|By Alan Hall
Originally published in the January 2012 Socionomist
The Palm Beach Post recently reported that the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) increasingly refers to the U.S. government as the “federal family.”1 This brings to mind Part 2 of the study on authoritarianism, which we published in May 20102:
Who’s Our Daddy Now?
Social mood declines generate increasing fear. As society becomes more fearful, many individuals yearn for the safety and order promised by strong, controlling leaders.
The government obliges this societal yearning for protection by portraying itself as the paterfamilias, a Latin term for “father of the family” or “owner of the estate.”
Ancient Greek political philosophers presented the state as a larger model of the family, implying that citizens are the children who have needs and leaders the parents who know best how to meet them. Ever since, the rules of many monarchs, aristocrats and dictators have been characterized by paternalism, which now appears to be increasing in America.Figure 1 plots two sociometers and two economic indicators (lagging sociometers) against the yearly number of references to “federal family” on FEMA’s website. We inverted the graphs of “federal family,” food stamp participation and the percentage of people living below poverty to highlight their correlation with the Dow/Gold ratio and the Consumer Confidence Index. (We show the “federal family” graph on log scale because that is the only way to fit it; FEMA’s use of the term increased over 1000 percent during the first eight months of 2011.)
Note FEMA’s surge in uses of “federal family” during the 2000-2003 negative trend in social mood. Uses then fell to near zero as social mood turned positive from 2003-2007, even as FEMA’s activities and profile soared during the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster. “Federal family” usage then surged as society’s mood became increasingly negative again after 2008, in concert with plunges in U.S. consumer confidence and stocks valued in gold, and spikes in food stamps and the poverty rate.
During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt employed a paternalistic tone in his famous Fireside Chats. For example,
This recession has not returned us to the disasters and suffering of the beginning of 1933. Your money in the bank is safe; farmers are no longer in deep distress and have greater purchasing power; dangers of security speculation have been minimized; national income is almost 50% higher than it was in 1932; and government has an established and accepted responsibility for relief. … I know that many of you have lost your jobs or have seen your friends or members of your families lose their jobs. … I conceive the first duty of government is to protect the economic welfare of all the people in all sections and in all groups. … I am constantly thinking of all our people—unemployed and employed alike—of their human problems of food and clothing and homes and education and health and old age. You and I agree that security is our greatest need. I am determined to do all in my power to help you attain that security… .
—April 14, 1938
Today, according to the FEMA site:
- “President Obama has asked that we continue to lean forward as a team…a team that includes our cities, states and the federal family….”
- “We’re part of Department of Homeland Security, we’re part of the Federal family, we’re part of a partnership….
- “On behalf of the entire federal family, our hearts go out to those who lost their loved ones….”
- “The federal family is dedicated to staying for as long as it takes to help them recover….”
Paternalism as Authoritarianism
In his August 2004 article, “Statist Quo Bias,” Daniel B. Klein included the definition of paternalism from The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought: “In modern use the term usually refers to those laws and public policies which restrict the freedom of persons in order that their interests may be better served” (Italics added by Klein).3
Ulysses Everett McGill—the dapper character played by George Clooney in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?—understood this definition. McGill told his ex-wife: “I’ll tell you what I am—I’m the damn paterfamilias! You can’t marry him!”4
If social mood becomes more positive, expect FEMA’s use of paternalistic phrases to abate. If social mood continues to trend toward the negative as Elliott Wave International expects, government paternalism will increasingly fail to assuage rising public anger. Depression will make Uncle Sam incapable of keeping his many promises. More people will then perceive the nature of his paterfamilias strategy to be, essentially, authoritarian, meaning society will likely polarize further over its choice of leaders. This will provide additional fodder for the authoritarian/anti-authoritarian battles we already see under way.■
1Bennett, G. (2011, September 1). FEMA’s use of term ‘federal family’ for government expands under Obama. The Palm Beach Post, Retrieved from http://www.palmbeachpost.com/storm/femas-use-of-term-federal-family-for-government-1808751.html.
2Hall, A. (2011, May). Authoritarianism, Part II: The source of authoritarian expression, and the road ahead. The Socionomist, Retrieved from https://www.socionomics.net/2010/04/authoritarianism/.
3Klein, D.B. (2004). Statist quo bias. Economic Journal Watch, 1(2), 260-271.
4Coen, E., & Coen, J. (Producers), & Coen, E., & Coen, J. (Writers/Directors). (2000). O brother, where art thou? [Motion Picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.
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