The idea that the American left is engaged in a war against the family has always struck me as an exaggeration.
The claim might be good for direct-mail fundraising and talk-radio ratings. But I have enough friends with left-wing politics and lovely families to find the accusation of a war on family to be, frankly, at least a touch paranoid.
Alas, the events of the past week have caused me to reconsider.
First came President Obama's State of the Union address. Four times, at the start of the speech and at its conclusion, Obama repeated the phrase, "We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times." He said, "My fellow Americans, we, too, are a strong, tight-knit family. We, too, have made it through some hard times."
Second came Andrew Cuomo's State of the State address, in which the governor, a Democrat, quoted his father, Mario Cuomo, who recently died. Governor Mario Cuomo had said, "those who made our history taught us, above all things, the idea of family; the idea of mutuality. The sharing, the benefits and burden, fairly for the good of all, it is an idea essential to our success and no state or nation that chooses to ignore its troubled regions and people while watching others thrive can call itself justified. We must be the family of New York feeling one another's pain, sharing one another's blessings, reasonably, equitably, honestly, fairly, without regard to geography or race or political affiliation."
Andrew Cuomo commented, "My father was right then and he is right now. That is the New York spirit. That is the New York essence."
So the president is trying to tell us that all America is not just an extended metaphorical family, but "a strong, tight-knit one." And the governor of the Empire State is claiming that New York, too, is a family—not even one full of nasty divorces or bitter sibling rivalries, but one characterized by sharing "fairly for the good of all."
The problem with both these claims is that, not to put too fine a point on it, they are total nonsense.
Perhaps some of our smaller mediating institutions or voluntary associations—family businesses, labor union locals, churches and synagogues, softball leagues—can at their best fill some of the roles a family does. They can feel or function like family, even if they aren't family.
And a person may still feel responsible and want to help those who are not family, whether those people are neighbors, genocide victims in Africa, or poor youth or frail elderly or victims of terrorist attacks or school shootings here in America.
But Americans aren't family, and New Yorkers are not family, either, and anyone who claims they are is trying to confuse you. That confusion makes it easier for the politicians to take away the money that you'd actually prefer to keep and spend on your own family. The politicians tell you that the money is going to help out your "family" members. But what the politicians are actually doing is taking the money away from you and your real family and giving it away to other people who aren't your family at all.
Social conservatives may view this as a consequence of the breakdown of the "traditional" family, and the need for politicians to find something to replace it with. The more conspiracy-minded will see the attack on the traditional definition of the family as part of scheme intended to replace the traditional family with allegiance, instead, to the governmental unit, either the state or the nation-state.
But one doesn't need to go that far and make either of those moves to see the effort to describe New York or America as one big "family" as an attack on the concept of family, an effort to change the definition of a family into something else.
The economist Friedrich Hayek saw this coming, as he did so much else. In his book The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, he warned, "If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (our wider civilisation), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it."
In other words, a society in which we try to treat everyone the way we'd treat our parents or our children just wouldn't work. It would break down. Acknowledging this doesn't make us unpatriotic or callous or somehow disloyal to the "New York spirit." It just makes us realistic.
Plenty of us like the family members we have just fine, thank you; the last thing we need is tens or hundreds of millions more family members by virtue of presidential or gubernatorial edicts.