Friday, July 24, 2009

The Maternal State (excerpt trom The Twilight of Liberalism)

The following is taken from chapter two of my book The Twilight of Liberalism. (To order a copy of the book, click HERE. To learn more about the book, click HERE. To read a free excerpt from my article on beauty, which is also in the book, click HERE.)

The Maternal State

The maternal state is a government that assumes the function of Mother. The maternal state is there to nurture us, to train us, to instruct us, to keep our toys safe, to be guardian of our possessions, to be our tutor in the way of virtue and, like a good mother, to make sure we share our belongings with our brothers and sisters.

The confusion between statecraft and motherhood is an ancient one. When Diocletian (pictured left) published his Edict of 301, mandating the persecution of Christians and destroying the few remaining liberties of the old Roman republic, he justified it by referring to himself and his associates as “the watchful parents of the whole human race.” Contemporary governments are increasingly following the pattern of Diocletian by acting, not simply as the guardians of law and order, but as mother to their citizens. I would like consider five overlapping areas where this is the case.

Government’s Maternal Eye

Part of a mother’s vocation involves educating her children in the path of virtue (Proverbs 1:8-9) and nourishing their bodies in growth. When government assumes the role of mother, the state begins to have a constant eye on our education, an eye on
our virtue, an eye on our growth and an eye on the all-around development of the human personality.[1] 

The result is that we all begin to belong to each other under the supra-parenthood of the state. As Hillary Clinton expressed it, “As adults we have to start thinking and believing that there isn't really any such thing as someone else's child. My child, your child, all children everywhere, must live and make their ways in society, and now, in the increasingly shrinking world we live in, in the larger globe as well.”[2]

Our lives become the business of the state and, as a corollary, the business of each other, because the state, like a good mother, has assumed responsibility for our growth and training. As C.S. Lewis remarked

The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good – anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name “leaders” for those who were once “rulers.” We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.

The French Revolution is one of the prime modern examples of a state assuming responsibility for the private lives of its citizens under the guise of promoting virtue. During the Revolution’s “Reign of Terror,” Robespierre justified the use of terror by appealing to the need for both private and public virtue.[4] While no one would dispute the fact that virtue is necessary in a society, when government assumes responsibility for the cultivation of virtue, the result is more likely to be terror.[5]

The Helping Hand of the Maternal State

The incessant eagerness of the law-maker to act as parents to citizens is expressed in Abraham Lincoln’s words that “the legitimate object of government” is only “to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or cannot, so well do, for themselves . . . .”
[6] The presupposition behind this idea is that the State, like a good mother, must offer a helping hand wherever the citizens are incapable or in need. Otto von Bismarck, the great German Chancellor of the 19th century, suggested similarly when he asserted that government must act “in fulfillment of the workers” right to look to the State where their own good will can achieve nothing more.”[7]

Contemporary examples of this same tendency are readily available. On March 15, 2007, the British government published Every Parent Matters,[8] outlining a myriad of areas where the government intends to start partnering with parents in the rearing of children. As Alan Johnson, then Secretary of State for Health, explained the new policies,

We want to create conditions where more parents can engage as partners in their children’s learning and development, from birth, through the school years and as young people make the transition to adulthood.[9]

In a similar vein, a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research has urged that christening services be replaced by “birth ceremonies,” in which the parents of children and the State agree to “work in partnership” to raise children.[10] This echoes the ideas of Ellen Richards, who argued in 1910 that, “In the social republic, the child as a future citizen is an asset of the state, not the property of its parents. Hence its welfare is a direct concern of the state.” [11]

Government’s Maternal Ownership

A good mother will determine what objects her children are allowed to possess and how they are allowed to use them. If a brother is using a stick to hurt his little sister, the mother has the right – indeed the duty – to step in and remove the instrument. This only makes sense because there is a prior understanding that a child’s ownership is provisional and can be overruled at any given time by parental interference. This not only protects the child from potentially harmful objects, but helps it learn to be responsible with its possessions and to share them with other siblings when appropriate. All ownership proceeds from the parent insofar as the child owns nothing that the parent has not given or allowed.

In following the maternal paradigm, the modern state has no scruples exercising ownership over all the land and the fullness thereof. Such civic parenthood is manifested in the myriad of health and safety regulations. This growing regulatory network presupposes that the state has the responsibility, like a good parent, to determine civic parenthood is manifested in the myriad of health and safety regulations. This growing regulatory network presupposes that the state has the responsibility, like a good parent, to determine what risks we are permitted to take with our lives, our property and our possessions.

Theodore Roosevelt summarized this view when he said that the New Nationalism “rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.”[12]

One of the ways the “public welfare” does this is by redistributing wealth and dictating how citizens can utilize their property. A.P. Lerner was typical when he defended governmental interference with the economy on the grounds that it was “a form of guardianship . . . to prevent foolish spending.”[13]

Not only does Mother State believe she has a right to plunder the profits of individuals (effectively forcing us to share our toys with our siblings), but she also views herself as possessing ownership of money in the collective. This can be seen in the pervasive assumption that it is government’s job to control and manipulate the economy, interest rates, cash flow, etc.. At the risk of over-simplification, that is the whole point of the American Federal Reserve: to regulate the economy through manipulation of interest rates.[14]

Unconsciously, many in the West are oriented to think that everything belongs to the State by default and what is ours is only that which Government has graciously allowed us to keep.[15] However, a citizen population presupposes citizen ownership, seeing that a citizen who cannot engage in free trade and ownership is not properly a citizen at all, but bears the same relation to the State that a slave bears to its master or a dependent child to its mother.

Karl Marx was wiser than most when he recognized this relationship between property and family. Marx claimed that because the family is based on capital and private property, a successful attack on private property would necessarily also involve an attack on the family. The family, he and Engels wrote, “will vanish with the vanishing of capital.”[16] One of the methods Communism used to ensure the vanishing of the family was state control of education.[17] Marx knew that destroying the family was central to destroying private property, and destroying private property was essential to destroying the family.[18] When the family was destroyed it would be replaced by the family of the State.[19] Communism was as much about a new form of motherhood as it was about economic theory.

Marx’s ideas about private property were hardly novel. According to many of his Enlightenment predecessors, the advent of private property represented a kind of fall of man. As J.L. Talmon observed,

Not only avowed Communists . . . but also Rousseau, Diderot and Helvetius were agreed that “all these evils are the first effect of property and of the array of evils inseparable from the inequality to which it gave birth.” Diderot contrasted the “esprit de propriété” with the “esprit de communauté.” He admonished the Legislator to combat the former and to foster the latter, if his aim were to make man’s personal will identical with the general will. Rousseau’s eloquent passage on the first man who enclosed a plot of land with a fence, deceived his neighbors into the belief in the legality of his act, and thus became the author of all the wars, rivalries, social evils and demoralization in the world, is not more radical than Morelly’s and Mably’s obsessive insistence that property is the root cause of all that has gone wrong in history.[20]
A responsible mother recognizes that her responsibility is only temporary and must eventually give way to the autonomy of the child as he or she matures into adulthood. Unlike a responsible human parent, however, the paternal state thrives on dependency and is inevitably parasitic on the very persons whom it turns into parasites. This should not be a hard point to grasp, seeing that the government can only give away what it first takes from someone else (even deficit spending and arbitrary money-printing are essentially processes of confiscation, since the inflation these processes spawn removes value from the currency already held by the populace). The net result is that both the state and its dependents march symbiotically to destruction.

Watch Your Grammar!

It is Mother who gives us language. A good mother will correct the grammar of her children in order that they may learn to properly speak their native tongue. With the advent of “political correctness” this is exactly what government has begun to attempt, imposing her own grammar on the populace.

But political correctness (“PC”) involves more than merely a preference for certain idiom: building on the understanding that there is a correlation between language and virtue, the canons of PC tell us how to conform to the prevailing archetype of the good citizen. As such, the demand for political correctness approximates a mother’s demand for virtue in her children.

In political correctness we find a misplaced type of sympathy resembling maternal affection morphed into neurosis. This comes across quite powerfully in Anthony Browne’s devastating critique of PC in his little booklet The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain.[21] Browne suggests that PC is a kind of cultural Marxism. In its classical form, Marxism used economics as a single-factor-explanation for all history, suggesting that society is determined by ownership of means of production. Marxism thus sought to redistribute wealth. PC does this, not with economics, but with culture, arguing that history and society are determined by which groups have power over other groups. These groups are defined in terms of race, sex, ethnicity, etc. PC then tries to distribute power from the powerful to the powerless.

The ideology of political correctness – which, unlike Marxism, is rarely thought through in any systematized form but only felt – enables its advocates to categorize certain groups as victims in need of protection from criticism. For example, homosexuals, Muslims, ethnic minorities and the developing world all currently enjoy victim status and must therefore be protected from criticism. PC attempts to redistribute power so as to fall on the side of these groups. Like a mother punishing the tattletale, a politically correct government will censure those who criticize its favored children.

Government’s Maternal Food

When the State tries to fulfill the vocation of parent, its first job is to feed us.

God designed the world so that children expect sustenance from their mothers. We are wired in such a way that we follow the person with the food and we perceive such a person or institution in a maternal light.

But when the State feeds us, we unconsciously begin to think of it in a parental light, which itself orients us to look more favorably on its augmented power. Schlossberg noted that “Looking to the state for sustenance is a cultic act; we rightly learn to expect food from parents, and when we regard the state as the source of physical provision we render to it the obeisance of idolatry… A class that is able to distribute life’s blessings exercises a godlike power.”[22]

Government’s Maternal Responsibility

A good parent assumes responsibility for fixing problems that exist in the home and the family. Consequently, a child’s problem is never just the child’s problem: it is also the mother’s problem. The similarity between this aspect of motherhood and the contemporary state hardly needs pointing out. We live in an age where the prevailing assumption is that all problems in society are the government’s responsibility to fix. William Buckley described this tendency well:

If there is crime in the street, it is because government does not provide enough day care. If there is unemployment in the steel mills, it is because the government is using too much steel making submarines. If there is a growing number of broken homes, it is because government has not passed the Equal Rights Amendment.[23]

A state that assumes maternity feels compelled to keep a careful watch over the education, money, speech and even thoughts of its citizens. Political scientist Andrew Hacker defended Government’s role in taking responsibility over all the activities of its citizens on the grounds that,

If government is to govern it must be able to tell people they must stop doing things they are now doing; it must be able to curtail private activities and privileges so that society will be more orderly. Leadership is meaningless unless citizens are prepared to follow: to sacrifice individual pleasures and agree to redistributions in which they may be losers. To be a nation, in short, a society must have a citizenry willing to surrender a substantial portion of its freedom to public authority.

The Utopian Eschatology of the Maternal State

As a mother brings her children to maturity through love, discipline and nurture, so as the modern state becomes maternal it begins to see itself as an engine for bringing maturity, in this case the maturity of the civic order. This is over and against older political philosophies which stressed the negative role of the state in restraining evil and defending the civic order from internal and external assailants while not attempting to tamper with trying to make us good.

The processes employed by a mother to bring maturity are necessarily relational as she interacts personally with each child. By contrast, the methods employed by the state can only be institutional and impersonal. When maturity is sought through institutional means, the result is typically utopian since it involves the assumption that salvation can be achieved simply by lawmakers tinkering with the external environment. Thus, the state that becomes maternal normally also has utopian ambitions. However, since history shows the futility of such aspirations, the maternal state always represents the “new dawn” that past generations somehow missed. The maternal state is eschatology as it tells the story of itself as the culmination, fulfillment and climax of past struggle.

The utopian fervor of the maternal state is illustrated no better than in Barack Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago on November 5, 2008. Obama told the story of American history, from its inception to its growth into civic maturity in a “new dawn of American leadership” – a process that climaxes in his own utopian announcement: “Our union can be perfected.”

Nor are Americans alone when they invest their government with eschatological significance. The utopian aspirations of the maternal state are illustrated in the flag of the European Union. (The EU flag was first introduced in 1955 as a symbol for the Council of Europe. Although the Council of Europe is a separate entity from the European Union,[25] the latter adopted the flag as its own in the 1980s.)

Unlike the flag for the United States, which had stars successively added as additional states joined the union, the number of stars on the EU flag remains fixed at 12. In the Bible, as well as in various other spiritual traditions, twelve represents the number of perfection, especially in the area of rulership. This symbolism has not been overlooked by the pioneers of the European movement. The German website gives the following explanation about the EU flag: "The number of stars was never intended to change with fluctuation in membership: Twelve symbolizes perfection in various traditions throughout history. There are, for example, 12 symbols of the Zodiac, 12 hours on a clock and 12 months in a year – and just as many Tribes of Israel, Olympian gods and tables of Roman law. "

What makes this symbolism so potent is that EU has been undergirded with aspirations of perfection ever since its inception. With utopian zeal, the pioneers of a united Europe have defended the project by attributing to their institutions near messianic status. One of the chief areas where this messianism plays out is in the EU’s promotion of secular sanctification. The EU is concerned, not simply with promoting law and order, but in how citizens should think, how they should speak, what medicines they may take, what wealth they may retain, what risks they are permitted to run, how they should spend their money. In short, the EU is interested in managing the minutia of its citizen’s personal lives, claiming for itself the kind of authority our Savior invoked in Mt. 28:18.

In keeping with the corollaries of the maternal paradigm, the architects of European integration have been as eschatological as they are utopian, arguing that a united Europe has ushered in a new era of peace and unity. This perspective seems to have been behind the decision to arrange the stars of the EU flag in a circle. As the German website again puts it: “The stars were arranged in a circle to represent the ideal of unity among the people of Europe.” This is significant, since apologists of the EU, like apologists for ancient Rome or Nazism, point out that their empire has made one new humanity out of previously warring pluralities, ushering in a new world order of peace. In this respect the EU presents a vision of eschatological progress not unlike the pretensions of the Babel architects. European integration is often seen as the final stage in an eschatological climax triumphing over the forces of nationalism, war, self-interest and isolation in order to usher in a new age of peace and prosperity.[26] Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the Austrian Minister for Security and Interior, made these aspirations explicit in 1938 when he said that

"Above and beyond the concept of the nation-state, the idea of a new community will transform the living space given us all by history into a new spiritual realm. . . . The new Europe of solidarity and co-operation among all its people, a Europe without unemployment, economic and monetary crises, a Europe of planning and the division of labour, having at its disposal the most modern production techniques and a continent-wide system of trade and communications developed on a joint basis, will find an assured foundation and rapidly increasing prosperity once national economic barriers are removed. . . . Nations and human beings only develop to the full when they participate actively in a great common destiny."

In a myriad of implicit ways, liberals and conservatives alike tell the story of progress in terms of statecraft and political economics.[27] It is the state, like a good mother, that is there to nurture human civilization to progress. Liberals and conservatives disagree on both the definition of progress as well as the means for attaining it, but they are still working within the same basic paradigm. The State, like the Church, is seen to be the instrumental means of bringing regeneration – in this case, civic regeneration – as it creates a new people bound together by national unity. As Robespierre bluntly put it: “I am convinced of the necessity of bringing about a complete regeneration, and, if I may express myself so, of creating a new people.”[28]

This explains why politicians increasingly need to be good story-tellers. To be successful the vying candidates must each convince us that they come from traditions that are bringing civic maturity.[29] In countless ways we are urged to trust them, like we trust our mothers, and to structure our lives around the benefits they bring and the obligations they demand.

Government’s Maternal Compassion

As a good mother shows compassion to her children, especially when they are ailing, so the Maternal State offers its own compassion to the masses. As President George Bush once revealingly remarked: “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”

When Mussolini first coined the word “Totalitarianism,” it was not a pejorative slur, nor was it something connoting tyranny. Rather, he used the term to refer to a humane society in which everyone was taken care of and looked after by a state which encompassed all of life within its grasp. Because this is not the job of the government, compassion from the state is usually a prelude to tyranny. The beneficent state naturally morphs into a malignant state. C.S. Lewis described this well when he wrote that

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."[31]

Just as the impulse to be a faithful dog is ennobling in a dog but demeaning when exhibited by a man, so the mothering instinct is nurturing in a mother but tyrannical when assumed by the state.

Buy The Twilight of Liberalism to read what the Bible says about the legitimate role of the state and how the church, not government, has been called to exercise a maternal function.


[1] “In essence, communism is identical to humanism since it presupposes the all-around development of the human personality in a perfectly organized society.” Georgi Shakhnazarov, The Coming World Order (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1981), p. 273.

[2] Hillary Rodham Clinton's address to the 1996 United Methodist General Conference.

[3] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, “Is Progress Possible?” in The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press, 1933), p. 514.

[4] Maximilien Robespierre, “Justification of the Use of Terror,” available online at

[5] See Michael Ovey, “Beyond scrutiny? Minorities, majorities and post-modern tyranny,” in “Applications of extended concepts of tyranny,” in Cambridge Papers, Vol 13 No 2, June 2004.

[6] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, vol. 2 (Rutgers University Press (1953).

[7] Quoted in P. J. O’Brien, Forward with Roosevelt (Chicago: John C. Winston Co., 1936), 84. Otto von Bismarck issued a series of reforms that increased Germans’ dependence on the state. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer writes that Bismarck’s policies “gradually made them value security over political freedom and caused them to see in the State, however conservative, a benefactor and a protector.” Between 1883 and 1889 Bismarck put through a program for social security far beyond anything known in other countries at the time. It included a compulsory insurance for workers to help them in old age, sickness, accident and incapacity. This was organized by the State but financed by employers and employees. “Give the working-man the right to work as long as he is healthy,” the Prussian chancellor proclaimed, “assure him maintenance when he is old. . . .” Had Bismarck never oriented the Germans to value security over freedom, it is doubtful that Hitler would ever have gained such widespread support. Hitler himself remarked in Mein Kampf: “I studied Bismarck’s socialist legislation in its intention, struggle and success.”

[8] The British government has made the document available at
[9] Letter from Alan Johnson. Ibid.

[10] Hal G.P. Colebatch’s, “Britain’s Escalating War on Christianity,” The American Spectator, 11/8/2007.

[11] Ellen H Richards, Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment (Boston: Whitcomb and Barrows, 1910), p. 133.

[12] Cited by Henry Pringle in Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography (Kessinger Publishing, 2005) P. 543.

[13] Abba P. Lerner, The Economics of Control (New York: Macmillan, 1944), p. 52.

[14] See Ron Paul, The Revolution: A Manifesto (Grand Central Publishing, 2008), and Murray N. Rothbard, What Has Government Done to Our Money?(Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 1990)

[15] This principle applies to human rights as much as it does property. In the modern view, since we are all clients of the Benevolent State, our “rights” are those areas specifically granted to us by the State rather than those areas where the power of the state is restricted. See Peter Hitchens’ article, “Why weak justice means the end of freedom,” in The Mail on Sunday, 25 June 2008.

[16] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848, Penguin Classics) chapter 2.

[17] “The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.” (Communist Manifesto, chapter 2)

[18] In Scripture there is also a link between family and private property. Both are honored and protected by the Ten Commandments. Rushdoony writes that “according to the Bible, the family is more than a spiritual unity; it is a material unity, firmly grounded in property and economic realities. Similarly, private property is not merely a neutral material thing for the Bible; it is essentially linked to God’s spiritual realities, His law, and the family. The property and family are everywhere closely linked together by the Bible. Every attack therefore on private property is an attack on the family, and every attack on the family is also an attack on private property.” Rushdoony, Law & Liberty, p. 68.

[19] See Herbert Schlossberg, ibid, pp. 215-216.

[20] J.L. Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (New York: The Norton Library, 1970) p. 51.

[21] Anthony Browne, The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain (London: Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society, 2006). See my review of the book at

[22] Schlossberg, op. cit, pp. 183 & 201.
[23] William Buckley, “For the Democrats, Government is a God,” The Atlanta Journal (July 23, 1984), 9A.

[24] Andrew Hacker, The End of the American Era (New York: Atheneum, 1970).

[25] The Council of Europe has been active since 1949. With originally only 10 members, it has grown to include 47 different states. The COE allegedly exists to promote the rule of law, democracy and greater integration among the European states, although many look on it as a threat to national sovereignty. The organization’s most significant achievement was to introduce the European Convention on Human Rights, which it enforces through the European Court of Human Rights. The COE should not be confused with the European Union, even though the two bodies work closely together and use the same flag.

[26] In a speech at Louvain in Belgium in February 1996, the German Chancellor famously warned that European integration is “a question of war and peace in the twenty-first century.” In November 1995, a member of the Bundesbank directorate declared that monetary union was “the last step in a process of integration . . . in order to bring Europe peace and prosperity...”

[27] On human progress being measured in purely economic terms, see Barack Obama’s Convention acceptance Speech, Thursday, August 28, 2008 . “We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma. We measure progress in the 23 million new jobs that were created when Bill Clinton was President – when the average American family saw its income go up $7,500 instead of down $2,000, like it has under George Bush.”

[28] Cited by Goldberg, op. cit., p. 42. On politics bringing us into the promised land, also see Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (Cambridge, MASS: Riverside, 1962).

[29] “Emerson well said in his essay on Man the Reformer that it was stupid to expect any real or permanent change from any social program which was unable to regenerate or convert – these are religious phrases for a common psychological phenomenon – the people who are to engineer it and carry it through.” Mumford, The Transformations of Man (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), p. 251.

[30] George Bush, from speech titled, “President’s Remarks on Labor Day,” given to Ohio Operating Engineers, Richfield Training Center, Richfield, Ohio, September 1, 2003.

[31] C.S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in God in the Dock (op. cit., p. 499). See also R. Andrew Newman, “Stay Out of Our Wardrobe! The libertarian Narnia state,” 2006, at

[32] Having explored a number of areas in which the modern state assumes the role of mother, it is important to stress what this does not mean. It does not mean that lawmakers are self-consciously thinking in terms of the maternal paradigm when they construct policy. A conceptual paradigm, like a worldview or demon possession, can quite easily operate in the background without the agent ever being cognizant of the fact.

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