Everyone wants to save the American family. Not a day goes by, it seems, without some politician or professor issuing a call to arms or an invitation to a congressional hearing. For a long time the family had been a conservative/ Republican issue, but last fall both Mr. Mondale and Ms. Ferraro made a great show of their  own wholesome domes tic lifeit worked better with the Mondales than with the Zaccaros. What a world. We are back to the old political slogans of mom and apple pie, and they have even less substance than they did back in the 1940’s. 

We were not always so unanimous in support for mother hood and the nuclear family. In the years between the Eisenhower Administration and the Reagan restoration, most of what we heard about the family was unpleasant. Psychiatrists described it as the setting for Oedipal traumata; leftist social critics spoke continually of the alienation and loneliness which is the heritage of bourgeois domesticity; while feminists and homosexuals complained of the ruth less indoctrination into the ideology of sex roles and patriarchy. The family was ailing, they all agreed, and the kindest treatment was to bury the dead and erect new social structures on the foundations of equality and sensitivity.

Radical feminists continue to cling to the 60’s golden dreams—a society of hermaphrodites—but no one seems to be listening. Instead, the political remnants of the committed left are studying ways to save the family. Senator Chris Dodd can be seen practically joining hands with Senator Denton in a common front, and recently Harvard was haunted by one of its ghosts from the 60’s, Pat Moynihan, whose Godkin lectures are a replay of his 1965 demand for a national policy that will “promote the stability of the American family.”

Before being overcome by this rush of good feeling, American families — that  is  to say, most  Americans—need to consider what it is the planners and politicians intend to save us from, since most of us see the government not as the solution but as the main source of the problem. Predictably, most of the discussion centers around welfare issues: aid to pregnant women, family assistance programs, and the prevention of family violence. Obviously, these are all good things. No decent person enjoys the idea of battered children or starving expectant mothers, but not all problems cry out for government solutions; the remedies, as Tacitus suggested, can be worse than the disease. Most Americans favored civil rights for Blacks and women, but were less than enthusiastic about busing and affirmative action. What exactly do the friends of the family have in mind?

One sure sign of danger in the family issue is the frequent mention of rights: pregnant women have a right to adequate nutrition; children have a right to be reared in a wholesome environment and to receive a good education. As Senator Dodd explained to the New York Times, “There is a direct relationship between a child’s educational performance and nutrition.” Set aside the lack of evidence for the senator’s assertion and look at his overall commitments — to “human rights” in El Salvador and to equality in the U.S. What he and the other equal rights advocates seem to be
driving at is this: government, whether state or Federal, must undertake to guarantee a good start in life for all our citizens. A malnourished or abused child grows into a poor student who grows up into an adult social problem, an unemployed illiterate, condemned to live on welfare and vote for Chris Dodd.  The goal  is equality, and the only way to provide equality of opportunity, so they tell us, is to guarantee a roughly equal start for everyone. Here we come to the heart of the matter. Some parents work hard, take their children to church, encourage them to read — in short, do their best at rearing responsible citizens; others do not. Just what are we going to do about this prime cause of inequality?

There is only one answer: take responsibility away from the family and give it to the government. This transfer of power from the family to the state is not a new process. To some extent, it has been going on throughout recorded history, but the pace has been accelerating dramatically in the past 150 years. In most older and simpler societies, the family is virtually autonomous, a self-governing kingdom in miniature. It is completely responsible for the health and welfare of its members: it maintains order, educates children, and provides social security. Government, where it exists, is largely an affair between families; there were few cracks in the family structure into which the authorities could insert their legal tentacles.

The common law tradition of England and the United States preserved much of the family’s independence. Marriage made a man and wife to be “of one flesh,” a legal unity. Not only was divorce virtually out of the question, but a wife’s property and income were under her husband’s control. On the other hand, a man could be held liable for certain crimes committed by his wife. There was no point in giving women the vote because it was the undivided family that voted, in the person of the male head of the house. The ideal family was more than a unit of residence and consumption. It was an organic whole in which the members worked and played together, provided together for the common security, lived and died—together.

The older family was a force to be reckoned with, even by the ambitious empires of the ancient and modem world. Even where several generations did not actually live together, there was a unity of kin and a sense of privacy (not individual but family privacy) which resisted the power of the state. There was only so much a government could do to intrude upon household affairs. As a result, the most powerful rulers of the past, Oliver Cromwell or Louis XIV, could proceed only a little way down the road to total government. At every tum were the ancient privileges of the autonomous family.

Since the middle of the 19th century, a social revolution has shattered the power and unity of the family. Divorce, made increasingly easy by progressive legislatures, coupled with women’s suffrage, succeeded in dividing the one flesh into competing individuals. Compulsory schooling and the kind attentions of social workers (to say nothing of the newly discovered children’s rights) have established children as something like potential wards of the state, entrusted to their families on condition of good behavior. Tax policies and affirmative-action laws have the effect of making it more attractive for mothers to work outside the home and surrender their children to government-regulated day-care centers. We have not yet reached the fun-house conditions of Sweden, where parents who spank their children may face imprisonment, but we are fast approaching. With Dodd’s help, we can get there all the faster.

A government campaign to save the family can only lead to more government intervention, if only because that is the nature of government. The libertarians know that much. But at a deeper level, libertarians and leftists share certain ethical assumptions which have contributed, more than anything else, to the erosion of the modem family. These assumptions, around which we have structured most of our social policies, have to do with the equality of individuals. Society is, we are told over and over, made up of individuals. Fairness demands that each individual have a roughly equal chance to succeed in life. This means that our citizens should enjoy not only equality before the law, but also an equal right to participate in the political and economic life of the nation. Circumstances of birth—race, religion, and social position—must not be allowed to play a dominant role in deciding who gets what—whether that “what” is a legal judgment, a political office, or a job.

The liberal position (that is the technical term) is usually summed up in the phrase “equal opportunity.” More restrained advocates of liberalism, who usually go by the name of conservatives, say they are in favor of equality of opportunity, but not of results. The government can only guarantee us the chance to compete in the race on equal terms; it cannot ensure that everyone will be a winner. Stronger advocates of liberalism quite correctly point out the naivete of this argument. Children of affluent, intelligent, and hardworking parents begin life with distinct advantages over the underprivileged, including perhaps higher intelligence, better health, superior education, a powerful network of family friends, and even those ethical values which make for success in the world. How is it possible to so improve the opportunities for a child of a one-parent family in a Chicago housing project to such an extent that they will be equal to the advantages enjoyed by the children of a churchgoing architect in Evanston?

The only possible solution lies in massive government intervention: programs designed to lift the children of the poor out of their bad environments and subject them to the elevating influences of white, middle-class America. If this means taking them away from families and neighbors or violating all the Constitutional protections of due process, well, the poor—despite all the groups that presume to speak for them—have never had much power. But it is not just poor families who are threatened. The goal of a homogeneous society of equal individuals will require sacrifices from the well-to-do.

Consider the unfair advantages of a private education. Although the average income of families with children in private and religious schools is less than $30,000 per annum, there is no doubt about the benefits of a safe and disciplined environment in which learning is encouraged. As long ago as the l930’s, John Dewey’s disciples at Columbia were contemplating the feasibility of outlawing private schools as an obstacle to social reform. (Why should the children of the rich grow up unscathed by progressive social engineering?) Religion is another problem area. Orthodox Jews, Southern Baptists, conservative Catholics, and Mormons all believe in the superior merits of their own faith. What is worse, they hold decidedly unprogressive attitudes toward sex and sexual equality. At the end of the l970’s, the Carter Administration’s Year of the Child spawned a number of state and local legislative initiatives, like the one in North Carolina that provided for “aggressive outreach” into families that did not provide a wholesome (i.e., liberated) sexual and religious environment.

It is easy enough to dredge up scare stories from the newspapers, which make it clear that the burden of proof is shifting from government to parents in cases where a child’s welfare is in question. Recent events in Scott County, Minnesota, are chilling enough. On the testimony of a revenge-seeking child molester, 24 adults were charged with sexual abuse of children, and 25 children were taken from their families and placed in foster homes. The case for the prosecution eventually fell apart on charges of secret murders. The zealous county attorney, Kathleen Morris, apparently still believes in her theory of murder and sexual abuse. Even though all charges have been dismissed, some of the children have yet to be returned. According to observers, the case was so bungled we shall never know the truth of it. But the fact remains that on the assumption of guilt the children were removed, and in the absence  of charges they are still withheld from their parents.

If America does walk down the road of a national family policy, it will not be the first to take that step. The Swedish experience is rather well-known. Less familiar, perhaps, are the efforts of the Soviet government to bring the family to heel. In the first blush of revolutionary fervor, party members experimented with sexual freedom and “alternate life-styles,” but eventually reality fell upon them with all the dismal inevitability of the Russian winter: someone was going to have to bear and rear the next generation of little revolutionaries. On the other hand, the endless series of five-year plans required more busy hands than the male half of the population could supply.

Stalin’s solution was as brilliant as it was simple: let the women work and keep house. Not that they were also taking care of their children. With state schools, state day care, and mandatory state summer camps, the children spend just enough time with their parents to be able to inform on them. The Soviet ideal is of a proletarianized family in the service of the state. While the older, multigenerational Russian family was an effective resistance force against government oppression, the new-model Russian family is designed, as one scholar expressed it, as a “training-ground for submission.” It is not too much to see a connection between the dissolution of family life and the high rates of alcoholism, abortion, and infertility in the Soviet ‘Union.

The dream of social equality leads—inevitably, it seems—to the tyranny of the total state. For many writers on ethics, notably John Rawls, this poses only a minor problem: social justice must take precedence over any form of social structure. Better to eliminate the family than give up the struggle for equality. Other liberals are not so sure. James Fishkin at Yale finds himself driven to accept a more “limited liberalism,” because the requirements of equality seem irreconcilable with family autonomy:

Attempting to maintain . . . the principle of merit, equality of life chances, and the autonomy of the family would be like attempting to hold up a three-cornered stool when only two legs are available. No matter which two comers one chooses to hold up, lack of the third is enough to undermine the whole structure.

Fishkin is willing to rest content with a social and ethical system with these built-in contradictions, but isn’t it possi ble that the system is itself wrongheaded, that the dream of equality is actually a nightmare of compounded egocentric individualism and state tyranny? By their fruits ye shall know them, and the fruits of a  national family policy—of the sort envisioned by sentimental old Pat Moynihan and smiling young Chris Dodd—have already fallen rotten from the tree in Sweden and the Soviet Union.

The basic mistake that underlies all our thinking about equality is to regard society as made up of individuals. It does not require the uniform testimony of social anthropologists to refute this assumption—dear to libertarians and Marxists alike—it is contradicted by our own experience every clay. We are born into families that form us into social beings; we grow up impelled to replicate the family patterns of our childhood. What is more, most of us are incapable of being alone for more than a few hours at a time. Creatures who could do without the society of their fellows would have to be, as Aristotle observed, either divine or subhuman. In isolation most of us would fare no better than poor old Ben Gunn marooned on Treasure Island.

If our very humanness depends on belonging to a family and a community, then those basic facts of our humanity must take precedence over such merely theoretical concerns as liberty, equality, and social justice. Not that we can afford to ignore ethical considerations, either in our private lives or in our public policies, but they are of a lower order of priority. Pursuing social justice at the expense of the family would be like pursuing beauty at the expense of life: there can be no human beauty in death and corruption; and there can be no social justice, much less equality, when the family is decayed into an administrative unit of the total state. -Thomas J. Fleming