Nation Building, It Starts At Home

A nicely-outfitted home, at that.

Earlier, we discussed nation building from an historical perspective.  While messy, the Romans were effective.  Here is an equally important aspect of nation building, and it begins at home.

There are three ways someone can get you to do what he wants you to do:

Coercion - some guy waves a gun at you and says, "Gimmie yer dough."

Conformity - you do what other people do.  How often have you gone along with the crowd when you weren't convinced it was a good idea?

Conviction - someone or something has convinced you that voting Republican, or eating yogurt, or driving a hybrid is the right thing to do.

A newborn baby can't even move, parents manage babies entirely by coercion.  The baby stays where its put, it wears what the parents put on, and it eats when parents feed it.

As the baby begins to move around, it makes choices.  That's when parenting gets tricky.  Parents try to conform the child by teaching that it makes mommies and daddies happy when the child does what they want.  Sometimes the child loves mommy and daddy enough to conform, but what do parents do when the child chooses to disobey?

Traditionally, parents reverted to coercion and spanked the child when conformity didn't work.  One of the battles in the "culture wars" is between parents who base spanking on the their religious or traditional views, and social workers who don't believe that a 3,500 year old book has anything to say about how to raise children in the light of modern child psychology.

When I was about 12, I found a child development textbook.  "Mom," I announced, "You're raising me all wrong.  Page 47 says that you should never spank me because that'll warp my psyche."

"There's two problem with that," mom said.  "First, that guy never dealt with you.  There might be children who can be raised to be well-behaved, polite, responsible, and considerate adults without spanking, but I've never met one.  Second, I want to warp your psyche.  If I left your psyche alone, you'd burn down the house.  My goal is to eliminate unacceptable childish behavior and replace it with acceptable adult behavior as quickly as possible.  The faster I warp your psyche, the better for all of us."

Mom had been a social worker.  She knew enough functional families and had visited enough dysfunctional families to know that children need discipline, boundaries, rules, and enforcement.  She had no use for Dr. Spock's idea of not punishing children when they do wrong.  "If they aren't punished when they're small," she said, "how can they learn from being punished when they grow up?"

So much for college-level child development theory.

Social workers concede that children learn from experience.  One pamphlet I got from a child protection worker spoke of "natural and logical consequences."  If the child won't wear gloves in winter, don't spank, let them go out without gloves and get their hands cold.  "Natural and logical consequence" will teach them to wear gloves.

My mom used "natural and logical consequences" every day.  "I told you not to climb that tree (touch the stove, run on the ice, whatever), of course you got hurt...."  The difficulty comes when the consequences could be fatal as in playing in traffic.  Being turned into road kill doesn't teach anything because the kid doesn't get to try again.  The purpose of spanking is to impose an artificial, but non-fatal, consequence so that the child learns not do do that.

Now we come to the really, really tough part of parenting - conviction.  Kids leave home.  Once a kid is out of the house, the child will do whatever the child thinks best. If the parent wants the child to continue in the parent's ways, the parent has maybe 18 years to convince the child that the parent's ways are best.  If the parent doesn't do that, it's all over when the child leaves home.

That's parenting - you have 18 years to go from total coercion through conformity to conviction if you want your child to follow in your ways.  If you don't make the sale, your child will do something else.

What happens in family government also happens in national government.  Government has the same three tools parents have for getting you to get with their program.

Coercion - IRS waves a jail sentence at you and says, "Gimmie yer dough."

Conformity - you drive on the right side of the road because everybody else drives on the right side and you don't want to be conspicuous.

Conviction - you follow the laws because you think they're right.

Recent history has shown many coercion-based governments.  Stalin and Mao murdered millions of citizens whom they thought might oppose their programs and Saddam Hussein had a habit of offing people whom he thought might rebel.

Coercion-based government can work pretty well.  Back in 1985, Yugoslavia started exporting Yugo automobiles to the US and 120,000 were sold.  The miracle was that Yugoslavia was able to make cars at all.  Manufacturing an automobile is extremely complex and requires intense cooperation over a wide number of suppliers, plants, shippers, and other organizations.  A car has 10,000 to 20,000 parts and a final assembly plant tries to make a car per minute.  That's 10,000 to 20,000 parts per minute that have to be designed, scheduled, ordered, inspected, delivered, stocked, assembled, and paid for.  It's not simple to make cars.

Yugoslavia had been torn by ethnic hatred for centuries.  How did they get it together enough to make a car?

A friend of mine got the answer when he got off a train in Zagreb to look around. He found a student, convinced him that he wasn't a police spy, and asked why the country was so peaceful after all the fighting going back for centuries before WW II.

"It's simple," the student said.  "Mr. Tito will not let anybody talk about his tribe.  If you talk about being Serbian, or Croatian, or Montenegrin, his guys come in the night and take you away.  'We're all Yugoslavs,' he tells us, 'and if you don't like it, you die.'"

"How does that work," my friend asked, "I thought your tribes hated each other.  What about his tribe?"

"Mr. Tito kills his own people, too.  Nobody can talk about their tribe, not even his guys.  So it works."

I wasn't surprised when Yugoslavia cooperated well enough to make and sell a car.  I mourned when Tito died and his successors started talking about tribes again.  There were civil wars, and ethnic cleansing, and massacres, and Yugoslavia split into I don't know how many different countries.

So much for nation-building.  Mr. Tito's system killed fewer people than the Roman technique of decimation, but unlike Rome, there was no long-term source of power to continue his program.  When he died, tribalism came back and the rest is history.

The governments of North Korea and of Syria are based on pretty pure coercion.  Unlike Yugoslavia, both countries were able to pass power to the son when the leader died.  Stability can survive the death of a coercive ruler, but it's tricky.

Mr. Hussein was from the smallest tribe in Iraq.  He let his tribe do most of the killing, but he killed his own son-in-law when he thought there might be rebellion in the wind.  Nobody will ever know whether he would have been able to engineer a stable hand-off of power when he died, but the odds are against it.

What do we know about nation building?

First, it takes ruthlessness.  You kill anybody who gets in the way. Anybody who tries to feed hatred or disagreement, you have to kill them quickly because it's easier to destroy unity than to build.

Second, it takes time.  Mr. Tito kept Yugoslavians from killing each other from 1945 until his death in 1980.  35 years wasn't enough - when he died, they went back to killing each other.

Third, it takes institutions.  Turkey has been a democracy for a long time, but the army steps in now and then to bring things back into balance when the government gets out of hand.  The Supreme Court plays the same role in our system.  It takes genius to set up institutions when they don't exist and patience to let them take hold.

Fourth, it takes a common purpose.  People came to America to find the freedom to get rich.  Mexicans leave Mexico because the government won't let them try to get rich there.  Tito tried hard to give Yugoslavs a common purpose in being Yugoslavs, but it didn't take.

Nation building didn't work while we were in Vietnam.  When we left, the North united the country and realized that China was a big enemy right next door.  They had to build the economy so they could afford an army big enough to defend themselves against China, and what do you think they learned?  You can't build an economy with coercion, you must set people free to get rich their own way.

The only way Hussein could afford to be a nation under coercion was by selling oil, his economy did not work well otherwise.  Lacking oil, the Vietnamese had to build their economy the old-fashioned way based on freedom and greed.  Now that they share the same common purpose as Americans, the Vietnamese can build a wealthy nation the same way we did.

It would appear that the only common purpose powerful enough to build a nation is greed.  When people get wealthy enough to be generous, they try to take care of the rest of the world.  Altruism comes from wealth which comes from greed.

Want to build a nation?  Show 'em the money!

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments

In discussing Bill Cosby's efforts to get Detroit parents to be more involved in raising their children, the Wall Street Journal reported on P A10 of the Dec. 8-9 issue:

"Its [Detroit's] murder rate of 47 per 100,000 residents is well above Chicago and New York."

"Detroit is 81% black."

"Today, over 80% of black children are born to single-parent households.  Just one in nine black boys is raised with a father."

"To Detroit's west is Dearborn, Mich. a city with a population that's 30% minority Arab.   Here children--many of whom are first-generation immigrants whop can't speak English--are raised in a vibrant culture where family is paramount and education is prized.  Last year, Dearborn's population of 100,000 suffered just two murders."

December 21, 2007 10:15 PM
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