Thursday, January 05, 2006

National Greatness and the Ecology of Families 4 - What I Mean by National Greatness

My idea of national greatness has the strongest affinities with the vision of Theodore Roosevelt. I believe in busting trusts because it serves a free market, and requiring more of the rich because they owe more to a society that helped them get and keep their riches. I believe in using our national might to settle disputes abroad – TR won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in activating the International Court of Arbitration and in settling the Russo-Japanese War – and to build the global infrastructure, like the Panama Canal. Roosevelt himself made mistakes, as any leader does, and some of them were beauts. But, to my mind, Theodore Roosevelt best embodies the spirit of what I think of as National Greatness.

When I first registered to vote, I registered as a Republican, quite against my family’s tradition, because I was under the spell of that wonderful biography of the first president Roosevelt, Mornings On Horseback. I soon discovered, though, the same thing that many would-be followers of TR found: the Republican Party was no home for us. This is why Franklin Roosevelt, who took his famous relative as a model, became a Democrat. Since the 1970s, though, the Democratic Party has not been a home for those who believe in the national greatness of America.

Centrist movements within each party keep trying to make an institutional space for a Rooseveltian politics. David Brooks, who has done the most to promote the idea of a national greatness agenda, has said that he wishes there were a party led by John McCain and Joe Lieberman. Two blogs I read regularly, and are linked to this one, are New Donkey and the Bull Moose – that latter, obviously, an explicit attempt to promote a politics in the manner of Teddy Roosevelt.

You may be wondering why a blog about families is talking about national greatness – make that National Greatness. It is because I think that families, wonderful and important though they are, are not ends in themselves. In fact, I think that any life, and any institution, can only really be great if it serves an end greater than itself. This is the wisdom of the seemingly paradoxical idea of “servant leadership.” It is perfectly possible to have strong families which serve only themselves, undermining the other institutions of society, and ultimately undermining society itself. This is the conclusion of Edward Banfield’s classic The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.

The best kind of strong families serve to make the nation greater. And a great nation best serves the world.


SPorcupine said...


No. No. No.

Families serve their members, and serve God by doing so. Nations benefit, and so do communities and institutions, but those are side effects, not what families are for.

Gruntled said...

(Posted for Paul Jolly)

If dominate classes do well because they have better children who have better children etc…etc… and raising children usually means displacing careers, academics, and other socially constructive endeavors, how do these families stay on top if every generation is putting off advancement for their kids sake?

It seems like you says that these classes dominate because they invest in their children, but if the next generation also invests in the subsequent generation, when will they invest in the social good?

Gruntled said...

To SPorcupine, I can agree that serving the nation is not what families are for. However, I think that when families only serve their members, they have a stunted moral growth, what Banfield called amoral familism. It is part of the wisdom of the Bible that we actually are better people, and serve ourselves and our families better, when we serve a larger goal. The nation is not the only larger goal that can serve in this way, but it is one of a handful of possibilities of something that is big enough and embracing enough to be worth sacrificing for.

To Paul Jolly, I think classes with strong families dominate not simply because they can best support their children, but also because a strong family assists its members in a hundred ways every day, not just in the long run of the next generation. You are quite right, though, that socially successful families now are prone to miss out on having children. Families that do not have children are clearly not "strong families," in the long run.

Let me clear that I think strong families are likely to rise socially; I do not think that all people who are successful socially necessarily have strong families. In particular, wealth or power or status are not proof that your family is strong -- and the first may be a clue in the opposite direction.

ken mcintyre said...

I have two problems with what I take to be the general direction of your articles on national greatness.

First, much of the talk of good families, successful families, good states, and successful states seems to me to be tautological. It's similar to the sociological/political approbation of Japan in the 1980's and of the Soviet Union in the 1960's and 1970's. The line was 'these states are powerful and expanding, thus, their political/social institutions must be the correct ones.'

Second, like Sporcupine, I question the notion that 'any life, and any institution, can only really be great if it serves an end greater than itself.' This is a logical impossibility because there has to be a final term at some point. Indeed, it is the single most obvious logical difficulty with a utilitarian ethic. Eventually one has to decide the question, 'useful for what?'.

However, its political implications are as troubling as its logical difficulties. Who is to judge what the final telos is? Is it the government? Teleocratic government, as it was manifested in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, Maoist China, etc., has not been notably friendly to the traditional family. My guess is that, when push comes to shove, 'national greatness' however defined will trump the traditional family in the minds of teleocratic politicians.

Gruntled said...


Talk of strong families and national greatness can be tautological. I tried to give a substantive account of what I mean by strong families in yesterday's post. I think the precise nature of national greatness is inherently elusive. For that reason, it is a potentially dangerous idea in the wrong hands. I am drawn to it, though, because I think that nations become great by serving the world, which, if done right, will also best serve their national interest. That is what I am trying to point to through Theodore Roosevelt.

You are quite right that there is a logical problem in claiming that any institution can only truly be great if it serves a larger end. As I stated it, the claim is an infinite regress. The ultimate aim is, I believe, to serve God. This applies to families and to nations. SPorcupine said that "families serve their members, and serve God by doing so." This is true. But families can also serve God directly and corporately. And such service, through a seemingly paradoxical inversion, makes the family stronger. I believe the same is true of nations. Nations that serve God by serving others are greater nations. National greatness is in the nation's own interest, as well as the world's.

And who is to say what makes for national greatness? Thee and me. That is what conversation in the blogosphere is for. :)