Yglesias on The Truth

In a post about the role of parents and the state in education, Matthew Yglesias says:

Parents nearly always do a much better job of directing the upbringing of their children than the state. That's an empirical generalization which I take to be true. Insofar as it's true, then, we should delegate child-rearing responsibilities to parents' children. But clearly it's not always true -- some parents sexually abuse their children and the state shouldn't defer to that sort of vision of child-rearing.

Now for the first point, because this is where the real disagreement is. Clearly, I believe that the things I believe to be true are, in fact, true, otherwise I wouldn't believe them. I assume Ben feels the same way, except he believes his beliefs to be true. What I think is that children should be brought up to believe the things that are true. For example, that life evolved over the course of hundreds of millions of years and was not created by God. It seems to me that this is something the state ought to try and cause children to believe. It also seems to me that it's something parents ought to try and cause children to believe, but many parents believe that they ought to try and cause their children to believe the reverse. Then the question is -- who should win?

Some feel that parents should always win -- creationist parents have a right to raise their children in their faith and non-creationist parents have a right to raise their children in their faith. I think this is wrong. The fact that a child's parents believe something is not relevant. If we have reason to believe that parents are more likely to get some question right than government planners would be (say, setting an appropriate bedtime) then we defer to the parents, but there's no reason to believe that the average American parent understands biology better than does the average American schoolteacher, so we let the teacher win. Children are people, not the property of their parents like a dog or a car that they have a right to treat any which way they happen to prefer.

(bold mine)

If children are not the property of the parents, it begs the question - whose property are they? Matthew implies that they are the state's property without coming out and saying it. I think Matthew would respond that that is a poor framing of the question, which is not, "Whose property are children?" but rather, "Who has the final authority to teach children?" His answer is that those who know The Truth should have this final authority.

Interesting. I wonder how many parents intentionally teach their children what they believe to be false. And I don't mean stuff like Santa and the tooth fairy. I mean, how many parents intentionally teach them fallacies in order to deceive them about the world in a way that matters. My guess is almost none.

And who gets to decide whether the parents know The Truth or whether others know The Truth. Is it up for vote? Or is The Truth decided by a Council of Professional Wise Men?

Matthew believes evolution is a better theory to explain the origin of Man than is creationism, and I happen to agree with him. But I wonder what his opinion would be if the public school teachers at his kids' school determined The Truth to be creationism and started teaching it in biology classes. Or if the school system decided that Huckleberry Finn is a racist book. Or that economics is a zero-sum game. Or if Wesley Clark became president and decided that The Truth is that, "This country was founded on a principle of progressive taxation."

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of his post is the second bold excerpt above. Think about the implications of those two sentences. Matthew believes that parents should not be given the right to teach their children what they believe is true unless it agrees with what he believes is true. The logical inference is that children should be forcibly separated from their parents for learning the wrong things from them. I don't think I am exaggerating the meaning of those words. This is simply an unintentional advocacy of totalitarianism; there is no way to dress it up as anything else.

Did the 20th century not teach us anything? There are always certain individuals who think they know The Truth and try to get other individuals to believe what they believe, act like they act, do what they do, and think like they think. The beauty of a free society is that these know-it-alls only have persuasion at their disposal. However, when they hold the monopoly on violence, they have coercion at their disposal. And when they do, they make sure the only Truth is Pravda.

There is nothing "liberal" about Matthew's view. A truly liberal viewpoint would acknowledge the diversity of the human experience in all its forms and let individuals pursue their own happiness as seen in their own eyes. And by extension, a liberal would allow individuals to pass that understanding of the world onto their children and raise them with those same values, rather than arrogate from them this task into the hands of the state.

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If children are not the

If children are not the property of the parents, it begs the question - whose property are they?

The hell it does! Children are not property, they are people.

Right. I agree with you.

Right. I agree with you.

Yglesias' motives are very

Yglesias' motives are very similar to those of the early public educationists, in justifying compulsory publik skooling: to teach children the "right" values (i.e., the values the state wants them to have), and protect them from the contaminating influence of family, community, church, etc. In the earlier case, the values to be promoted were obedience, docility, "100% Americanism," and all the other character traits necessary for an easily managed cog in the state capitalist machine. And the implicit assumption was that a tiny elite of "experts" and "professionals" were entitled by the very nature of things to determine the proper values.

Yglesias must be channelling Herbert Croly or Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

And BTW, at least when there's an autonomous social order of parents teaching their kids lots of *different kinds* of the "wrong things," there's a chance when the kids grow up, they can be exposed to a marketplace of ideas. If Yglesias had his way, there'd be only a uniform ideology shared by anyone, and no way for anyone to ever be exposed to doubts about it.