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Universal Orphanhood

Still from "Annie" (1982). Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Plato's Old Idea—Eliminating the Family—Aligns With the Most Cherished Visions of Equity Across the Political Spectrum

If California is ever going to achieve true equity, the state must require parents to give away their children.

Today’s Californians often hold up equity—the idea of achieving a just society that is completely free from bias—as our greatest value. Gov. Gavin Newsom says he makes all decisions through “an equity lens.” Over the past year and a half, institutions from theater and dance ensembles to tech companies and media conglomerates have publicly pledged themselves to equity, along with diversity and inclusion.

But their promises of newly equitable systems—and the growing industry of equity consultants—are no match for the power of parents.

Fathers and mothers with greater wealth, education, or other resources are more likely to transfer these advantages to their children, compounding privilege over generations. As a result, children of less advantaged parents face an uphill struggle, disparities are growing, and social mobility has stalled. More Californians are giving up on the dream; a recent Public Policy Institute of California poll found declining belief in the notion that you can get ahead through hard work. Our democracy, which is too dominated by the children of the rich and powerful, is in crisis.

Naysayers may say that we don’t want equity, that we really desire what the title orphan of Annie insisted on: “I didn’t want to be just another orphan, Mr. Warbucks. I wanted to believe I was special.”

My solution is simple, and while we wait for the legislation to pass, we can act now: the rich should give their children to the poor, and the poor should give their children to the rich. San Francisco Socialists can sell their kids to Lassen Libertarians, and owners of large homes might swap children with their homeless neighbors.

Now, I recognize that a few naysayers, hopelessly attached to our existing systems of privilege, will dismiss such a policy as ghastly, even totalitarian. But my proposal is quite modest, a fusion of traditional ideals and today’s most popular political obsessions.

Child removal might even bridge the visions of the most progressive anti-racists and the most Trumpian anti-immigrationists. I expect such wide-ranging support because my policy builds on the wisdom of great thinkers—from Plato to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett—who have recognized the perils of allowing people to form families according to their own values.

In his “Republic,” Plato started with Socrates’ sage advice—that children “be possessed in common, so that no parent will know his own offspring or any child his parents”—to argue for abolishing the family in the service of defeating nepotism, preventing the amassing of great fortunes, and creating citizens loyal not to their sons but to the larger society.

To make all this possible, Plato offered ideas that sound familiar today, from compulsory education to—millennia before Gavin Newsom’s conception-to-college agenda—health and exercise recommendations for women during pregnancy and children during those crucial first five years of life.

Ever since Plato, philosophers, from Marcus Aurelius to Rousseau, have wrestled with the conflict between the selfish human desire to protect one’s family, and the need for democratic citizens to think first of the larger society. Marx’s buddy Friedrich Engels attacked the family as the foundation propping up capitalism. Even the great 20th-century liberal John Rawls once suggested doing away with the nuclear family.

In the 21st century, the Platonic ideal that our greatest citizens—technologists, performers, athletes—belong to the people has become a cliché.

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“I’m an orphan,” the late singer-actress-activist Eartha Kitt once said. “But the public has adopted me, and that has been my only family.”

My proposal for universal orphanhood also aligns with powerful social trends that point to less interest in family life and child-rearing. Californians are slower to marry, and are having fewer children—the birth rate in our state is at an all-time low. So, in giving our children to the state, we wouldn’t be giving up much.

Surveys suggest many of us have already chosen politics over family members, whom we rarely see anymore because we don’t share their views. But unlike so much in our divisive politics, my proposal would be unifying, fitting hand-in-glove with the most cherished policies of left and right.

The left’s righteous efforts to introduce 21st century ideas around racism and gender identity in our schools are facing a fierce backlash from parents who insist on passing on their own values to their own kids. Transferring parental responsibilities to the state would end parenthood and this backlash, helping dismantle white supremacy and outdated gender norms.

My proposal also would give Democrats the opportunity to build a new pillar of the social democracy they seek—a system for raising children, called “Foster Care for All” (and overseen, perhaps, by the secretary of the new Department of Adoption—Trading Places film director John Landis). With this foster system replacing parents, Democrats could stop pretending that they will ever enact universal pre-school or child care, which they’ve been promising—and failing to deliver—for a generation.

Over on the right, you’ll see people posing as defenders of parents. But 21st century Republicans are happy to jettison fathers and mothers in service of their greatest passions, like violating migrants’ rights. The Trump administration proudly separated immigrant parents from their children to cruelly discourage people from pursuing their dreams in this country. Once you’ve gone that far, it’s only a short walk to a wholesale separation of all Americans from their progeny.

Then there’s the pro-lifers. The idea of universal orphanhood dovetails nicely with the conservative campaign to end Roe v. Wade and all abortion rights. After all, my proposal would require the government to demand women bear children that they may not want—until we create the child-manufacturing technologies that now exist only in Matrix films.

In fact, a suggestion from Justice Barrett, in a recent Supreme Court hearing on a case that could overturn Roe, inspired me to write this column. She posited that abortion rights are no longer necessary because all 50 states now have “safe haven” laws that allow women to turn their babies over to a fire or police department after birth. My proposal would merely make mandatory such handovers of babies to the state.

Perhaps such coercion sounds dystopian. But just imagine the solidarity that universal orphanhood would create. Wouldn’t these children, raised in one system, find it easier to collaborate in solving the great problems of our state and the world—like climate change and poverty?

Now, I don’t expect universal support for universal orphanhood. A few contrarians, lost in the empty chasm between American extremes, might object to this rational proposal on emotional grounds. They might argue that pursuing your own conception of family is fundamental to freedom. Or that our differences and biases, for all the damage they can do, also give human life much of its meaning.

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They also may suggest that people don’t really want to start or finish at the same point in life. They may even say that what we really desire is what the title orphan of the musical Annie insisted upon: “I didn’t want to be just another orphan, Mr. Warbucks. I wanted to believe I was special.”

But you shouldn’t pay those critics any mind. Because, unlike you and me and California’s leaders, they just can’t see how our relentless pursuit of equity might birth a brave new world.

Joe Mathews
Zócalo Public Square

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