Is the Family Merely Functional?

I have two related questions about our discussion: First, how resilient is the Great Society? And second, is that what we’re really arguing about? I will discuss them in turn, but I will say up front that I can’t readily answer either of them.


The Resilience of the Great Society

Let us begin with the first question. I take the Great Society here to mean that condition of society in which the division of labor, specialization, and gains from trade are capable of intensifying themselves in a virtuous circle. This is not to say that the society so described is a libertarian (or any other) utopia. Quite the contrary; Great Societies as I intend the term are both real and full of flaws. Many examples fit the bill, including even nominally communist China. After accounting for business cycles, economic growth in these places tends to be positive, and we will stipulate that nothing about the nature of the Great Society is inherently self-defeating.

If threats to a Great Society come from the outside, that is, from cultural forces that may or may not be coded as foreign, but that have no necessary role in establishing the Great Society itself – then how well do Great Societies resist such threats?

This is an empirical question, and we don’t have very much data to go on. David Hume once lamented that political philosophy had not yet had 3,000 years of experience on which to draw, and he held that this was too short a time to really understand too much. Great Societies, meanwhile, are perhaps only a tenth as old. As a result, we don’t know the full list of things that can make them fail, and perhaps we never will.

There’s a case here for conservatism, to be sure. We have a new thing, one that seems to be beneficial. And we don’t know which things might break it. Some caution is definitely in order.

We do, however, have a partial list of things that we know with some certainty to avoid. That list includes extensive land reform, collectivized industrial planning, significant currency manipulation, race wars, total wars, and forced migrations. All of these utterly wreck the webs of trust and tacit knowledge necessary to conduct a Great Society; in some cases, the damage from these acts can last for many generations.

We can also exclude quite a few things from the list of potential threats. The Great Society would appear to be compatible with many different spiritual and religious orientations, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, and secular humanism. (Each, incidentally, has a significantly different approach to the family and its role in society.) This diversity bodes well both for the Great Society’s future and for its status as an objective truth, consisting of social regularities that operate regardless of the various other contents found in individuals’ minds. We should all be thankful that the trick of having a Great Society doesn’t appear to depend on being a Protestant.

One thing that we do not yet know is whether the wholesale dissolution of the family poses a threat to the Great Society. Although it seems awful to contemplate, the truth is that a dissolution simply hasn’t happened yet. If we are being empirical, we ought to keep this fact in mind.

It could be, for example, that the wholesale dissolution of the family is practically impossible. As Lauren Hall notes in her book, real-world attempts by collectivists to supplant the family or to minimize its influence have overwhelmingly failed. Both the early history of the Soviet Union and the history of Israeli kibbutzim included ideologically committed efforts to re-engineer childrearing. They both met with a seemingly immovable object: People just preferred to have families. (Hall might have gone further and cited the ideological commitment of plantation owners in the Old South to treating human beings as property. Even that couldn’t stop African-Americans from forming families, and from striving to keep their families together.)

Great Societies almost definitionally don’t give social planners this type of power. Yet what if the family spontaneously dissolved, not through a planner’s edict, but through independent social forces and incentives? Some might argue that we are witnessing this very process today, although I am not among them. Still, though, if a spontaneous dissolution were to happen, would the Great Society go with it? 


Is That What We Are Arguing About?

This brings me to my second big question: Is the resilience of the Great Society in the face of a particular set of changes really what we’re arguing about?

Imagine a counterfactual world. In it, the institution of the family has disappeared, but the Great Society remains. (Babies are hatched from genetically engineered pods, perhaps, and educated by robots with friendly AI. It doesn’t really matter.)

Suppose that we find this counterfactual world is not dystopian. Rather, we envy it. Its citizens are politically free; they form deep, authentic friendships with one another; commerce, science, and the arts all flourish; they are ethically and spiritually commendable; and whatever differences may exist between them and us are to their credit, and not to ours. Only we have families, and they do not.

To be sure, there are no real-world societies that fit the bill. (Some may exist in fiction, but perhaps that’s where they will remain.) I bring up my counterfactual not because I think it’s practical (it isn’t), but because it raises a question about the ontology of the family.

That question is simple: If the family’s dissolution did not affect the Great Society, would we still care about it? Would we care as much? Or would we only care a little, the way we do about the loss of commercial whaling traditions, or about the terminal decline of the fedora?

In short, much of the discussion so far seems premised on a functionalist view of the family, one that tasks the family simply with reinstantiating the Great Society: The family makes adults who are able to take part in the Great Society, and that’s why we need it. And if that function were performed better by pods and robots, we might not even need the family anymore.

Still, I rather doubt that that’s an authentic position for any of us. Is the family merely functional?

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?