It’s Hard To Run A Democracy If You’ve Been Raised By Authoritarian Parents

American families tend to model authoritarian government. Hmmm. Maybe it’s the other way around.

I’ve seen numerous stories of foreigners who say that they like Americans, they just don’t like what this country does to other countries. Despite how nice Americans can be in public, we can be really rough our kids. When our kids fail to meet our expectations, we criticize them, we shame them, we punish them, and/or we ignore them. When our kids do meet our expectations, we shower them with gifts, trophies, awards, our attention, and sometimes, with money. I’ve seen this in my family, in other families, and in the news. I’ve read some really sad stories in the news.

When I think of totalitarian governments, I think of North Korea, Nazi Germany, Israel (against Palestinians), and Saudi Arabia. When I think of abusive authoritarian governments, I think of China, Vietnam, and Russia. And in the last three years, the United States is starting to come into view as a very abusive government.

Often, when we punish kids, we ground them, sit them in the corner, and subject them to isolation. We take away their privileges, phones, stereos, toys, and other gifts that were given to them with no strings attached. We treat their belongings as bargaining chips for leverage to get compliance. We reward compliance with a return of those things that were taken away. We reward one kid for compliance to get the other kids to comply. That sounds eerily authoritarian.

As parents, we can be arbitrary and even capricious. We often think that we are preparing our kids for the “real world” with “tough love”. Sometimes, we treat kids in a way that would offend us coming from another adult. And we fail to see the connection between how we were raised and how we are raising our kids, to the way our government treats us.

I have seen how crazy things are getting in China with their Social Credit system. Foreign policy observers estimate that China’s Social Credit system will be fully implemented this year. It is a system of reward and punishment designed to extract maximum compliance with the rules. According to the Foundation for Economic Education:

“Four million people have been blocked from buying high-speed train tickets over low social credit,” VICE News reported earlier this year, “and more than 11 million from buying flights.”

Government documents detailing the social credit system say the program will “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

We’re not that far behind China. The federal government routinely surveils our activities online. Our employers often demand access to our social media accounts to check for undesirable behavior. Think of big business as the private side of government. Even now, in the midst of the pandemic, we are being asked to install an app that allows centralized tracking of our contacts with other people to better manage the spread of the coronavirus.

In authoritarian governments and families, we are punished or rewarded without regard to our capacities for compliance. Even in popular culture, every plot in movies and on TV can be reduced to a series of transactions of punishment and reward. There is rarely any discussion of our capacities for compliance. Evil is assumed to be human nature.

In American culture, there is this pervasive idea of a system of justice that is punitive, not restorative. When someone does harm, he must be punished to discourage that behavior. The punishment is made public to ensure compliance from all others. We assume that with enough punishment, the unwanted behavior will be curtailed or eliminated. We assume that once the punishment is handed down, that justice is served.

Even in public policy discussions, it is often seen that one side is seeking an advantage over another. One side wants to win at the expense of the other. Trump says, “I won. They lost.” One side wants to rest assured that they will not be bothered, inconvenienced, offended, or murdered by the other side. One side wants to write the rules that will silence, wall off, or cage the other side. One side wants an advantage over another side.

In the article, “Meet the Economist Behind the One Percent’s Stealth Takeover of America”, by Lynn Parramore, we learn of one economist’s efforts to shrink the size of the American government. That economist’s name is James McGill Buchanan. It’s a long and very interesting story about a covert effort by some very extreme right-wing ideologues to limit the power of the poor and the working class (that’s most of us) to benefit the top 1%. This effort has been in the works for decades and the author suggests that the ideas of Buchanan are now so entrenched in the American government that it will be difficult if not impossible to get our freedoms back. Ironically, the author also points out that in order to realize the dreams of Buchanan, the government must remain big and strong. It’s really only a question of who gets to write the rules and who the rules should favor.

Buried deep in that article, I found the nugget behind most conservative thinking:

In thinking about how people make political decisions and choices, Buchanan concluded that you could only understand them as individuals seeking personal advantage. In an interview cited by MacLean, the economist observed that in the 1950s Americans commonly assumed that elected officials wanted to act in the public interest. Buchanan vehemently disagreed — that was a belief he wanted, as he put it, to “tear down.” His ideas developed into a theory that came to be known as “public choice.” (emphasis mine)

It is a deeply held suspicion by all conservatives that all politicians are seeking personal advantage. For at least four decades, the motivation behind the entire conservative movement to reduce the size of government has been to reduce the power of people seeking personal advantage. And at the same time, conservatives have passed laws that tend to distribute the money upward, concentrating power into a tiny minority of people. To do that, a large and powerful government is required. Clearly, one hand does not see what the other hand is doing.

This idea of people as naturally seeking personal advantage over another is loaded with suspicion. In an authoritarian household, there is reward and punishment, and it is often distributed unevenly. There is a problem child and a star child. The middle children are often ignored. One child gets favoritism and the other children are forlorn. It is often assumed that this system of punishment and reward will make our children stronger. But I have never seen that to be the case.

I believe that abuse teaches dependence and that there is plenty of evidence to support that notion. Abuse doesn’t teach survival skills. Abuse, punishment and reward, do not teach us how to get along. They are divisive in nature and spirit. Authoritarianism teaches us to game the system. Abuse teaches abuse just like cheating in a game teaches cheating in a game, rather than the skills required to play by the rules that we all must follow. And Buchanan’s covert movement to shrink government is nothing more than a massive effort to game the system in favor of the top 1%.

I believe that if we want a democracy, and I’m not sure that we have one now, and we want to keep that democracy, we must start with the kids. We start by doffing the reward and punishment system of raising our kids, and really, how we treat each other. We must try something else. The gold stars aren’t working for us.

We can change our assumptions about how people behave. Instead of assuming that one person wants a personal advantage over another, we could assume that we just want to get our needs met while doing no harm. Well, that might require something like honest cooperation and collaboration, and that sounds eerily democratic.

I know of a very smart man who has figured this out and has been practicing these ideas for quite some time now. His name is Dr. Ross W. Greene. He has a Ph.D. and he’s written some very nice books on the subject of human behavior. Two of the titles I’ve read already are “The Explosive Child” and “Raising Human Beings” (I’m reading this one again). Those books describe not just a different way to raise kids, one that is immediately more democratic, those books describe a way of life that may seem foreign to most Americans.

But in the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Finland, and Sweden, that way of life is a bit more familiar. In those countries, they pursue a non-confrontational, non-punitive style of raising their kids. Oddly, they’re not very involved in any wars. I wonder why. Check out this video of Dr. Greene discussing these ideas:

After I read those books and watched a few of the lectures of Dr. Greene, my outlook on humanity became more positive. I began to see that there is hope. I realized that the style of government may have some bearing on how we live our lives, but what really matters is how we raise our kids and the skills we teach them. Our style of government is a reflection of how we are raised to become adult human beings.

Dr. Greene says that “kids would do better if they could.” To the extent that we teach our kids how to collaborate to solve the problems that give rise to the conflicts between us, we can create and retain democracy at will. To the extent that we teach reward and punishment, is the extent to which we can expect to see corruption in all of our institutions, whether they be public or private, and we would prove James McGill Buchanan right. I believe that the survival of humanity rests our choice to collaborate or compete. I choose to collaborate with others to solve the most pressing problems before us. And I am teaching my kids to do the same.

The whole point of having a government is to distribute risk in a way that supports our mutual survival. The point of democracy is to give each of us a voice in how that risk is distributed. The capacity for the government to distribute risk in a way that supports our mutual survival is diminished to the extent that we expend energy for the purpose of gaming the system or seeking advantage over others at their expense. This is especially true in a democratic government. A democracy cannot function when people lack the capacity to collaborate in order to solve the problems they face.

And it only takes a small minority of people intent on gaming the system to cause democracy to fail. I think that 1% is the minimum percentage of people required to doom a democracy. You know, like the top 1%.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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