This month, we shall have an answer to an all-important question: Which arm of our bipartisan party state will occupy the White House for the next four years? This is an issue second in importance only to such urgent American questions as “When will Britney Spears be allowed to see her kids?” “How much weight will Jennifer Lopez drop after giving birth to twins?” And—for those of us with an interest in ancient history—“Who shot J.R.?” I know these are the most important issues because they have been featured on the cover of America’s most honest newspaper, the National Enquirer.
I suppose we should also add to the list, “What absurd name will Bristol Palin give the love child whose conception is nobody else’s business?” Both camps have their own reasons for the cordon sanitaire that has been placed, quite properly, around Mrs. Palin’s children. Since neither party has the slightest interest in decency or good manners, what they are really saying is that the way in which politicians conduct themselves or manage their family responsibilities is of no interest to the electorate. I wish someone had told the Republicans this when they were going after Bill Clinton. In some states, Bristol could marry a Suzie instead of a Levi, and, before this generation passes away, she will be able to marry both Levi and Suzie and perhaps the family’s entire team of sled dogs, because marriage has been made the mere creature of the state, which can choose to define it in any way that pleases the current consensus of college professors, media moguls, and judges we call “public opinion.”
How should family issues such as same-sex “marriage” be addressed? I mean politically, because there can be no such thing as same-sex marriage. It is a mere figment of the imagination like the unicorn, but worse: It is a self-contradictory figment, something like a unicorn with two horns. As a colleague once sagely observed to me, erotic relations between two men or two women are not sexual, since the very word sex requires male and female.
Then what to do politically? It depends, I suppose, on our political orientation. We do have two parties in the United States, and their names at least should point to the existence of two ideologies, one called “democratic” and the other known as “republican.” In theory, the advocates of “democracy” champion the rights of the people to rule themselves, according to the principle of majority rule, without any impediment in the form of aristocracy, religion, tradition, family ties, or moral principles.
In a democracy, then, a poor majority can confiscate the wealth of a minority—as is done in every socialist state in the world including the United Socialist State of America. Some democracies have gone further—for example, in insisting that children be reared and educated according the ruling majority’s ideology. Minority children—such as the children of fundamentalist Mormons or those of suspects in the French Revolution—might conceivably be taken from their parents because their religion or ideology is offensive to the majority who putatively support the regime. In the most extreme case, governments purportedly representing majorities have attempted to outlaw Catholic schools and subject homeschooling parents to rules that would force them to comply with the same regulations as public schools. So in a perfect democracy the status of same-sex “marriage” will be determined by majority rule.
Republican governments, though they may call themselves “popular” and rest on broad-based support, impose severe restrictions on the principle of majority rule. By definition, almost, republics are not supposed to be monarchies, but this is a question of words rather than facts. The English monarchy of 1800 was closer to republican principles than was the Venetian Republic of the same era. A better way to look at this distinction is through the eyes of Aristotle, who said that a politeia or commonwealth is governed by law and tradition, not by the arbitrary rule of a sovereign, and it makes no difference whether the sovereign is one man, a hundred men, or a democratic majority. This Greek word politeia was typically translated into Latin as res publica, which means the people’s business, the origin of our word republic. In this sense, a republic is not defined by the formal absence of a king but by its institution, which makes it, in Burke’s famous phrase, a “government of laws and not of men.”
Republics come in many shapes and sizes, but they share some features. In a republic, legislation cannot, on the arbitrary whim of the sovereign, override custom, tradition, and legal precedent. Thus, such Supreme Court decisions as Roe v. Wade and Brown v. Board of Education would be unthinkable in a republic. Republicans also agree that civil rights and privileges can and should be restricted to the more responsible classes of the nation—for example, taxpayers, property owners, and native-born citizens. Finally, republican governments do not rule directly over the citizens but rest upon a broad and deep substructure of lower political jurisdictions and social institutions. This is a very important point, and one that is frequently overlooked by political theorists except as regards the question of scale discussed by Donald Livingston.
When we think of republics, we often turn to fifth-century Athens, Rome before the Punic Wars, 14th-century Florence, and the United States in 1800. In fifth-century Athens, there was very little that could be described as a state, not even police. There was a council to propose legislation and a citizen-assembly to ratify proposals and make decisions on war and peace, but most of the public business of everyday life was conducted by demes or neighborhood governments, extended kin groups, religious associations, and families. The Roman Republic, similarly, was constituted by kindreds and tribes. When the senate ordered the execution of citizens who had participated in an illicit Bacchanalia, they left it up to the heads of the families to carry out the sentence.
In Florence before the Medici established their dictatorship, the government rested on the craft and trade guilds but also took for granted an extensive structure of dioceses and parishes, religious societies, and extended lineages. Individuals counted for nothing, and if one was unlucky enough to be born into a family officially stigmatized as “magnates,” he might find himself liable for an offense committed by his second cousin and forced into exile.
Finally, in the good old U.S.A., the national government was inferior in most respects to the governments of the 13 sovereign states, but even those states—as Tocqueville observed—had little power to interfere in the common life of townships, parishes, and counties. In each instance, the lower levels of society, whether official—states or provinces, guilds, Athenian demes—or unofficial (as in kin groups and parishes) were able to exercise their functions with a minimum of interference from the “national” government. Since marriage, family, and kinship are prior to the state, which draws its legitimacy from these connections of blood and sex, a true republic would be loath to interfere in marriage and, at the very least, could never redefine this basic institution of our common life, either by permitting no-fault divorce or by creating the fiction of civil unions between homosexuals, which is merely marriage by another name.
The distinction between a democratic state, which rests on the absolute principle of majority rule of individual citizens, and a republic, which must govern itself not only according to law and tradition but with respect for the rights and duties of lower-level institutions, is no mere technicality. But even when these terms had substance, they were far from being mutually exclusive. Radical democrats have accepted some restrictions on civil rights—age limits for voting and office-holding and even a denial of these rights to felons—while republicans, in seeking votes, are inevitably led to court the masses by offering them more privileges. This need to pander to the mob partly explains why English Tories and American Republicans have often taken the lead in radical legislation empowering the lower orders. So it is important to distinguish the republican and democratic elements in a constitutional structure.
A key distinction between republicans, on the one hand, and democrats and socialists, on the other, would be the different ways in which they interpret equality. Going back to Aristotle and the Florentine republicans, to the Old Whigs and early American republicans of both the Federalist and Jeffersonian parties, we could say that, while democrats believe in equal rights for all, republicans believe in equal rights for equal people—that civil rights are proportional to the contribution made by this or that group of citizens. It is not just or fair, we would say, that an uneducated welfare dependent who shirks his patriotic duties should hold the same political power as a middle-class farmer or store owner who pays his taxes, does military service, and spends some of his free time working for the common good. For the democrat, civil rights are abstract and universal, while republicans will think more in concrete and historical terms.
Traditional republicans would also not think it right to guarantee the same rights to women as to men, wives as to husbands, children as to parents, not simply because nature has designed men and women for separate purposes or because children are too young to make their own decisions, but, more fundamentally, because to guarantee equal rights for married women is to extend the power of the state into the family.
Democrats, self-described civil libertarians, and other leftists will, for example, often cite the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights as authority for their view that the American political system rests upon a foundation of universal human rights that belong to individuals and are protected by the state. On this understanding, marriage can be nothing more than a private contract to be enforced by the state, and even though some democrats may object to “gay marriage” or no-fault divorce, they must concede in principle that these monstrosities can be permitted so long as it is the will of the democratic majority.
This brings us back to the question of the two-horned unicorn. “Family values” conservatives in the evangelical wing of the GOP like to say that something must be done to protect the family, whose desperate condition is signaled by high rates of divorce and illegitimacy (to say nothing of the host of related problems of working mothers, daycare, declining birthrates, abortion, school shootings, and same-sex “marriage”). The family is in crisis, they cry, poisoned by moral permissiveness and undermined by an antifamily tax-code that penalizes marriage and children. The tax code must be altered to reward (rather than penalize) large families, and governments must use their resources to encourage women to marry, bear many children, all of them breastfed, and to stay at home to take care of them.
To anyone but an ardent social revolutionary, the conservatives’ complaints seem all too justified; however, their call for government support of the institution reveals a basic misunderstanding of the relationship between families and the state, and their solutions will result only in the further subjugation of the family to the malevolent power of social bureaucracy.
In the tradition of Aristotle and Saint Thomas, the family was viewed as a natural (and, for Christians, a divinely ordained) institution. Neoconservatives and their social-conservative followers, in calling for government actions to reinvigorate fatherhood and motherhood and to define marriage, are simply repeating the arguments of Marx and Engels and turning them on their head. If the family is a fragile historical construction tied to property and patriarchy, then parents should not be trusted, and families would have to be propped up artificially by government agencies—the very agencies that (according to conservatives) have been undermining the family for a hundred years.
Even if the Marxist/capitalist myth of family history were true, it would provide a dangerous incentive to erect a labyrinthine bureaucracy out of the ruins of the family authority usurped by socialist governments. But it is not even partly correct. It is simply wrong. There is, in fact, a wealth of solid information, from historians and anthropologists, on Western and non-Western cultures, and despite the creative richness and ingenuity men and women have displayed in devising exotic forms of marriage and family, they converge, statistically, upon a human norm of a monogamous pair of a faithful wife and a not always perfectly faithful husband mated more or less for life and dedicated to the happiness and well-being of their children over whom they exercise something like sovereign authority.
It is from the family and from networks of extended kinfolks that larger social and political structures have been developed, up to and including the nation-state and the world state that is being constructed in our lifetime. The family created civilization and the state, not vice versa.
Civilization and political systems are fragile, but marriage and family are natural institutions, and although they can be corrupted, distorted, and damaged by human arrogance and folly, the results will always be the same: social collapse followed by a renewal of all the ancient and beautiful things without which human life is impossible. If we could ever succeed in lifting the dead hand of government from our everyday lives—cutting taxes and rolling back virtually all the social legislation of the past 100 years—we should not have to worry too much about the state of the family. American families would take care of themselves, as they have always done. The inevitability of the family derives from the natural needs and desires it serves, not only the natural love of men and women for each other and their children but their equally natural hatred for those who harm or threaten to harm members of the family or the family itself.
One obvious answer to the questions raised by same-sex “marriage” and no-fault divorce is that it should not be the state’s business to define or even regulate marriage. Marriage, as a good republican should understand, is not a private contract between individuals or a matter for legislation: Marriage unites families, not individuals, and if the families belong to a religion, their marriage customs will be regulated by their church.
The one helpful thing that a government can do is not to interfere in the right of private contract that would allow a Christian couple to draw up a marriage covenant, restricting the justification for divorce to specific offenses, stipulating custody, and regulating inheritance. If two businessmen can form a partnership, why have so many state legislators tried to prevent husbands and wives from doing the same thing?
Every four years Americans are besieged by politicians seeking their votes and their money. Neither major party, however, has the slightest interest in restoring a single feature of republican government. However we choose to waste our vote in November, there is one true republican answer we can give them, and it is one that is entirely consistent with the decentralized federal system drawn up in Philadelphia over two centuries ago. When politicians come asking for your vote, making promises to rescue Fannie and Freddie, stimulate free enterprise, and save the family, tell them what a great American statesman said in 1861: “All we ask is to be let alone.”