Legos Make Better Societies

Nathan Richardson

In a previous post, I discussed that some people define the fundamental unit of society as the individual, while others define it as the state. The proclamation on the family, however, declares that we should consider “the family as the fundamental unit of society.”1

That raises the question, though, of how such a view could fairly treat individuals who aren’t part of a family, as we usually talk about them. For example, would a single orphan with no siblings and no plans to marry or have kids not be entitled to the same rights as a member of a family? In a following post, I suggested that part of the answer to that problem might be found by following the example of the Church’s manner of recording individuals in its records. James E. Faust explained that a single adult is considered a family of one.2 Thus, considering the family as the fundamental unit of society would still provide equity to each individual member of society.

The obvious question is, of course, “Then what the heck is the difference between the family and the individual, if ‘family’ can just mean ‘one person’? What difference does it make whether a society is built out of individuals or out of ‘families of one’?” This is a question I asked myself as I considered the proclamation and Elder Faust’s statement.

There might be a lot of good answers to this question that I haven’t encountered yet. I don’t claim to know everything about this topic, but I do know this: Heavenly Father expects us to take seriously his prophets’ words and to ponder and apply them as best we can. I expect to learn much more about this topic as time goes on, and in the mean time, I want to share one thought I’ve had that may be part of the answer.

Blocks with Teeth

Sculpture carved from one solid piece of wood

In my first post in this series, I compared a society founded on the notion of the state as the fundamental unit to a toy building constructed from a solid chunk of material (whether wood, stone, or plastic). The resulting building would be strong and hold its form, but it would also be rigid and unchangeable. It would not be able to adapt to changing conditions.

Cube built from wooden blocks

I also compared a society founded on the notion of the individual as the fundamental unit to a toy building constructed from identical little blocks. The resulting building would be adaptable and re-formable, but it would also be limited in the forms it could take—either a straight skyscraper-like block, or a tapering pyramid-like form. It would also be weak—a strong wind or the brush of a pesky infant sibling could easily knock it down.

Wall built from Lego blocksThink of the family as a third option. Since a family can consist of one person, this building is also constructed from little blocks, but there is one difference: they’re legos. They are the same size and shape as the previous blocks, but each block has those familiar little studs, or “teeth,” on the top, and holes on the bottom for another block’s teeth to fit into. At first glance, they look almost identical to our original blocks, but these can make a much greater variety of buildings, because they hold together more tightly. Yet they can still be adjusted to different shapes when change is needed.

People Who Connect

Forgive the analogy if it seems a little a silly, but I think it illustrates one difference between “an individual” and “a family of one.” The latter designation recognizes the fact that people were made to connect. Our very nature makes us long to build relationships with other people and construct something bigger than our own needs and desires, just as a Lego block is designed to connect to other Lego blocks (see What Makes Me a “Me”?).

In contrast, societies built on individualism are most concerned with maximizing individual gain. Any cooperation is the result of contractual relationships, which conceive of people as self-interested and only willing to work together when it maximizes their own personal gain. I think many Americans conceive of the Constitution as being such a contract, and that it relies on individualism to maintain freedom. I’m also beginning to think that there are severe dangers in thinking of any society that way.

Societies built on the premise of individualism and social contracts can and do exist, but they cannot endure extremities, just as a building of smooth blocks cannot endure a ten-month-old attacker on the living room rug. America barely weathered the Great Depression, and while many point to government programs as the cure that solved things, I doubt they would have had any effect if people didn’t already feel the sense of duty and obligation to others that we learn in our families. I also wonder if the disasters that precede the Second Coming will be uniquely horrific, or whether they’ll be run-of-the-mill disasters that this earth has faced many time, but which societies will be uniquely unprepared for in the last days because they have lost the sense that individuals are families of one who were meant to connect through serving and meeting others’ needs. It’s hard to bounce back from a famine when everyone hoards; it’s a lot easier when people have a strong sense of community and connection.

I don’t know whether that is the principle the prophets have in mind when they talk about fundamental units and families of one. But I think it’s a true principle. I don’t fully know yet how to apply it (I doubt the brethren are calling for monetary incentives for marrying and child-bearing), but it’s something I plan to keep in mind as I try to fulfill the obligations described in the proclamation on the family.


1. First Presidency, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,”
2. James E. Faust, “Where Is the Church?” BYU devotional, 1 Mar. 2005,


  1. Yes, Beetlebabee, my wife and I saw a prescreening of Demographic Winter and got to meet the three directors and producers. It is chilling! The most surprising statistic to me was the fact of population decline in third-world countries; I thought it was only in industrialized countries.

    The lack of forethought people have given to less-than-replacement birthrates reminds me of a comment my grandma made once (and I love my grandma). She said, “I don’t understand why some couples today have so many kids. It’s not like the old days, when you needed your kids to take care of you in your old age. We have social security for that now.” As I pondered that later, I realized, “But Grandma, who do you think is going to pay that social security? The kids. And if people have fewer, how much ‘security’ do you think is going to be paid?”

    I highly recommend this documentary to any and everyone.

    Beetlebabee, what in the documentary did you think would be most persuasive to a skeptic?

  2. Wow, what cool club do you belong to? This thing, I don’t know how long it’s been out, but it’s riveting.

    My grandparents said something similar only in the farm sense, you don’t need so many people in the family because nobody farms anymore. Maybe it was just her making sense of the changes society is making, but it is indicative of the ease with which these changes which are large, can appear small at first.

    Your comment reminds me of Libertarian Jane Galt’s post on the consequences of gay marriage. She doesn’t come out for or against it, but basically points out that people have no idea what they’re doing when they fiddle with societal standards and ethical mores.

    My only request is that people try to be a leeetle more humble about their ability to imagine the subtle results of big policy changes. The argument that gay marriage will not change the institution of marriage because you can’t imagine it changing your personal reaction is pretty arrogant. It imagines, first of all, that your behavior is a guide for the behavior of everyone else in society, when in fact, as you may have noticed, all sorts of different people react to all sorts of different things in all sorts of different ways, which is why we have to have elections and stuff. And second, the unwavering belief that the only reason that marriage, always and everywhere, is a male-female institution (I exclude rare ritual behaviors), is just some sort of bizarre historical coincidence, and that you know better, needs examining. If you think you know why marriage is male-female, and why that’s either outdated because of all the ways in which reproduction has lately changed, or was a bad reason to start with, then you are in a good place to advocate reform. If you think that marriage is just that way because our ancestors were all a bunch of repressed ba—ds with dark Freudian complexes that made them homophobic bigots, I’m a little leery of letting you muck around with it.

    It’s an excellent post, and here it is happening, just like she said. I hadn’t thought of it applying to this before, thanks.

    The thing I think is most powerful is that it’s not just that we’re not having as many kids, that is just a function of the attitude shifts that made self bigger than serve. Families are a pain, kids cry, break bones, whine, fight, cost money. Why have kids when I can go have any of the wiley temptations and false gods of glory?

  3. Beetlebabee: Wow, what cool club do you belong to?

    Oh, we didn’t “know a guy” or anything. 🙂 I just saw an ad in the paper that it would be showing at the public library auditorium.

    I think it’s only been out less than a year. One interesting thing was that the directors said they are planning some follow-up versions, like one aimed at the academic audience, or one about the political side.

    Have you seen the actual documentary yet, or just the preview?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *