Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Lament for the Decline of the Family

Mar 3, 2004 10:55 am

A Lament for the Decline of the Family

Steve Horwitz points out that throughout history, marriage has taken many forms, and the participants have had a dizzing array of rights, options, and roles. And cross-culturally, we are all, I think, aware of the range of arrangments that constitute marriage....marriage is an evolving paradigm."

Quite true for the most part, but is"evolving" (at least in the Nockian sense) the best word to describe the current state of marriage or, I should say, the family in America? Over time, the responsibilities that were once the primary domain of the family (paying for medical insurance and old age support, raising children and paying for their education, etc.) have drastically narrowed. As a result, the family unit, despite the much advertised financial"benefits" for heterosexual couples, is becoming a purely symbolic institution.

This trend is most apparent in the highly"advanced" welfare states where the family has all but shed even the ceremonial trappings of symbolism. According to Stanley Kurtz,"Between 1990 and 2000, Norway's out-of-wedlock birthrate rose from 39 to 50 percent, while Sweden's rose from 47 to 55 percent."

While Kurtz overstates the influence of gay marriage on this trend, he is on target when he notes that"No Western economy has a higher percentage of public employees, public expenditures--or higher tax rates--than Sweden. The massive welfare state has largely displaced the family as provider. By guaranteeing jobs and income to every citizen (even children) the welfare state renders each individual independent. It's easier to do divorce [or never bother to marry] your spouse when the state will support you."

Kurtz states that state day care in Sweden plays a large part in raising children over age one. The U.S., of course, has not gone this far.....but that is where it seems to be heading. Dubya's recent welfare initiatives have certainly speeded this trend thus, ironically, undermining the same"traditional American family" that he claims to be saving through his proposed constitutional amendment.

For this reason, I haven't been too excited by the same-sex marriage debate. This is because I agree with the remark of my colleague Charles Nuckolls that the family as a meaningful social unit with something genuine to do is now on the ropes. This leads me to wonder if all the attention paid to this issue is analogous to a debate over the color of the lining on the coffin or, at the very least, the sheets for the death bed.

I support the libertarian proposal to"privatize" marriage but do not think this, as such, gets to the crux of the matter. How important is privatization when there is nothing of substance to"privatize?" If current trends continue, privatizing marriage may become as significant (and perhaps less so) than would be privatizing the figure-head offices of monarch in Britain or Sweden.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Athrun Xala - 11/15/2010

Right on the money about being independent, I was actually able to get a New Jersey divorce attorney and not have to worry about emptying my bank account. My wife sure is sorry she did me wrong though.

Grant Gould - 3/3/2004

Now that women are educated, day care is the economically efficient means of child-rearing. Which bit of that would you repeal, the education of women, or the right to pursue economic efficiency?

And the same may well be true of family structures. The truly revolutionary change -- the education of women -- has invalidated all of the old efficiencies, because it's no longer "free" in terms of opportunity cost for either spouse to stay at home all day. Family structure will necessarily be looser when "family" isn't the primary employer of half of the population. Again, which part would you repeal, education or economics?

None of this implies welfare-statism. The welfare state can make these trends more apparent or rapid, but nothing in these trends demands a welfare state. Child care has become a social matter in socialist countries; it can become a market commodity in a capitalist country (if there are any of those). This is revolutionary, but hardly earth-shattering. People try new things. Some of those things work, others don't. The successful ones are emulated. New social orders emerge. The divorce rate rises, and at the same time Mormonism and Pentacostalism rise just as quickly. Competition is alive and well; the world does not end.

That social institutions break down does not imply socialism. Social institutions can break down because they no longer serve a rational purpose. While socialism is one way of depriving social institutions of their rational purposes, it is not the only one. And the conservative instinct to preserve institutions by repealing rationalism while implementing socialism is if anything worse than the liberal insinct to implement socialism ignorantly.