The TV cable-news network MSNBC runs sermonettes from its anchors during commercial breaks. They are like public-service announcements illuminating the progressive mind, and perhaps none has ever been as revealing and remarkable as the one cut by weekend host Melissa Harris-Perry.
Harris-Perry set out to explain what is, by her lights, the failure to invest adequately in public education. She located the source of the problem in the insidious idea of parental responsibility for children.
"We've always had kind of a private notion of children," she said, in the tone of an anthropologist explaining a strange practice she discovered when out doing far-flung fieldwork. "Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility." So long as this retrograde conception prevails, according to Harris-Perry, we will never spend enough money on children. "We have to break through," she urged, "our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families."
Oliver Wendell Holmes once wondered, "Why can't somebody give us a list of things that everybody thinks and nobody says, and another list of things that everybody says and nobody thinks?" Harris-Perry's contribution falls into the former category, at least within her orbit of left-wing academia (she teaches at Tulane University, after stops at Princeton and the University of Chicago) and journalism (she writes a column for The Nation as well as holding forth on MSNBC).
Her statement wasn't an aside on live television. She didn't misspeak. The spot was shot, produced and aired without, apparently, raising any alarm bells. No one with influence raised his or her hand and said, "Should we really broadcast something that sounds so outlandish?"
The foundation of the Harris-Perry view is that society is a large-scale kibbutz. The title of Hillary Clinton's best-seller in the 1990s expressed the same point in comforting folk wisdom: "It Takes a Village."
As the ultimate private institution, the family is a stubborn obstacle to the great collective effort. Insofar as people invest in their own families, they are holding out on the state and unacceptably privileging their own kids over the children of others. These parents are selfish, small-minded and backward. "Once it's everybody's responsibility," Harris-Perry said of child-rearing, "and not just the households, then we start making better investments."
This impulse toward the state as über-parent is based on a profound fallacy and a profound truth. The fallacy is that anyone can care about someone else's children as much as his own. The former Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm liked to illustrate the hollowness of professions to the contrary with a story. He told a woman, "My educational policies are based on the fact that I care more about my children than you do." She said, "No, you don't." Gramm replied, "OK: What are their names?"
The truth is that parents are one of society's most incorrigible sources of inequality. If you have two of them who stay married and are invested in your upbringing, you have hit life's lottery. You will reap untold benefits denied to children who aren't so lucky. That the family is so essential to the well-being of children has to be a constant source of frustration to the egalitarian statist, a reminder of the limits of his power.
The socialist president of France, Francois Hollande, proposed a small corrective to its influence last year. He inveighed against homework for schoolchildren. Work, he said, "must be done in the (school) facility rather than in the home if we want to support the children and re-establish equality." His education minister explained that the state should "support all students in their personal work, rather than abandon them to their private resources, including financial, as is too often the case today."
The proposal went nowhere. If the left wants to equalize the investments in children that matter most, it should promote intact families and engaged parents, even if it means embracing shockingly old-fashioned private child-rearing.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org