All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 2002

An Open Letter to My Parents

How Do Children Become Good Citizens of a Free Society?

Dear Mom and Dad:

I suppose I’m typical: not until my own child came along did I reflect seriously on the sacrifices you made and on the challenges you confronted in raising my siblings and me.

There’s so much to thank you for. But here I focus on what is surely your most precious gift to each of your four children: through example and through words you taught us those rules of living that make us fit to live in a free society.

I know that you never consciously thought of your goal in quite these terms. You just straightforwardly taught us right from wrong, good from bad, decent from indecent. But it’s in learning these vital distinctions—in having them etched into one’s very being—that a child grows into a respectable, responsible, productive, and decent adult. And a free society depends upon such adults.

Here’s what you taught my siblings and me.

There’s no excuse for taking other people’s things. I recall when I was about five years old and returned home with Mom from a short visit to a neighbor’s house. Mom, you discovered in my hand a fistful of rubber bands. “Where did you get these?” you asked. “From Miss Jane’s house,” I replied. “Did she give them to you?” you inquired.

“No, but they’re only rubber bands. And she has plenty of them.”

After sternly assuring me that this excuse was worthless, you marched me back across the street to return my pilfered booty. I was ashamed of myself when I confessed to Miss Jane my offense and apologized to her. It’s an excellent thing that I felt that shame then, and that I remember it to this day.

I remember also your reaction to the philosophy of a newly ordained Catholic priest who came to our parish. While having coffee at our home one evening, he assured you that, in God’s eyes, it’s okay to take someone else’s things if that other person is wealthier than you and if the things taken are of little value.

You were appalled! Despite your immense respect for men of the cloth, despite the priest’s being more schooled than you, and despite our family’s very modest income, not for a moment did you countenance this nonsense. For years afterward I heard you recount to friends and acquaintances how, with all the respect you could muster, you replied to the priest that “stealing is wrong, period.”

We are each responsible for our lot in life. Often, each of your children would try to blame others for his or her misfortune. “The teacher is mean” and “the teacher is unfair” were favorite excuses for bad grades or for being punished at school. Not once did these excuses work.

Looking back, perhaps there were times when you suspected our teachers of incompetence or of unfairness. If so, you never let on to your children. I remember envying friends whose parents would readily side with them when they accused their teachers of unfairness or some other treachery. But your children learned early on that no such excuses had the slightest hope of causing you even tentatively to forgive a poor grade or a school punishment. The lesson for us was clear: excuses don’t work. Each of us, individually, must accept responsibility for his actions and not blame others.

Life has promise for those who work hard and are honest. I cannot tell you how pleased I am that, after the many years that each of you spent working in a shipyard, you are now retired and finally have the time and resources to relax and travel a bit. How you stretched our family’s meager income to make a comfortable and happy home is beyond me—but you did.

Not once did I ever hear you complain that others were wealthier than we were. Indeed, although all of us were aware that our family was not rich, not once did you act or speak in a way implying envy or bitterness. Nor did you ever suggest to my siblings and me that the social or economic deck was stacked against us. You expressed nothing but assurances that if we worked hard and were honest, no amount of success would be out of reach.

These last points might appear to be especially trite. I’d bet my last dollar that you never even thought to be envious or bitter or hopeless.

Resentful of Wealth?

But having now spent the bulk of my adult life in academia, I tell you that most academics think that blue-collar workers, such as you, inevitably envy more highly paid white-collar workers. In the opinion of the professionally opinionated, you are supposed to resent your lot in life; you are supposed to see others’ greater material wealth as being stolen from you and other working-class families (particularly given that neither of you ever belonged to a labor union); you are supposed to believe that without special assistance from government, you and your children are doomed to continued oppression by heartless employers as well as by devious merchants who beguile you with crass marketing gimmicks into wasting your money on worthless trinkets.

None of what you are “supposed” to believe do you believe. Thankfully so, because it is all untrue. It’s a hodgepodge of hallucinations by people obsessed with money—people who believe that the most important thing is how much money each of us has relative to others—people who believe that those with above-average wealth get it by unsavory means and will inevitably use it to crush workers of modest means unless the state intervenes—people who believe that ordinary men and women can have no happiness or hope without income redistribution and other forms of government assistance.

I’d caught not a whiff of class antagonism until, as an adult, I first met people from the academic class. But this antagonism wasn’t held by any of the working-class families that our family knew so well; it is merely assumed by the academic class to describe the attitudes of the working class. What a mistaken assumption!

In fact, Mom and Dad, you taught your children well that our society rewards hard work, good education, and honesty. You taught us to be proud of what we earn and never to envy what others earn or possess. You taught us to be responsible, truthful, and civil.

In short, you taught us how to be good citizens of a free society. For that, and for much else, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  • Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, a Mercatus Center Board Member, and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University.