At War with the Patriarchy

Lauren K. Hall’s lead essay (and book) are both thoughtful, well-considered takes on the good that the family can do in moderating our political practice. Given the state of so much of our political theory, we can certainly use the moderation. Political theory’s grand projects have typically been nightmares in practice, and the family has commonly been a bulwark against them. Good for it.

But as everyone here will no doubt agree, the role of the family in political theory hasn’t all been sweetness and light. The relative individualism of modern political theory may have its dangers, but it has replaced something also quite dangerous – something purportedly based on the family.

Its name, of course, was patriarchy. Patriarchy and liberalism have always been enemies, as indeed they should be. While modern families are generally benign, even wonderful institutions, patriarchal families were not. They did nothing to moderate the scope of political authority. They were political authority.

In the idealized patriarchal family, the father ruled as a king; his word was law. The mother and the children were his subjects, and it was their duty to obey. In English common law, a wife’s very legal identity simply disappeared in marriage. Legally she was incapable of making contracts, incapable of owning property in her own name, incapable of refusing consent to sex, and usually incapable of leaving the marraige. Her husband made all decisions for her, and there was no appeal.

Patriarchy takes this, more or less, as the proper model for government. As a result, traditional patriarchs look to modern eyes less like fathers and more like the rulers of the world’s smallest despotisms. And they offered their moral support to the world’s largest despotisms.

Let’s look at some examples. As the wanna-be absolutist James I wrote:

The king towards his people is rightly compared to a father of children… the style of Pater patriae (father of his country) was ever and is commonly used to kings… As the judgment coming from the head may not only employ the members, every one in their own office, as long as they are able for it; but likewise in case any of them affected with any infirmity must care and provide for their remedy, in case it be curable, and if otherwise… cut them off for fear of infecting the rest: even so is it betwixt the prince and his people.

It is hard to say whom this insults more severely, monarchs or fathers. Fathers of families did not then, or at any time in English history, have the legal right to murder their children with impunity. Even in the seventeenth century, patriarchal as it was, a father who killed his own child would very properly be thought a monster. How fatherly authority is somehow transmuted and, after a waft through the air, becomes settled on the king, is anyone’s guess. But we should say that whenever people make an argument this shoddy, it’s usually because they are deeply committed to an irrational thesis, one for which they can offer no better defense.

Robert Filmer, that great apologist for absolute monarchy, argued similarly in his book Patriarcha that monarchs owed their authority to the very first family, that of Adam and Eve, over which Adam was purportedly the king:

[A]s Adam was lord of his children, so his children under him had a command and power over their own children, but still with subordination to the first parent, who is lord-paramount over his children’s children to all generations, as being the grandfather of his people.

I see not then how the children of Adam, or of any man else, can be free from subjection to their parents. And this subjection of children being the fountain of all regal authority, by the ordination of God himself; it follows that civil power… in general is by divine institution

John Locke skewered this view in the First Treatise, in ways we need not discuss here. But I’ve saved the worst example for last. It’s from the notorious slavery apologist George Fitzhugh:

Nature impels the father and husband to self-abnegation and self-denial to promote the happiness of wife and children… Wife and children, too, see and feel that in denying themselves and promoting the happiness of the head of the family, they pursue true policy… Especially, however, is it true with slaves and masters, that to “do as they would be done by” is mutually beneficial. Good treatment and proper discipline renders the slave happier, healthier, more valuable, grateful, and contented. Obedience, industry and loyalty on the part of the slave, increases the master’s ability and disposition to protect and take care of him. The interests of all the members of a natural family, slaves included, are identical.

Slavery is good, Fitzhugh claimed, because slavery is like a family. He later added that “Christian morality is neither difficult nor unnatural where dependent, family, and slave relations exist, and Christian morality was preached and only intended for such.” This is the awful power of an unexamined moral authority. It can lead you anywhere, if you only allow it.

Now, I am a classical liberal. I am also a feminist, at least to the extent that feminists will accept me. (It’s complicated.) In our various guises, we liberals and feminists have waged a long, long war on the patriarchy. As John Stuart Mill put it:

the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes — the legal subordination of one sex to the other — is wrong itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.

Our war on the patriarchy has brought liberty to women, liberty to children, and even liberty to men, who are no longer forced by custom or by the law to wield a power over others that no one should have. We can even ask – sensibly, for the first time in history – whether men are in decline, and whether women may in time become the dominant gender. Whether or not that ever comes to pass, we can say for certain that in our society, women are not perpetual daughters, and children are not thought an appropriate model for grown adults in a polity.

In all likelihood, full-blown patriarchy is never coming back. But even to this day, political theorists and political actors alike would absolutely love to wear the mantle of the family, and to stake a convincing claim to the moral authority that it provides. When we grant that authority uncritically, it remains disturbing how much it can accomplish.

On the left, we all remember how the “Life of Julia” feature from the Obama campaign showed Julia constantly leaning on the state, but creepily isolated from any hint of a family. The state, it seemed, had become her family, or at least so close a substitute as to make no difference. On the right, it remains jarring to hear the phrase “family values” invoked to oppose the very existence of a family that resembles my own – that is, a family headed by a same-sex couple. By the moral authority of the family, certain families are to be discouraged.

So the family in politics still has a bit of a dark side to it. It can still function as a source of unearned moral authority, and it can still do harm. Fortunately, though, real families are nothing like the ugly caricatures that politics has so often made of them. At least in the modern era, real families have a variety of shapes and sizes, and that’s just how things are when people are free.
In closing, my questions for Professor Hall are simple: How did we get from there to here? How did family become a mostly moderating social institution, when previously it was the cornerstone of a pervasive despotism? If family moderates our politics, what moderated our families?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Lauren K. Hall argues that the family tends to moderate otherwise radical political theories. Moderate theories, however, fare much better. So while Marxists dreamed of a day when society would collectivize the traditional responsibilities of the family, in practice that day never quite arrived. On the other side of the political compass, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism seems to stumble when faced with questions of the family: “it is no accident,” writes Hall, “that John Galt is an orphan.”

    Moderate social theorists fare much better, Hall argues. Thus Adam Smith situated the family within the comparatively narrow sphere of our natural capacity to care; for him, our ties to our families exerted a gradual sympathetic effect that could encompass larger and larger communities over time, while moderating our radical political projects and attitudes. Edmund Burke made the family the archetype of a trans-generational social compact, one that binds the living to the dead and also to those yet to be born. As a result, the family acts as a check upon radical impulses from many different quarters.

Response Essays

  • Steven Horwitz accepts Lauren Hall’s paradigm that the family inculcates moderate individualism. He goes on to argue that such individualism is highly congruent to F. A. Hayek’s social theory. Families are equipped with local knowledge and know-how that may not easily be articulated, but that is also not easily replaced. The aim of much of this knowledge is to produce new adult individuals - a daunting task, but one that somehow human societies have accomplished again and again. Although Hayek was not a theorist of the family, applying his insights about the role of knowledge in society can help to explain just how this work gets done.

  • Scott Yenor argues that the family is grounded on a natural fact, namely that men and women must unite to produce offspring. In turn, these offspring are helpless for a long time after birth, and without the family they will not be well cared for. Modernity errs when it treats these facts as problems to be overcome. Lauren Hall’s politics of moderation doesn’t offer enough resistance to the dangerous changes now taking place around us. The modern left’s assault on the family does not call for a moderate response; this assault represents all that is “ugly, immoderate, or blind” about modernity, and as a result, we must rethink even modernity’s most fundamental principles.

  • Jason Kuznicki argues that family has not always played a moderating role in political theory. At times, it has been invoked as a support for despotism and even for slavery. Modern individualism may have its dangers, but traditional collectivism, and particularly patriarchy, were certainly worse. As a result, he questions whether family should have a place in political theory at all. He also asks: If, in the modern era, family moderates our politics, then what moderated our families?