Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Child, Policy, and Society: A question

A Sociologist, Muzafer Sherif, trying to understand how people formed groups, formulated a technical definition of a “social unit” which he described as consisting of a number of individuals interacting with each other with respect to:
1. Common motives and goals;
2. An accepted division of labor, i.e. roles;
3. Established status (social rank, dominance) relationships;
4. Accepted norms and values with reference to matters relevant to the group;
5. Development of accepted sanctions (praise and punishment) if and when norms were respected or violated.
(For implications regarding leadership, see this.)

Although the definition may appear quite formal, it actually describes a great deal of human interaction over a vast range of situations.  For example, all these criteria can be identified in a “bottle gang,” a group that pools the money they have to buy a bottle of alcohol that will be then shared amongst them. (1) These same criteria also characterize massive, formal groups such as religions, militaries, and nations.

Upon reflections, most of us would recognize that we are members of many groups such as families, PTAs, churches, neighborhood associations, political parties, nations, etc.  We also recognize that there may be conflicts between the motives and goals of various groups and, sometimes, between our personal goals and those of a group we’re in.  It’s no exaggeration to say that much of the conflict and distress of our lives comes from trying to reconcile these conflicting motives and goals.  An obvious example is conflicts between a person’s religious beliefs about proper actions and particular laws of a nation.

As citizens of the United States we generally share, and expect others to share, a goal of supporting the US government and it’s obligation to protect and preserve our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  This is so even though we recognize vast differences in opinion about what that means and how to attain it.  In spite of these vastly differing opinions on every one of Sherif’s elements, we are still a social unit, a group, a nation.

But unlike a bottle gang and many other groups, in our nation thousand of brand new members enter into our group every day: our children.  They come into being as citizens, with some, but not all, of “the rights and privileges there unto pertaining.”  These new citizens, though equal before the law, come into being in vastly different circumstances; circumstances which will inevitably affect them from birth onward.  These circumstances, though not of their making, will powerfully influence the trajectory of their development over the course of their lives.

While every child faces a unique constellation of circumstances, our present knowledge about many particular issues allows us to make statistically valid generalizations about their effects on growth and development.  As just one important example, we can quite accurately predict the percentage of children who, born to parents whose income is in the poorest quintile, will make it to the richest.  There are dozens of similar issues that we know, as a result of careful longitudinal study, strongly influence a child’s chances of success in life.

In the unique set of circumstances each child faces, some are advantageous while others can be beyond daunting.  Income, parenting style, school quality, multiple characteristics of the local neighborhood, mentors, lead in the water supply or not, even sound levels and many more variables have been shown to affect child development and, hence, the adult who will join our society: this new citizen of our nation.  It is also true that each and every adult in our society burdens and/or benefits the rest of us to some degree.  They pay taxes or they don’t, they require public services or not, they do or don’t serve in the military, and so on and so forth.  As a result of all this, we each have a stake, however small, in who each child becomes.

When we look closely at the various circumstances the child faces it becomes apparent that not all of them are effects of happenstance or mere luck.  Not all are due to random variations in genres or fixed realities such as geography; some are “manmade,” the effects of actions and inactions of the Nation through time.  We obviously need laws, policies, procedures, agencies, and officials to specify the norms and values of our nation as well as the “accepted sanctions (praise and punishment) if and when norms are respected or violated.”  Yet, just as obviously, all such laws, polices, etc. are imperfect as is everything made by humans. The most well-intentioned law can’t cover every circumstance and there are always some rare, specific circumstances where most of us would say the law should not apply.   In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”  Sometimes the law will criminalize an unlucky traveller who missed a connection and has nowhere else to escape the rain.

But is it not also true that all human institutions create systematic differences in benefits, advantaging some and disadvantaging others?  This point is critical.  Every line in the tax code creates a benefit or liability that will apply to some and not to others.  Every Government program will provide benefits to some that are denied others, even those of apparently deserving status.  Geography, income, social class, race, age, and more differentially affect who does and does not receive some benefits or who is or is not subject to some penalty.  The inevitable implication of this is that among the circumstances that a child faces at birth, some are the result of the collective actions and inactions of us as citizens.  The inevitable corollary of this is that circumstances of birth result in wide variations in opportunity and adversity faced by each child.

If this is so, then it suggests a vital question:  Should a child be expected to overcome the circumstances of his/her birth solely through the results of his/her own efforts (and those of his/her family)?  Do we expect, therefore, differentially burdened and/or privileged children to deal with circumstances of our making solely through their efforts?

We could.  Indeed for virtually the entirety of human existence we have believed that the family is largely or solely responsible for meeting the child’s needs and assisting them through their childhood.  For most of our existence this made sense because the circumstances everyone faced were primarily “natural,” that is, those imposed by the physical environment, and largely the same for everyone.  But in modern industrialized countries that is no longer true.  Now the vast majority of US citizens are born into a primarily human made environment:  cities, towns, and rural areas where wilderness is something occasionally visited.  Now the circumstances a child faces at birth are largely those created by the workings of our economic, political, and social systems.

We could, but should we?  Some who consider this question come to a different conclusion.  Some believe that since our policies, our collective actions, increase the adversity some children face that fairness demands we act to try to eliminate, minimize, or ameliorate the differential opportunities that result.  Indeed, I believe this is, or should be, the animating concern of the liberal worldview.  The politics of liberals are/should be based on examining how existing and proposed polices/laws affect the opportunities and adversities faced by children and attempting to rectify any identified systemic differences. 

Indeed, much of liberal politics can easily be understood through that lens.  Liberal programs regarding childcare, nutrition, education, and social welfare are easily understood examples.  Sometimes liberals may loose their way.  Ezra Pound once wrote “Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance... poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”  If liberal polices stray too far from equality of opportunity for all citizens, they, too, may go astray.  On the other hand, the vital importance of liberal concerns to the future of liberal democracy should not be underestimated.

Every human society must develop working solutions to two fundamental tasks:  1. How to protect the individual (or identified sub groups) from the power of the majority.  2.  How to dispense the benefits (and the costs) of shared efforts.

Both are extremely challenging.  Success at the second will make the first much more tractable.  Success at both is required for long term survival.


(1) The goal is to buy the bottle; one person may keep tabs on the money, another actually purchase it; the purchaser is usually the one seen as most trustworthy; people are expected to drink in portion to the amount the contributed; if you drink more than your share, you won’t be allowed in subsequent buys.