days now that the word liberal has been ruined by a conspiracy of leftist radicals and right-wing talk radio hosts. He believes progressive ideas about freedom are inherently correct, and he discusses how conservatives have used rhetorical methods such as framing metaphors to draw people away from the progressive vision.
Lakoff explains most of the differences between progressive and conservative rhetoric as a contrast between the different metaphors of morality that progressives and conservatives use to frame the concept of freedom. Conservatives, he say, use a “strict father” model of morality, whereas progressives use a “nurturant parent” model.
Right away, he’s lost me. I don’t like either of those models. The reason is that we’re not just talking about morality in the abstract. We’re talking about politics, and therefore we’re talking about the morality that should be enforced by our government.
I don’t want the government to act like any kind of parent. I want it to act more like a loyal employee or servant. Of course, a nanny is a type of servant, and no libertarian wants to live in a nanny state that watches our every little misstep and tries to make us act like perfect people, so maybe servant isn’t quite right.
Perhaps a better role model for government is a lifeguard at a pool. He spends most of his time sitting at the side of the pool. He’s vigilant, but he only intervenes when there’s serious danger. If the kids in the pool are splashing and yelling or calling each other names, he pays them no mind, but if someone’s life is in danger, he acts decisively and comes to the rescue. Otherwise, he lets the kids be kids and enjoy playing in the water.
You’d have to have a few other metaphors as well: The government as referee, resolving disputes according to pre-established rules. The government as trustee, administering the common wealth for the benefit of its owners. There are probably a few other useful metaphors that will come to mind if I think about it.
But the government as parent? I’d rather be an orphan.