My Rose-Colored Glasses

I am guilty as charged by both Scott and Lauren for often looking at the changes in the family over the last century with excessive optimism. I have been known to over-emphasize the good things that have happened because so much of the literature on the family spends so much time on the (supposed) pathologies that someone has to step up and point out the good stuff. It a classic case of Bastiat’s seen and unseen: the bad stuff is visible and immediate, while the good stuff requires more work to see and has unfolded slowly over a longer period of time. Plus, we just take the good changes for granted and often are surprised when we’re reminded that the sorts of things I raised in my prior response are of relatively recent vintage.

So in the spirit of finding some common ground, let me say that I agree with the broad tenor of both Scott’s and Lauren’s rap on my knuckles. The world would be a better place if every child were raised by two loving, caring, well-resourced parents. (I agree with Lauren that the sex/gender of the parents does not matter for this point.) The social scientific evidence is pretty clear that kids raised in such families do better on average than kids raised by single parents or in foster care or orphanages or other institutional care. Of course saying kids do better on average does not mean that single parents are incapable of raising good kids. And as Scott says, admitting the problems facing families doesn’t necessarily mean state action is the cure.

I would just add that we run a certain risk by focusing so much on the welfare of children. Adults matter too. Sometimes single parenthood happens because a marriage is bad, and high-conflict marriages are not only bad for the adults, they are bad for the kids. A wife and mother who exits a high-conflict marriage to raise her kids on her own might well be doing better by the kids, but her own well-being matters too. Healthy, less stressed adults also make better parents, especially if they are doing it on their own. No-fault divorce also reduced suicide rates among married women, as well as their propensity to murder their spouses. That seems like progress too.

As Lauren notes, there are a good number of reasons for the prevalence of single parenthood and low marriage rates among the poor and among African-Americans. We could do a lot by ending the War on Drugs and stop criminalizing and incarcerating millions of African-American men. We could do a lot by changing the tax code and welfare programs so that marriage among the poor was not the bad deal policy currently makes it.  We could do a lot by eliminating the economic regulations that create barriers to upward mobility among the poor and non-white, especially the minimum wage. All of these things would make marriage and family a better deal for the people who need it most without trying to undo the expansion of the range of choices that we’ve seen in the last century.

And none of this means we can’t use various bully pulpits and the levers of culture to sing the praises of married life and a family to all those who can hear it. In fact, I might argue that the recent Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage gives us just such an opportunity, as millions of our fellow Americans who very much wanted to participate in the institution of marriage, and who recognized its benefits, are now able to do so. That’s a pretty good counter-signal about the health of that venerable institution.

Finally, I’d like to directly answer the series of questions Scott raised in his last reply. I’m guessing he knows what my answers would be, but it’s worth talking about each of these:

There are still questions, however, of whether we should welcome further efforts to reconstruct the connections at the center of marriage and family life. Should we embrace genetic cloning to further weaken the link between procreation and education?

I don’t know about “embrace,” but should it be on the table as one option for those who want it?  Yup.

Should we publicly fund efforts to mass-produce artificial wombs that might do the same?

No, but that’s partially just my libertarianism talking. That said, if someone wanted to develop that technology privately and offer it as another option, again, not a problem.

Should we encourage more flexible work environments, publicly subsidize day care, or have a minimal family wage?

Lots of different options lumped together here. Yes, we should praise employers who are already offering and will continue to offer more flexible work environments, especially the opportunity to work from home. Working from home gives both two-income couples and single parents much more ability to manage child care in ways that I think serves the interest of children. It also allows men to work from home and take more responsibility for child care, which I think it not only salutary on its own, but will help to equalize male and female wages even further.  This is all, I think, part of the process of moderation.

No on publicly subsidizing day care. Instead, let’s deregulate it and encourage competition and reduce costs, as well as reaping the benefits of the expansion of work at home, as above. We can expand choices and reduce costs and give parents more flexibility for managing work and home without public funding.

And absolutely not on the family wage. For all the reasons economists have argued for a long time, minimum wages of any type are destructive, and given the history of the family wage as a tool of the patriarchy, it would be a huge step backward.

Should we welcome the production of sex robots as expressions of our “great respect for the diversity” of human choices, if not human relationships?

We’ve had machines for sexual pleasure for as long as we’ve had machines. The choices to use such machines are indeed human choices, but not “human relationships.” Trying to cram such choices into the category of “human relationships” seems insulting to the actual humans in those relationships.

Humans and our institutions are a lot more resilient than we often given them credit for. I may be overly optimistic, but, historically, betting on humanity’s descent into doom and gloom has always lost in comparison to betting on our resilience and ability to progress and enrich ourselves.

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?