Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Defense of the Evolution of the Family

Mar 4, 2004 12:00 pm

A Defense of the Evolution of the Family

Well, how synchronistic of David to take up the family issue today.  I feel like such a blogger because I'm on the road in Scottsdale, AZ at the meetings of the American Psychology-Law Society presenting a paper titled"John Stuart Mill and the Teaching of Social Science and Law" with my teaching partner, which grew out of our work together in our First-Year Seminar course on Public Policy and the Family.  Grant Gould's observations in the comments are very much to the point, and I'd like to expand on them here.

Grant is quite right in saying that the education of women, and the resulting higher wages available to them in the market, has made the dual-working family an increasing reality.  It also creates the wealth that enables families to solve the problem posed by two working parents:  how to accomplish the tasks of household production?  Who is going to cook, clean, raise children, etc?  The answer, of course, is that families now purchase those services on the market in increasing numbers compared to years past.  People eat out more, they use dry cleaners more, and they use day care more. 

In language I use elsewhere, families have certain functions they need to perform, and they can either apply their own labor directly to meeting those goals, they can purchase market substitutes for them, or they can rely on social networks/civil society institutions (as David's wonderful book points out).  What's happened over the 20th century is that some of the functions of the family have shifted from"domestic labor" to the market, while other functions have shifted toward the state, as David and Grant acknowledge.  However, I would argue that even had the 20th century been a libertarian one, many of the shifts in the family we've seen would have taken place.  In fact, I'd argue that a libertarian society would have accelerated them because a) we would have been that much wealthier;  b) state-created barriers to female education and employment would not have existed;  and c) various government policies (e.g., the tax treatment of secondary earners, various subsidies that artificially enhance the demand and supply of"suburbia") that support the so-called"traditional" family would not have existed. 

The last century saw the shrinking of many of functions families perform with their own labor.  Some of that shrinkage has been good, on the assumption that substitutes for direct labor are no worse than direct labor (and I'd argue that's the case).  Some of that shrinkage has been bad, to the extent the state is an inferior substitute for direct labor, civil society, or the market.  The upside of this shrinkage is that it has opened up space for families to devote more of their time and energy to some of the psychological/emotional needs of their members.  Rather than being predominantly economic units, as they've been through most of history, families are now spaces for love and emotional satisfaction.  This also helps to explain the increased visibility of homosexuality in society - one need not be connected to a"traditional" family to be able to survive economically.  It also relates to the same-sex marriage debate in that once marriage becomes predominantly about emotional satisfaction, rather than economic survival or procreation, the demand for inclusion by same-sex couples is a natural, and understandable, consequence.

It also shows one of the odd aspects of modern conservativism:  the very same people who rhapsodize about how marriage should be about love and commitment between partners, and deride the quickie meaningless heterosexual marriage, can't seem to see why homosexuals might ask for the same thing.  But the bigger irony for conservatives is that the reality of marriage as predominantly about romantic love, and the corresponding demand for same-sex marriage, is the product of the forces of capitalism.  The Right has to recognize that the forces of the market cannot be"firewalled" off from cultural change.  The wealth created by capitalism and the resulting dynamism of the market inevitably spillover to the culture.  Ultimately, the attempt to defend the"traditional" family is an attempt to stifle the market.

Having said all this, I do not believe the family will ever, or should ever, disappear.  Families cannot be replaced, and expecting the"village" to raise children will have roughly the same results as we've seen when"the village" runs agriculture or industry.  Parents have, in Hayekian terms, the knowledge and incentives it takes to raise their children, and no other institution can do better.  Yes, other institutions can help or hinder that process, and families can't do it all themselves, but the family is ultimately irreplaceable.  Yes, it will continue to evolve, but that makes it no different from any other social institution.

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