Chesterton: “we have abolished their parents”

There was recently reported in the papers the meeting of certain eminent ladies, of a political and philanthropic sort, who discussed the great modern problem of what is to be done with The Child.  I need not say that The Child is always discussed as if he were a monster, of immense size, vast complexity, and strange and startling novelty.  Nor need I remind the reader that The Child is not a child; any child we comfortable people have ever seen.  The Child is not Jack or Joan or Peter; he is not Cousin Ethel’s child or one of Uncle William’s children.  He is a creature entirely solitary and sui generis, and he lives in the slums.

A great many remarks were made, most of them sincere, some of them sensible, and several of them highly comic…All of these other sayings, however, sink into a second place, in my opinion, compared with one simple remark, which will seem to most people as innocent as it is simple.  Nevertheless, in that one artless observation–I might almost say, in that one unconscious confession–was contained the whole complex of contradictions and falsehoods which have in our time ruined the relation of social classes and destroyed the common morals of the community.  A very famous political lady, who certainly believes that what she says represents the most lofty luminous idealism, uttered on this occasion the following words:  “We must take care of other people’s children as if they were our own.”

And when I read those words, I smote the table with my hand, like one who has suddenly located and smashed a wasp.  I said to myself:  “That’s it!  She’s got it!  She’s got exactly the correct formula for the worst and most poisonous of all the political wrongs that rot out the entrails of the world.  That is what has wrecked democracy; wrecked domesticity through the breadth and depth of democracy; wrecked dignity as the only prop and pillar of domesticity and democracy.  That is what has taken away from the poor man the pride and honor of the father of a household, so that he can no longer feel any pride or honor in being a citizen; still less in being merely a voter.  The Englishman’s house is no longer his castle, nor is he the king of the castle; the charbonnier is no longer maitre chez lui; his hut is not his hut; his children are not his children; and democracy is dead.  She means no harm.  She knows not what she does.  She does not even understand what she says.  She does not comprehend a word of the terrible sentence that she has spoken.  But it is spoken.”  And the sentence that is spoken is this:  “We, the rich, can take care of poor people’s children as if they were our own.  As we have abolished their parents, they are all orphans.”

The ideal is sufficiently familiar in fact, of course; and there is nothing very much against it, except that it is utterly and grossly immoral.  A man saying he will treat other people’s children as his own is exactly like a man saying he will treat other people’s wives as his own.  He may get a certain amount of poetic or sentimental pleasure out of the children, but so he may out of the wives.  The question is whether any human rights whatever remain to the other man…

The trouble with out society is that the ideal is more wrong than the real.  Old Tories used to insist on teaching to the poor the principles of respect for private property, lest they should revolt and despoil the rich.  As a fact, it is the rich who have to be taught about the existence of private property, and especially about the existence of private life.  No ragged mob is likely to storm the nurseries of Mayfair, or steal the perambulators from the French nurses, or the pupils from the German governesses, parading in Kensington Gardens.  But philanthropists, under various excuses, really do raid the playgrounds of the poor.  They regard such a raid as a reform; and, in truth, it is a revolution.  Modern writers are very ready to cover great historical events with sweeping denunciations of crime; to say that the Great War was murder on a large scale or that the Russian Revolution was theft on a large scale.  They hardly realize how much of educational and philanthropic reform has been kidnapping on a large scale.  That is, it has shown an increasing disregard for the privacy of the private citizen, considered as a parent.  I have called it a revolution; and at bottom it really is a Bolshevist revolution.  For what could be more purely and perfectly Communist than to say that you regard other people’s children as if they were your own?

—G. K. Chesterton, in The Illustrated London News, March 5, 1932, reprinted in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Volume 36

7 Responses

  1. […] Chesterton: “we have abolished their parents” […]

  2. Jules Ferry, the founder of the French educational system that has been so widely imitated, was simply more candid than most, when he said that he wished to cast the nation’s youth in the same mould and stamp them, like the coinage, with the image of the Republic [jeter la jeunesse dans le même moule, la frapper, comme une monnaie, à l’effigie de la République]

  3. 2nd half of an outline for an op-ed I had planned to write in response to Obama’s Universal Pre-K proposal. The very last sentence is relevant here:

    3. Crypto-eugenics?

    If there is this wide swath of people who are both unable and unfit to raise their own kids (whom they tend to keep popping out at above-replacement levels), then maybe taking their kids away from them for a generation or two to be raised by over-educated government appointees (most of them liberal white women from middle-class backgrounds) isn’t such a bad idea. It’s like a cultural reset button. That generation of kids, growing up with government-approved values like healthy diet and lifestyles, education- and career-orientedness, and dogmatic belief in democracy will turn out to be less violent, less illegitimacy-prone, and less anti-intellectual than their parents. The benefits will be shared by all. Sure, it’s Orwellian, but if it works who cares? And by the way, for it to work you can’t keep calling it “Orwellian” or people will be spooked by it and they won’t want to support it. So hush up with that “Orwellian” stuff and say it with me: “Universal pre-K is a human right!”

    4. Benefit vs. Cost

    But will this crypto-eugenic program actually work? The lauded long-term outcomes of the Lanham Act kids of 1940 could be explained away by any number of other variables. Also, the lion’s share of the intelligence research community believes that genes account for about 50% of intelligence. Other traits–impulse control, conscientiousness, tendency towards violence, etc.–may break down along similar lines. If that’s true, then taking a kid away from his dumb, impulsive, violent, selfish parent(s) and raising him in a state-of-the-art pre-K (and post-K) system would achieve, on average, only modest results. But it would be very expensive, and it’s not the kid’s parents who’d end up paying for it. Meanwhile, we’d have a thing like that on our conscience.

  4. There is a certain “political lady” in Ontario of whom I am strongly reminded.

  5. […] the USCCB was awfully progressive. I wonder where they got those ideas? And an extended quote from Chesterton: “we have abolished their parents”. And then this: Bonald argues it’s Time to split up the sciences, i.e., between the science […]

  6. […] simultaneous to my Chesterton post, Dalrock posted a wonderful essay on the state’s enthusiasm for ejecting fathers from their […]

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