I hesitate to write this – for fear of misrepresentation – but there is one principle that I admire in the Chinese government’s otherwise Orwellian social monitoring system profiled by Nigel Cameron last week. Citizens of China who don’t regularly visit their aging parents will have points deducted from the individualised score used by their authoritarian government to decide how privileged or marginalised their state-regulated lives will be.
The practical difficulties of implementing the principle are wide-ranging, but with a quarter of Chinese citizens set to be aged 60 or over within little more than a decade, the care of the elderly is a big public policy issue – and not one the Chinese state has only just stumbled upon. As I’ve noted elsewhere, “the Confucian principle of filial piety – 孝 or xiào – is even enshrined into the nation’s constitution. Children who neglect their parents face up to five years in prison”.
The rise and rise of loneliness in the western world – the subject of one of Giles Fraser’s recent columns – is one manifestation of the inter-generational breakdown we are beginning to experience. “Beginning” probably isn’t the correct word – because at the other end of the age spectrum the effects are already advanced…
ROBERT PUTNAM: Yeah, that’s right. And I’m going to call them rich kids and poor kids, but by rich kids I don’t mean Bill Gates’ kids. I mean just kids coming from college-educated homes. And by poor kids, I don’t mean the poorest of the poor, I don’t mean homeless kids. I just mean kids whose parents did not get past high school. Among rich kids, only six or seven percent of them nationwide nowadays live in a single-parent family. But there’s such instability in the families of poor kids that 60 to 70 percent of them – of all races – are living in single-parent families. And that means there’s a ton more stress on their family and home than there is in the homes of well-off kids. And I don’t mean just because of money, I’m talking about family dynamics.
SIMON: Well, let me understand. When you talk about family dynamics, this means fewer family dinners, this means a family that doesn’t go to church or synagogue or mosque together.
PUTNAM: Yeah, and it shows up in a million ways. You’ll have a larger vocabulary, you’ll know more about the world, and you’ll do better in life.
SIMON: Can you explain what you call the savvy gap in this day and age
PUTNAM: Yeah. It’s one of the things that we discovered when we talked to rich kids and poor kids around America, that we didn’t expect – but kids, like my grandchildren and, like, you know, probably, like, your children or grandchildren, all across America have a lot of adults in their life that are reaching out to help them. They tell them about what it means to go to college… They describe, you know, how you can get through high school properly and where you can find a fellowship and – the bottom line of all of the statistics in our study is that poor kids are increasingly isolated from everyone. They just don’t have stable, responsible adults in their lives much of the time. And that means they’re just really ignorant. Not because they’re stupid, but because they don’t have mentors and adult helpers that most of us had when we were growing up.
Putnam isn’t alone in coming to the conclusion that the collapse of the real social networks that surround, educate, civilise, motivate and safeguard children (or which – because they’re missing or have been emasculated – don’t) amounts to a big deal.
- Charles Murray, from the other side of the American political divide, reached similar conclusions in Coming Apart. In a book subtitled The State of White America 1960-2010, Murray examines the “erosions of family and community life” that are overwhelmingly evident within, and disproportionately affecting poorer communities (partly I’d argue because of economic change) and, he concludes, “that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness”. Those erosions have exploded into full public view in recent times – with the opioid crisis, the reversal of the “unstoppable” rise in US life expectancy and in the election of a certain hotelier to the highest of offices.
- David Brooks in his book The Road to Character challenged his readers to build lives that are characterised by deeds, values and networks that might be most likely to be celebrated in a eulogy rather than what would look good on a CV.
- In Steve Hilton’s More Human, the former advisor to David Cameron concludes “that we now know that the quality and style of parenting received by a child is a better predictor of success than anything else – including the economic circumstances of the family”. And, appropriately enough, those words and his exploration of the the importance of the family come in a chapter billed as all about inequality. “Appropriately”, because the beginnings of economic poverty lie in relational poverty.
These themes have fascinated me for nearly three decades. While I was at Exeter University (probably around 1989) I spent a summer in Cambridge for a week of teachings hosted by the Jubilee Centre. At the time, Church of England thinking (and, repeating a theme, “thinking” probably isn’t the right word) was summed up in the Faith in the City report.
FitC lacked philosophical distinctiveness. Much of it was simply a call for even more of the kind of government interventionism that produced the Brixtons and Toxteths of the Britain of then or, for that matter, the Detroit-ian Gothams of today. It reinforced the idea that voters had to choose between the Left’s (and Anglicanism’s) bigger state and the Right’s invisible hand.
The Jubilee Centre and its leader – Michal Schluter – offered something different. Something that found comprehensive expression in the book he co-wrote with David Lee in 1993: “The R Factor“. Inspired by the Bible, Schluter found evidence for private enterprise (in God as Creator and man made in his image) and for state action (the rendering to Caesar) but – most of all – he found evidence for a philosophy of valuing relationships. Noting, for example, the Bible’s repeated calls to care for the widow, the orphan and the alien (migrant), his “Relationships Foundation” recommended what it called a “triple test” for all of public policy:
“We want all parties to subscribe to this basic premise: that policy development, proposals for legislation, and government action should all be subject to a triple test – economic, environmental and social. The economic test has long dominated political debate. Recently, however, policymakers have begun to move towards a second test by recognising the importance of the environment and seeking the tools necessary to address that vital sphere of life in their assessments. We now need to go further and add to this double test the neglected third element – the social test… The social aspect of ‘The Triple Test’ is fundamentally about relationships… Public policy is never neutral and we believe that policy makers and implementers should always test their proposals not only to ensure, as far as is possible, that these do not damage existing relational links, but also to see if ways can be found to encourage people increasingly to connect with each other in the public sphere. Strong communities and extended families can build financial and social capital, increasing wellbeing and reducing long-term pressures on public spending.”
I can’t do justice to the wealth of research and policy tools that Michael Schluter and his institutional creations have produced over the years (and wouldn’t defend or subscribe to all of them either)… but in projects such as its “index” measuring the cost of family breakdown; the family test; Keep Time for Children; promotion of relational justice; and the promotion of better relationships in the workplace, Schluter has stood apart from the almost absolute materialism that has not only dominated the political Left and Right but which has too often captured the church and other institutions that should have known (and should know) better.
I’m not sure there’s much evidence yet from the public policy world that Schluter-ian relationism is on the rise (as is the case with another of my intellectual heroes Michael Novak). But free minds are still free minds even if they’re not victorious in what they argue for. And in Putnam, Murray, Brooks, Hilton and others – his ideas’ time may be finally edging closer, at least in the intellectual arena. I hope so.