“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.”
To what extent does this Commandment inform our policy making, or should it? If your answer was “it shouldn’t”, congratulations, you’re as much a heathen as I am. If your answer instead was Medicare and Social Security, you’re more like the vast majority of Americans. (If your answer was “transfer payments from the young to the elderly in order to ensure votes”, you’re a politician.)
While the driving forces behind Social Security and Medicare are not solely or even predominantly religious, the sentiment encapsulated in this Commandment is a strong element of what drives the so-called “social safety net” in American politics. The great fear of poor Mom and Dad being cast out into the street by a cruel and unforgiving world after working for so long to raise us, nurture us, and support us, despite everything they have done, due to the vagaries of fate and unforgiving and impersonal market forces. Surely we as a society care enough to step in and make sure that doesn’t happen?
What I find most perplexing about that viewpoint is that it seems to me to completely miss the point of what is being said here. Setting aside my own personal beliefs about “the vagaries of fate” and market forces, I would like to take a moment to consider two possible scenarios of someone who follows the maxim of “Honour thy father and thy mother”, one with a “social safety net” and one without. While I would not presume to suggest that these are archetypical cases, I think they can at least be illustrative.
First let us take Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They have worked hard all their lives, have a decent 401(k), and a modest savings. They own their own home with a small mortgage, and have retired just a few years ago. They are not yet old enough to collect Social Security or go on Medicare, but in a few years they will be. The tragedy strikes; Mr. Smith falls gravely ill. His illness wipes out their savings, and they lose their home as well; even if he recovers, what then? They still can’t collect Social Security, and getting a job is unlikely. Fortunately for them they have loving children who will take them in, because their children believe they should “honour thy father and thy mother”. Of course they only have a small apartment, since it’s all they can afford, but something is better than nothing, and maybe in a few years when Mr. and Mrs. Smith finally get SSI they can try to get something a little roomier.
Now let’s consider the same scenario without the social safety net. Having not paid into it over the years, Mr. and Mrs. Smith have more money in savings, and maybe even invested in catastrophic health insurance. While they are still hurting from Mr. Smith’s illness, they aren’t wiped out; perhaps they have to ask their children for some help to get by, but they don’t have to lose the home. The kids, having not paid into the system either, have more money to lend to Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and of course they will, because they believe they should “honour thy father and thy mother”. It’s still not ideal, but everyone is better off.
Is this likely? No. It’s not the most likely situation because there is no “most likely” situation. Everyone’s situation is unique. But the idea that everyone’s situation in unique is not an argument in favor of a one-size-fits-all solution, it is an argument against it.
So what is the right choice? Simply abandon people to whatever may come? No, but a system that creates need in the young as much as it resolves it in the old is no answer either. Finding ways to encourage families to support each other, and encouraging communities to do the same, giving people the tools to build better lives all the length of their lives rather than hope there will be a magical government net to catch them when they fall; these are the solutions we should strive toward.
It would seem to me that if you want to honor your parents, the best way to do so would be to understand them. Talk to them, preserve what they have learned, and if possible, build on it. Give due consideration to their advice, knowing that they have been around the block more times than you have, but also recognizing that they imparted on you the tools to think critically, to reason, to analyze and not take things at face value. Live well, be well, and treat others with the dignity and respect you would ask for yourself: that’s as much honor as anyone can ask.