If you enjoy seeing progressive ideology carried to its most cartoonish extreme, the best place for a good time is the world of academia. Perhaps the most infamous academic extremist is Peter Singer, an ethics professor at Princeton University, who has frequently argued that it’s perfectly ethical to euthanize disabled infants. “Killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person,” says the enlightened Dr. Singer.
Now another academic is getting media attention for insane proposals of his own. Adam Swift is a philosopher, author, and professor of political theory at the University of Warwick, England. On May 3, Swift was the featured guest on “The Philosopher’s Zone,” a radio program produced by the ABC, Australia’s taxpayer-funded broadcasting network. He was there to discuss his philosophical theories on the family, as propounded in his 2014 book, “Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships.” (If you can stomach it, the full 30-minute program is available online here.)
In the same vein, President Obama used language of inequality to critique parents who send their kids to private schools and health clubs just this week.
“Kids start going to private schools, kids start working out at private clubs instead of the public parks, an anti-government ideology then disinvests from those common goods and those things that draw us together,” he said.
Healthy Families Create a ‘Social Justice Problem’
Obama must be taking online classes with Swift. Right from the start, the “Philosopher’s Zone” discussion sounds like dialogue from a dystopian novel.
“I got interested in this question of what parents should and shouldn’t be allowed to do to, for, and with their children, because I was interested in equality of opportunity,” Swift begins in a benign, conversational tone. “The reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens within those families.” If you’re thinking that at this point he might suggest a few things parents can do to increase their children’s chances in life, you must not be a philosopher.
“One way philosophers might think about solving the social-justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family,” he continues, cheerfully. “If the family is this source of unfairness in society, then it looks plausible to think that if we were to abolish the family, we would create a more level playing field.”
Swift goes on to reassure his listeners that “nearly all philosophers” have concluded that kidnapping all children and raising them in state institutions would be a “really bad idea.” So the next challenging philosophical conundrum is: “Why, exactly, would that be a bad idea? Why, exactly, is it good that children be raised by parents?” Now, I’ve worked with abandoned Romanian children for many years, and I’ve seen what it looks like when the state raises children. At this point in my listening experience, I resisted the urge to throw my laptop across the room.
The Unfairness of the Bedtime Story
It was the next part of the program, though, that ended up grabbing headlines. “What we realized we needed,” Swift explains, “was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children.” In a meandering discourse that I’ll condense for the safety of your own laptops and devices, Swift concludes that he definitely doesn’t “need to allow” you to send your child to private school.
“Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods,” he says. (I’d like to point out that even the United Nations has recognized the right of parents to direct children’s education as a universal human right, but what do they know?)
Although he would ban private schooling, Swift is magnanimous enough to let you read bedtime stories to your own offspring, despite the “unfair advantage” it confers. “The evidence shows that the difference between [children] who get bedtime stories and those who don’t—the difference in their life chances—is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t,” he says. Swift believes this advantage is allowable for the sake of family relationships, but he sensibly recommends that story-reading parents feel rather guilty about it.
“I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children,” Swift says, “but I think they should have that thought occasionally.”
In a follow-up article on the ABC website titled “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?” program host Joe Gelonisi goes even further. “Perhaps in the interests of levelling the playing field, bedtime stories should also be restricted,” he muses. Although Gelonisi goes on to quote Swift’s softened version of this idea, the outlandish suggestion remains—brought to you by the government of Australia.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: maybe this program was aired on April Fool’s Day, or the ABC runs a parody news website akin to The Onion, or “Adam Swift” is really eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift reincarnated. Surprisingly, none of these appear to be the case. What we have here is an academic sincerely suggesting that by enriching the life and education of your own child through reading aloud, you’re somehow impoverishing society as a whole. (The best satirical take-down of this argument ran here on The Federalist.)
According to Swift’s way of thinking, the best way to ensure “equality” is not to bring disadvantaged children and their families to a higher level, but for the “advantaged” to be deprived and handicapped. The Daily Telegraph reports: “Asked if it might be just as easy to level the playing field by encouraging other parents to read bedtime stories, Gelonesi said: ‘We didn’t discuss that.’” Such a common-sense suggestion is apparently too banal for these majestic minds.
The Folly of Idolizing Equality
Sarcasm aside, we owe Swift a real debt of gratitude for demonstrating the folly of Progressive equality-worship. Although his ideas are at the extreme end of the Progressive spectrum, the language of “equality” and the decrying of “inequality” is pervading our culture.
Of course, American liberty was founded on the idea that all men are created equal. But when people speak of equality these days, they usually mean not fundamental equality before the law, but rather state-engineered equality of socioeconomic outcomes. Perhaps by seeing this ideology taken to its insane extreme, we can recognize its failings more clearly.
First, we must recognize that championing “equality” will never guarantee prosperity. In calling for “privileged” children to receive a poorer education, suggesting ethical problems with bedtime stories, and even flirting with the idea of abolishing the family, Swift clearly illustrates this. To achieve equality, the higher must be brought low—not necessarily vice versa. It is an utter fallacy to think that an equal society will innately be a prosperous society. Equal prosperity and equal misery are both forms of equality—and history shows that the latter is the far more likely scenario.
Recently, my children and I visited a friend who escaped Eastern Europe in 1981 to hear about his experiences living under communism. (This was part of our homeschool studies—no doubt an egregious source of unfair advantage—but I digress.) When asked about his main reason for choosing to emigrate, I was surprised that my friend didn’t mention the shortages, the cultural restrictions, or the secret police. Rather, it was the stifling culture of enforced equality that drove him from his homeland.
As a bright student who went to university and became an engineer, he quickly learned that his skills were undervalued in a society that deliberately elevated laborers. Even when he got a job as an engineer, he was always passed over for promotions in favor of lesser-qualified party loyalists. “I started to see that all my labor was achieving nothing—that it was in fact propping up a failing system,” he told us. “I just couldn’t stay and continue to support that.” Thus he became one more highly-educated immigrant who abandoned the Soviet bloc and brought his skills to benefit the United States.
Human Achievement Isn’t a Zero-Sum Game
That’s the second fact we must realize: our unique skills and assets are not a threat to the well-being of others, but rather a benefit. When my engineer friend came to America, our country became richer for it, and his native country became poorer. The ingenuity, education, and, yes, even the wealth of others benefits us more than we realize.
My frugal, middle-class life has undoubtedly been enriched by those who know more about technology than I do; those who had the skill and money to get medical degrees so my kids can get medical care; those who risked their capital to start the businesses I patronize; those who wrote the novels, poems, and songs I enjoy. This is not to say that the rich and powerful never enjoy unfair advantages in America. They do, thanks chiefly to our corrupt, behemoth government doling out special breaks and corporate welfare. But let’s get one thing straight: as a general principle, someone else’s success inherently takes nothing away from me. Quite often, the opposite is true.
It is an impoverished outlook indeed to see human achievement as a zero-sum game, and success as something innately parasitic. (Funny story: I often have to remind my squabbling kids—and even myself—of the same thing. Envy is a besetting sin of the human race.) What we should desire isn’t “sameness” so much as widespread human flourishing, which is best achieved when people are free to pursue their individual gifts with the motive of bettering themselves and their children.
In families, the same principle applies. Remember, no one is denying that loving, involved parents (the type who read their children bedtime stories) benefit their own children. Swift’s entire argument affirms this fact. But a recent study authored by Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that communities with higher numbers of strong, intact families produced better upward mobility not just for the “privileged” children, but also for the poor and disadvantaged children in their midst. Writing for Slate, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, noted: “It looks like a married village is more likely to raise the economic prospects of a poor child.”
While Swift is correct in acknowledging the power of the family to impact a child’s future, he is dead wrong in suggesting that healthy families are “unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children.” It appears that the opposite is true. Healthy families serve as cornerstones in their communities, supporting the growth and development of other children as well as their own. If Swift were truly concerned about poor children’s opportunity to succeed, he would be encouraging increased parental involvement in the lives of children, rather than discouraging it.
Equality-Mongering Is Usually a Quest for Control
Which raises the question: what is Swift, and others like him who champion “equality” rather than prosperity, really after? Only God sees the motives of the heart, but Swift’s own words, along with historical precedent, offer some clues.
If you manage to keep listening to Swift’s interview beyond the ridiculous “bedtime stories” segment, you’ll hear a few statements that are even more disturbing—and revealing. Discussing the subject of private education, Swift opines that calling for a legal ban on private education while sending your own children to elite private schools is “an entirely coherent position.” Referring to ideas from his book “How Not to Be a Hypocrite” (yes, that’s the real title), Swift says: “There are loads of different ways in which you could both believe that these schools shouldn’t be allowed, and think yourself justified in using them in particular circumstances.”
It’s hard not to see that beneath all the egalitarian language lies a bald-faced power grab. Swift—and those who share his worldview—believe they are entitled to make mandatory rules for others which they refuse to adopt for themselves. Until Swift can legally ban your child from attending private school (and maybe even after that time, who knows?), he will gladly keep educating his own children privately. In this, Swift is operating squarely within the tradition of all Marxist dictators past and present, who style themselves champions of the common man but never deny themselves the luxuries of the ruling class.
Even worse is his discourse on the nature of parental rights, beginning around the 17-minute mark. “Societies quite generally still think that if you produce a child biologically, then it’s yours to parent,” Swift says. “And we think that . . . the mere fact that you created the child isn’t the kind of thing that could give you the right to parent the child, even though other people would parent it better.” Swift goes on to lament the fact that, in our current society, parents “have to really mess up quite badly for the state to feel justified in interfering with the relationship that exists. . . . Our view is that we’re still too lenient or too deferential towards parents. And in that sense our theory is pretty much child-centered.”
Except it isn’t: it’s state-centered. Swift clearly believes in a ruling elite with the power to determine who is worthy and unworthy to be parents. Once again showing the instincts of a Marxist dictator in undermining family bonds, he would glibly do away with the ancient human presumption that parents have a natural right to raise their own biological children.
One can only imagine which classes of people would be considered “unworthy” to keep their babies—not through any demonstrated abuse or neglect, but merely because the state has decided another parent would be better-qualified. In the name of “equality,” one of the grossest injustices imaginable would be committed: innocent parents of the “wrong” sort would see their children torn from them and given to those of the “right” sort.
Again, by advocating an extreme, Swift reveals a key truth. Progressive equality-worship relies on granting the state massive powers, exacerbating the worst inequality of all: that between the ruler and the ruled. With this in mind, we should be wary of anyone stirring up class envy through a narrow focus on equality of outcomes. What begins as a quest for “fairness” ends with an all-consuming, suffocating state, meddling in your business and micromanaging your everyday pursuits of happiness. The youthful tumult of the Bolshevik Revolution quickly gives way to the stale, joyless oppression of a Communist Party hack in an ill-fitting suit, holding a gun to your head. In the end, there is only one insurmountable inequality: the gap between those who make the rules, and those who must obey.
So, parents, take heart. What you consider to be the mundane tasks of daily faithful parenting—reading stories, eating family dinner, working in the yard together—may actually be the vital business of saving the republic.