Karacter: From the Cutting-Room Floor
By Bryan Caplan
I’ve very fond of this passage from Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, but Alex Tabarrok suggested a much more accessible substitute – Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.”
In 1997, the Dutch movie Karacter
won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Set in 1920s, it’s the story of Jacob Katadreuffe, an up-and-coming
lawyer accused of patricide. Why would
he throw his life away by murdering his own father? We find out through a series of
flashbacks. Decades earlier, Jacob’s
mother Joba was the housekeeper for his father, Dreverhaven. When Joba becomes pregnant, Dreverhaven
repeatedly proposes marriage, but she refuses to have anything to do with
him. When Jacob grows up, his estranged
father singles him out for emotional abuse.
He denies paternity when his young son is in trouble with the police,
sues him over a minor debt, and loans him money on onerous terms. Is Dreverhaven after revenge? He denies it.
He says he is only trying to teach character. When Joba asks him, “Why don’t you leave our
boy in peace?,” he responds, “I’ll strangle him for nine-tenths, and the last
tenth will make him strong.” In the end,
Dreverhaven’s cause of death turns out to be suicide. He acknowledges Jacob in his will, and leaves
him his entire fortune.
Most parents aren’t as ruthless as Dreverhaven, but his
motivation should be familiar. We want
our children to grow up to be men and women of substance – of character. While the details vary, almost all parents
want their kids to be hard-working, diligent, honest, polite, cooperative, and
kind – and almost no parents want their kids to become common criminals.
When you tell parents that they overestimate their
influence, they often retreat to the bunker of character: “Maybe I can’t affect
his IQ or his income, but I can control
whether he grows up to be a decent person.”
For intelligence, happiness, health, or success, most parents eventually
learn some modesty; we’re convinced we make a difference, but accept that we
don’t run the show. For character, we’re
practically parental determinists: If you raise your children right, they will grow up to be good people – and if
they turn out bad, the reason must be
that you raised them wrong. Is there any
truth to this? Is character a genuine
exception to the rule that nurture doesn’t matter much?