The Troy Messenger recently reported on the Troy Junior Women’s League Books for Babies program, which donates children’s books to the Troy Public Library. The program is one of dozens of charitable efforts that strengthen Troy and other communities across our nation. As the father of a young child myself, I realize the value of reading to children. And it has become even more rewarding since my son has started reading with me. We should celebrate any program helping parents and children share more stories.
Except philosophers Harry Brighthouse and Adam Swift would object. Their book Family Values contends that parents reading to their children may impossibly disadvantage children who never get read bedtime stories. Family Values has received a good amount of media attention for a book written by professors.
Before dismissing their claim, consider that engaged parents significantly improve children’s performance in school. Indeed, our public schools and social programs address – at great expense and with limited success – many problems arising from absent or disengaged parents. The attitudes and activities about life that children internalize – including simply whether the adults in their lives work for a living – have significant consequences.
I will not examine Brighthouse and Swift’s argument in detail here. Spoiler alert if you are shopping for their book: They ultimately decide that parents can read their children bedtime stories. But they argue that parents should not be permitted to send their children to private schools or leave them inheritances at all. Instead, I wish to contrast the world view implicit in their argument with my own, which I think helps make sense of many public policy disagreements.
Economists are social scientists, meaning that we study various aspects of human society. How social scientists conceive of society significantly affects how we do our work. As an economist and as a libertarian, I see a nation of more than 300 million individuals, each with their own hopes, dreams and goals, and who by right should decide how they live their lives. Society is merely an aggregation of these millions of persons.
Other social scientists, I think, see society ahead of the individuals. For them, implementing the vision of the good society seems to be the key to improving peoples’ lives. Economist Thomas Sowell titled one of his books The Vision of the Anointed, and Sowell’s title nicely illustrates such thinking. For many intellectuals, the vision of the good society is paramount. The vision in Family Values is egalitarianism, or a desire for equality. Good parenting advantages some children, resulting in unacceptable inequality.
By contrast, I see people who should be free to live their lives as they wish. Parents have the right to raise and the responsibility to care for their children. Bedtime stories, family activities, and working and saving both improve our children’s lives and also give our lives meaning and value. End of argument. But to go further, the businesses parents build and the wealth they create to leave as inheritances to their children or grandchildren contributes to economic prosperity. Family values create a win-win situation.
Once people place primary emphasis on the vision of the good society, the potential scope of political action becomes almost unlimited, because any of our actions can thwart the realization of the vision. For instance, at one point Brighthouse and Swift write that “the family is not part of a ‘private sphere,’ a realm somehow beyond consideration of distributive justice and in principle immune to state action.” All parts of our lives become subject potentially to political control as needed to advance the vision. By contrast, libertarians emphasize a private sphere which should be protected.
I hope that the Troy Junior Women’s League continues the Books for Babies campaign, and that parents continue to read bedtime stories to their children. I know I will. Our lives are ours to lead as we wish, not pawns in anyone’s grand vision of the good society.
Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. Respond to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.