The Metaphor of a Nation as a Family

YouTube link to George Lakoff's lecture on Moral Politics

The metaphor of a nation as a family is a common and powerful metaphor. Indeed, George Lakoff argues in his excellent book Moral Politicsthat in the US, the central idea that holds Democratic Party views together is the idea that the government should be like a nurturing parent, while the central idea that holds Republican Party views together is the idea that the government should be like a strict father (a strict father who believes in a strong work ethic, among other things). Moral Politics is a book that will give you a lot more insight into politics.    

The metaphor of a nation as a family was also important in John Locke's day. In Sections 84-86 of his 2d Treatise on Government: “Of Civil Government,” in Chapter VII, "Of Political or Civil Society," John Locke argues against using the metaphor of a nation as a family as a justification for absolute power. To avoid distraction by John Locke's reprensively soft spot for slavery, I jump over a bit on slavery, giving that down at the bottom; otherwise, here is the passage:

  §. 84. The society betwixt parents and children, and the distinct rights and powers belonging respectively to them, I have treated of so largely in the foregoing chapter, that I shall not here need to say any thing of it. And I think it is plain, that it is far different from a politic society.

  §. 85. Master and servant are names as old as history, but given to those of far different condition; for a freeman makes himself a servant to another, by selling him, for a certain time, the service he undertakes to do, in exchange for wages he is to receive: and though this commonly puts him into the family of his master, and under the ordinary discipline thereof; yet it gives the master but a temporary power over him, and no greater than what is contained in the contract between them. But there is another sort of servants, which by a peculiar name we call slaves, ...  

§. 86. Let us therefore consider a master of a family with all these subordinate relations of wife, children, servants, and slaves, united under the domestic rule of a family; which, what resemblance soever it may have in its order, offices, and number too, with a little commonwealth, yet is very far from it, both in its constitution, power and end: or if it must be thought a monarchy, and the paterfamilias the absolute monarch in it, absolute monarchy will have but a very shattered and short power, when it is plain, by what has been said before, that the master of the family has a very distinct and differently limited power, both as to time and extent, over those several persons that are in it; for excepting the slave (and the family is as much a family, and his power as paterfamilias as great, whether there be any slaves in his family or no) he has no legislative power of life and death over any of them, and none too but what a mistress of a family may have as well as he. And he certainly can have no absolute power over the whole family, who has but a very limited one over every individual in it. But how a family, or any other society of men, differ from that which is properly political society, we shall best see, by considering wherein political society itself consists.

John Locke, knowing he can't completely fight the metaphor of a nation as a family is at pains to give something as close to a contract theory of the family as possible. Discussing employees along with spouses and children helps. John Locke uses the sexism of his time to further his argument in the passage "he has no ... [power] but what a mistress of a family may have as well as he," as in the passage I discussed in "Thinking of Mothers and Fathers On a Par Undercuts a Misleading Autocratic Metaphor." And he previously asserted the ultimate freedom of wives and children as I discussed in "Equality Before Natural Law in the Face of Manifest Differences in Station," "John Locke's Smackdown of Robert Filmer: Being a Father Doesn't Make Any Man a King," and "By Natural Law, Husbands Have No Power Over Their Wives."

The power of the metaphor of a nation as a family may help explain why in my now fairly extensive social media experience, the most heated attacks I get—other than for being positive about an individual someone despises—are when arguing that more needs to be done to attain true equality for women. Perhaps unconsciously, people sense that if women are seen as legitimate equals of men within families and other organizations, then it changes our image of the nation as well.   

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

The omitted excerpts on slavery from the passage above reads as follows: 

... slaves, who, being captives taken in a just war, are by the right of nature subjected to the absolute dominion and arbitrary power of their masters. These men having, as I say, forfeited their lives, and with it their liberties, and lost their estates; and being in the state of slavery, not capable of any property, cannot in that state be considered as any part of civil society; the chief end whereof is the preservation of property. ...