In 1996, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at Cal-Berkeley, wrote a book called Moral Politics that does a better job explaining the differences between liberals and conservatives than anything else I’ve read. His model provides a useful and illuminating way of looking at the current debate over health care, which has gotten so ridiculously out of hand.
Lakoff’s thesis, as simple as it is provocative, is that liberals and conservatives view the world according to competing metaphorical systems based on ideal family life. He calls the conservative version of the ideal family the “Strict Father” model, and the liberal the “Nurturant Parent” model. In the Strict Father model, authority and moral strength are primary, while the Nurturant Parent model values empathy and nurturance. Both family models imply moral systems, descriptions of how we should behave, and who can serve as ideal and non-ideal people – good guys and bad guys. Lakoff begins the book by describing each metaphorical/moral system independent of politics, then applies each to a broad range of issues, like taxes, abortion, social programs and gun control, to explain why each side feels the way they do. It’s a thick and ambitious book (not hard to read, though), and I’ll try to summarize the key points here before briefly applying them to the health care debate.
(It’s important to note that each system described here and by Lakoff are “pure” or extreme, meaning they usually exist on a continuum somewhere between the two poles.)
Strict Father morality asserts that a system of hierarchical authority in the family and in society is natural and morally right. Generally speaking, humans have authority over animals and nature, parents have authority over children, and in many versions God has authority over humans and men have authority over women. A system of discipline, or rewards and punishments, is necessary to uphold authority and order, without which the family and society would crumble. This includes self-discipline. For Strict Father moralists, it’s vitally important to maintain a system of rewards and punishments within society. Competition, then, is essential, and an individual’s success or failure within society’s competition defines him as moral or immoral. Here’s how Lakoff says it:
“Competition is a crucial ingredient in such a moral system. It is through competition that we discover who is moral, that is, who has been properly self-disciplined and therefore deserves success, and who is fit enough to survive and even thrive in a difficult world. Rewards given to those who have not earned them through competition are thus immoral. They violate the entire system. They remove the incentive to become self-disciplined and they remove the need for obedience to authority” (68).
It’s not hard to see where Lakoff is going with this, and his reasoning makes a lot of sense: social programs, like welfare or health care, are distasteful to Strict Father moralists because they reward people with things they haven’t earned. Competition within a capitalist society provides rewards and punishments that uphold an order that is not just preferable, not just moral, but natural. Want money or health care in our current system? Get a job! If you can’t, you probably don’t deserve them anyway.
Consequences of Strict Father morality: Good and Evil, Right and Wrong, aren’t fluid categories. They are recognizable, stable and definite. // Other moral systems aren’t just different, they’re wrong, and since they subvert the correct system they are evil and must be fought against. // Legitimate authority is bestowed by success. Obedience to legitimate authority is moral; disobedience is immoral. Illegitimate authority comes from outside the moral system and is highly resented. Generally, people who have achieved some success in the system have proven that they are their own best authorities, and attempts to override this independence should be fought against. // Business, the military, sports teams, law enforcement and religion are models of Strict Father morality and are highly respected; success in these realms bestows authority and morality, while failure suggests a severe lack of character.
Nurturant Parent morality also believes in the authority of the parent, but authority is secondary to empathy and nurturance. The primary responsibility of a parent is to care for his children and to raise them in such a way that they care for their children and for their community as a whole. Community is also primary, and is seen as a kind of ecological system in which each part plays a vital role – if a part is destroyed, something important is irrevocably lost. Because of this, hierarchical relationships are minimized. Within the family, children are given a measure of independence, such as the freedom to question parents, to discover for themselves the basis for authority, which ideally comes from natural desire and positive reinforcement, not from punishment or forced loyalty. Fairness is also primary, but in a way that contrasts from Strict Father morality. Nature and society do not distribute resources evenly – physical ability, mental capacity, money and opportunity are spread unequally within any community and throughout the world. Because of this, it is the responsibility of those with more to help those with less. And government, as a repository of resources, has the moral responsibility of providing for those who, for whatever reason, cannot provide for themselves. While it’s true that such systems of aid are never perfect and allow people who could provide for themselves to get a “free ride,” this is an unfortunate consequence and a reason for improvement, not an argument against social programs.
Consequences of Nurturant Parent morality: We build our resources and abilities so that we can provide not just for our immediate family, but for our community. Self-improvement, then, is a virtue, while laziness or a refusal to improve oneself is immoral. // Empathy means being able to see the world from another person’s point of view, which means acknowledging the truth of other viewpoints, situations, cultures . . . So while some things are inherently immoral, Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, are fluid categories that change from one community to another. Examples of Goods: social responsibility, generosity, open-mindedness, ability to communicate, cooperativeness. Examples of Evils: selfishness, closed-mindedness, lack of self-respect, insensitivity.
Liberals, who subscribe to some version of Nurturant Parent morality, not only want government to provide health care to citizens, they can’t understand why everyone wouldn’t want this. It’s health care, for Christ’s sake – something expensive, to take care of you when you’re sick, provided for free or at a lower cost. But they fail to see the moral dimensions that are so clear to conservatives, and so the very public and very angry outcries against health care come as a complete shock. As a social program provided by the government, health care violates rules of competition that are fundamental to conservative moral principles. This violation occurs primarily on two fronts: reward and punishment, and illegitimate authority. First, if we reward everyone – including illegal immigrants and the kinds of people who milk welfare even though they’re capable of providing for themselves – with the greatest benefits of free society, what incentive do they have to improve themselves? (Of course this part of the argument ignores the financial aspects of health care, but Lakoff says, and I agree, that conservatives would object to health care for everyone even if we could afford it.) Second, any instance of government imposing its will on citizens, even if it is ostensibly for citizens’ own good, is an example of illegitimate authority that erodes essential moral boundaries. Health care initiatives that require everyone to pay into the system or to participate in some way are particularly evil to Strict Father moralists.
Nurturant Parent moralists often view Strict Father arguments in financial terms, and counter with their own financial formulas: If we can find a way to spend a billion dollars every couple of weeks on a morally bankrupt and strategically useless war, we can find a way to provide health care for all our citizens. But this misses the deeper moral points that conservatives are trying to make. Military spending, for Strict Father moralists, provides protection from opposing, immoral systems in a dangerous world. And the military instills in people a sense of moral strength and respect for authority that improves society. This is money well spent. But social programs that provide services for just anyone, regardless of their accomplishments, erode the moral fiber of the nation.
In the Good vs. Evil model of Strict Father morality, Socialism is an inherently evil and immoral system that eschews competition for a particularly insidious brand of fairness, which coddles and softens and weakens. In the empathetic, relativistic Nurturant Parent model of morality, Socialism is an extreme form of governance in the same way that Capitalism is: neither can function in its pure form, each needs the other as a necessary corrective.
The people who seem angriest right now – Strict Father moralists, in Lakoff’s terms – are those of the Good vs. Evil variety. They want no part of socialism, because socialism is evil. Of course, I doubt these people would reject Medicare, or try to overturn child labor laws, or argue that the interstate highway system built by our federal government is evil. But all of these are examples of socialism acting as a necessary corrective to capitalist excess, or of the fed doing a job too big for state governments, and all can be seen as deeply moral. But liberals are not nearly as aware of the moral dimensions of their politics as are conservatives, who have a clearer understanding of the connection between their “family values” and their view of government. This is of course why they’ve been able to own the term “family values” in the first place when there is no inherent reason for this; they do not have stronger family units, or raise more productive or socially aware children than liberals. But they have succeeded in defining morality in the public mind according to a narrow set of issues related to the family, primarily abortion and gay rights. This is nonsense – morality is infinitely more complex.
If health care reform is to have any chance, its proponents need to marshal the same moral fervor being used by the other side. And it shouldn’t be difficult. If left to continue on its current path, the health care system will bankrupt the government. Fewer people will be covered, because free-market health care systems stay in business by denying coverage. The free market, effective for many things, will not alter this path on its own, nor will it find a way to cover the uninsured – it is faceless and has no conscience. It is morally wrong for government not to involve itself in this problem. This is what the federal government, with all its resources and its national reach, does. But current health care bills are being watered down by conservatives who take an ideological position against socialism in any form. They may give, or attempt to give, practical reasons for their stance, but ultimately their arguments are ideological and moral. And even worse, the watered-down bills are being demonized as evil, as comparable to Hitler’s plans for ethnic cleansing. These comparisons are ludicrous. They are immoral. And they should be fought against with the same fury with which they’re brought. Conservatives are incredibly angry right now. If liberals don’t recognize the moral dimensions of the current fight and get just as angry, we’re in for a long, frustrating and unsuccessful fight.