Tending the Garden

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From the G-File on The Dispatch


So a few minutes ago, I finished a great conversation with Jonathan Haidt about his new book, The Anxious Generation, for The Remnant. While prepping, I tend to stock up on water purification tablets because I think traveling with large amounts of bottled water is too cumbersome. But that’s not important right now.

While prepping for the podcast, I learned about a book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, by developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik.

I’ll summarize Haidt’s summary of her argument. Apparently, the word “parenting” really only emerged in the 1950s, and didn’t become popular until the 1970s. “For nearly all of human history,” Haidt writes, “people grew up in environments where they observed many people caring for many children. There was plenty of local wisdom and no need for parenting experts.”

He continues:

But in the 1970s, family life changed. Families grew smaller and more mobile; people spent more time working and going to school; parenthood was delayed, often into the 30s. New parents lost access to local wisdom and began to rely more on experts. As they did so, they found it easy to approach parenthood with the mindset that had led them to success in school and work: If I can just find the right training, I can do the job well, and I’ll produce a superior product.

Gopnik says that parents began to think like carpenters who have a clear idea in mind of what they are trying to achieve. They look carefully at the materials they have to work with, and it is their job to assemble those materials into a finished product that can be judged by everyone against clear standards: Are the right angles perfect? Does the door work? Gopnik notes that “messiness and variability are a carpenter’s enemies; precision and control are her allies. Measure twice, cut once.” Gopnik says that a better way to think about child rearing is as a gardener. Your job is to “create a protected and nurturing space for plants to flourish.” It takes some work, but you don’t have to be a perfectionist. Weed the garden, water it, and then step back and the plants will do their thing, unpredictably and often with delightful surprises.

He then quotes Gopnik directly. She writes:

Our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child. Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children of many unpredictable kinds can flourish. Our job is not to shape our children’s minds; it’s to let those minds explore all the possibilities that the world allows. Our job is not to tell children how to play; it’s to give them the toys. … We can’t make children learn, but we can let them learn.

I’m not a big pull-quote guy; I’m more of a pulled-pork guy. But I think at least some readers—and listeners—will understand why I liked this so much.

One of my favorite metaphorical illustrations of how to think about the role of the state is the difference between the English and French garden. I wrote about it in my book and here and here. For those who don’t know or remember, the basic idea is that the hyperrationalist French gardens with conic shapes, right angles, and other geometric shapes represent one Enlightenment view of how government should operate, imposing a human vision of nature on nature. The English garden, meanwhile, represents a different model. It establishes a space, free of external threats and invasive weeds, that allows the plants of the garden to grow free into the best versions of themselves. As Friedrich Hayek put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance address:

If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible. He will therefore have to use what knowledge he can achieve, not to shape the results as the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner in which the gardener does this for his plants.

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek quotes Dietrich Schindler, “The legislator more closely resembles a gardener, who has to assess the soil and the conditions necessary for his plants’ growth, than a painter who gives free rein to his imagination.”

Now, I’ll give you a peek behind the cranial curtain to look at the banshees swirling between my ears. I’m trying really, really, hard not to write another book. But the compulsion won’t go away. I feel a bit like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, incapable of resisting the urge to make replicas of Devils Tower out of mashed potatoes. Ironically, he even ends up digging up a garden, like an 18th-century Versailles horticulturalist, to scratch the itch.

Were I to completely surrender to my compulsions, the basic idea that I’d want to explore, defend, promote, proselytize, wear on a sandwich board in Times Square, is that conservatism in the American tradition is a defense of this classically liberal conception of the English garden.

The thing is everything I read, every conversation I have, starts to feel like something I could use to make my bibliographic Devils Tower. Haidt’s book(s)—and now Gopnik’s—feels like book fodder. Each of the last few episodes of The Remnant feels that way too.

Allen Guelzo and I talked at length about the fundamentally liberal nature of what Lincoln called “our ancient faith” (and what Guelzo titled his book).  Tim Carney’s Family Unfriendly is in part a kind of ode to Gopnik’s conception of parenting. Rob Henderson’s compelling memoir, Troubled, explores similar territory albeit from a very different angle. While Tim highlights the benefits—for kids and parents—of raising free-range kids in a stable, morally centered, two-parent family, Henderson explores the costs of not raising kids that way, particularly for poor people. He even cites an essay by Gopnik about how stressful childhoods can permanently harm the brains of kids. Carney cites her too:

“Going for a walk with a two-year-old is like going for a walk with William Blake,” as mother, philosophy scholar, and psychologist Alison Gopnik puts it. Walk to the corner store as an adult, and you almost don’t experience anything. The adult brain, Gopnik explains, rationally has stopped absorbing new data because it doesn’t have use for it. “But if you do the same walk with a two-year-old,” Gopnik observes, “you realize, wait a minute: This, three blocks, it’s just amazing. It’s so rich. There’s dogs and there’s gates and there’s pizza flyers and there’s plants and trees and there’s airplanes.”

Raising kids in the sort of garden that Gopnik describes tends to create well-adjusted, healthy, adults. Raising kids in a state of nature tends to cause kids to grow up too quickly and to become too rigid, narrow-minded, and worse.

Please note: I said “tends.”  Kids raised in ideal families can still have unfortunate lives, and kids with absolutely horrendous childhoods—like Henderson—can go on to be incredibly impressive adults. But that’s sort of the point. Best practices aren’t called “perfect practices” because life doesn’t work like that.

The point is that aiming for perfection a la Gopnik’s carpenter means abandoning the reliably good for the unattainably perfect. As Haidt and Greg Lukianoff detail in The Coddling of the American Mind, the parent who tries to take all risk out of their kid’s lives will raise kids that are very good at satisfying checklists and taking tests, but too brittle to navigate the complexities of life. Driving full-out in pursuit of the perfect child requires racing past the turnoff for a happy and healthy child because on the road of parenting, there is no exit for perfection. The sign pointing that way is a Potemkin façade. In my experience, this becomes obvious—or at least more apparent—for people with lots of kids. What sounds like an ideal career for some kids is a recipe for misery for their siblings. Some kids want to be stand-up comics, or welders, or psychologists. Perfection implies a singular endpoint, a specific destination, but happiness requires letting kids go in different directions. Moreover, perfection is a mirage.

Which brings me back to Hayek. (It always comes back to Hayek.) In his Mirage of Social Justice, Hayek dismantles the idea that you can impose a perfect—and perfectly just—society from above. And any effort to do so will kill the garden. You cannot make the rosebush give you apples. You cannot make the dandelion a rose simply by calling it one.

For Hayek, the whole point of the gardening metaphor is that you cannot eliminate chance, contingency, human nature, and other variables that make life complicated. Perfection is possible on paper but preposterous in reality. In politics, I despise the habit of making the perfect the enemy of the good. But in political theory, pursuit of the perfect is the enemy of the pursuit of the good. That’s because the beauty of liberal order is that it creates space for different conceptions of the good. The illiberal left and right are not content with living decent or prosperous lives themselves. They want to dictate how others should live. The acolytes of social justice want to dictate how everyone lives. They see society not as a garden full of diversity and idiosyncrasies, but as a canvas for them to paint their personal conception of perfection.

I should pause to make an important point. Metaphors are useful, but they can also be shackles. So, I should be clear that my conception of the English garden isn’t some rigid construct or program, nor is it simply a quaint stand-in for libertarianism. What you might call vulgar libertarianism holds that individuals are maximally free to design their own happiness, unencumbered by social constraints. This is largely (but not entirely) true and valuable for purposes of law and constitutional rights. But it’s not true in life.

The great irony is that while the pursuit of happiness is an individual right, the actual realization of happiness is attained in groups. Brad Wilcox in his book Get Married, demonstrates how the happiest people are married people with kids. The vulgar libertarian—or vulgar libertine—of both the left and right has trouble believing this. Why be “tied down” with obligations and responsibilities when you can maximize hedonism on your own? The answer is simple: Real flourishing, true happiness, tends to come from being other-directed, from being needed by people you love and respect.

The English garden isn’t purely libertarian because it recognizes this fact. Pluralism is different from what we mean today by diversity. Diversity has come to be understood as a very narrow conception about the distribution of individuals—the “right” kind of individuals—throughout institutions and society. Pluralism is about different spheres of authority and institutions. Federalism is one kind of pluralism; what works for Kansas doesn’t necessarily work for California. Freedom of religion is another manifestation of pluralism. The rules for Catholics are different than the rules for Jews or Hindus or atheists. Different institutions from Churches to the Marines, to softball leagues, make demands on their members but only their members. Families are the bedrock of pluralism. All families are different civilizations, or microcosms as Hayek called them. The authority of parents is real and vital, but it is limited to their own children. I am not your kids’ dad.

All forms of tyranny involve taking the rules of one institution and imposing them on everyone. Trying to make a president into a parent or pope is tyrannical. Pretending that all citizens are soldiers under a general is tyranny. Pluralistic liberty and human happiness are conjoined projects because the latter is impossible, at scale, without the former. Meaningful happiness comes when free individuals find their place in larger institutions or associations. To be sure, some people are happiest alone and in isolation. But they are rare. And the existence of miserable bastards is something good societies tolerate but are impossibilities in perfect ones.

Libertarians are usually comfortable with the idea of the English garden, but all philosophical commitments are revealed at their testing points. We’re all libertarians about the things we want to be free to do, just as we’re all democrats about the things we want to be decided democratically. But ask small-d democrats if they think freedom of speech or gun rights should be put on the ballot and you’ll see democratic unanimity sundered by liberal commitments. We all like nationalism when it’s little more than vague and cost-free social solidarity or indistinguishable from conventional patriotism. But if some new nationalist party insisted on invading Canada, we’d see the ranks of the nationalists shrink and split.

Some libertarians—again, of both the left and right—do not like Jonathan Haidt’s proposals to restrict children’s access to social media and pornography on the internet. Their arguments vary in both persuasiveness and principle. It’s a wholly legitimate argument. But I side entirely with Haidt. Not all his proposed solutions require top-down federal intervention. Many actually depend on pluralism: schools, parents, and businesses making individual and collective decisions. But where necessary, I favor the government choosing sides. Making it easier, at the margins, for parents, schools, and communities to raise healthy and happy kids is not necessarily tyrannical. It can be, in theory. But I see no evidence of that in practice here. When I was a kid it was hard for me to find porn. Believe me, I looked. My difficulty was not tyranny. It was the result of legitimate and necessary laws that made it easier for parents to raise kids the way they wanted. The internet made those laws irrelevant. Writing new laws to do the same job is not tyranny; it’s liberating, for parents and schools to do their jobs.

That’s what’s so conservative about the garden of liberty. It doesn’t liberate the individual, adults, or children from all constraints or sources of authority. It recognizes different spheres of authority and defers to them. Society isn’t a forest of individual trees, it’s an ecosystem of diverse, pluralistic, habitats.

And that’s what ties this potpourri on parenting to political theory. All societies are made up of citizens. In America and most of the world, citizens aren’t manufactured in factories or giant industrial farms. They are made, one by one, by little artisan shops called “families.” Families are the innermost circle of a series of rings that extend out from microcosm to macrocosm like the rings of a tree. Families don’t do all the work. A couple years after birth the production line is extended to, or shared with, schools, peers, other families, churches, clubs, communities, etc. The timeline from conception to finished product takes about 18 years, but often longer.

Governments aren’t parents, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the best practices for parents at the heart of the microcosm mirror the best practices at the outermost rings of the macrocosm. Children need freedom to make mistakes in a process of discovery but within certain boundaries. As they get older, the boundaries expand until they are citizens (aka adults). There are still boundaries for citizens but, just as importantly,  there are boundaries for government, too. One of the most crucial: The government shouldn’t intrude too deeply in the production process.

Most parents eventually learn from experience that they can’t live their kids’ lives for them. This is one reason why grandparents tend to be so much more libertarian about their grandkids than they were about their own kids. But governments don’t learn lessons the same way (which is one reason governments shouldn’t confuse themselves for parents in the first place). And I do worry that a generation of kids raised by helicopter parents is more likely to want helicopter government, too. But that’s a topic for another day.

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