Too Steep a Price: Why the Liberal Family Died



Over half a century ago, the family system advocated by John Locke and modeled on Lockean liberalism seemed to have triumphed completely in the United States, in Western Europe, and globally.  In that model, marriage is viewed as a contract between equals, in which fathers are allowed to take on the “soft patriarchal” roles of breadwinner and nominal head of household.  Married life centers on the procreation and rearing of children as free and rational beings preparing to manage their own economic affairs.  And the household is no longer considered to be bound by the onerous productive functions that once burdened premodern families.

Long ascendant, Locke’s model gained new vindication through the “marriage boom” and the “baby boom” of the 1940’s and 50’s.  Sociologists such as Talcott Parsons gave optimistic, supportive assessments of American family life.  By 1963, William Goode could argue (in World Revolution and Family Patterns) that the “conjugal family” grounded in Lockean liberalism and (to a lesser extent) Protestant asceticism was the new normal, rapidly spreading throughout both the industrialized West and even in the developing world.

Today, of course, all lies in ruin.  The Lockean family model has now delivered low fertility and depopulation; a massive retreat from marriage (by heterosexuals, at least); a surge in what we once quaintly called “illegitimate births”; a growing horde of fatherless, unemployable, and unmarriageable young men; the complete triumph of sexual radicalism; and a new totalitarianism, imposing the once strange ideas of “gay marriage” and transgenderism on all, especially children.  The speed at which this transition has occurred has been staggering.

What went wrong?  The problem, I believe, can be found in the contradictions of liberal ideology itself.

First, the Lockean family was built on liberalism’s faulty anthropology.  John Locke held a rather dim view of the human male, whose strongest desires, he believed, are “self-preservation” and “copulation”: “What Father of a Thousand, when he begets a Child, thinks farther than the satisfying his present Appetite?”  With men driven by what are, according to Scott Yenor, “almost useless” social traits, what might entice males into family life?  Locke acknowledged that the institutions surrounding patriarchy succeeded in luring men toward hearth and home, but only by giving them complete—and often abusive—authority over wives and children.  Since his overall project demanded an end to patriarchy at the political level, Locke deemed it necessary to bring an end to patriarchy within the family as well.  His alternative was the “liberal” marriage, a union of limited purpose and authority, where men might find compensatory satisfactions in friendships with a wife and children.  And although it ran counter to his premise of sexual (now “gender”) equality, Locke felt obligated to cast the father as the presumed head of the family.  In the evolving industrial society, Dad became the breadwinner.

This soft patriarchy proved to be vulnerable.  Locke held that women have a natural instinct to be attached to their children and to protect them.  While men must be tricked into family living, settling down comes naturally to women.  Thus, in Locke’s scheme, women consent to soft patriarchy as the price they must pay to keep a man in the home.  Eventually, some proponents of the liberal order saw that as too steep a price to pay.  Instead, to gain the equality promised them by liberalism, women must overcome their maternal instincts—they must break their “affective ties” to children, to fellow humans, and to nature itself.  At that point, the liberal contract breaks down.  As women renounce their innate purpose, men lose their artificially created one, and the liberal marriage system dissolves.

Locke readily acknowledged the validity, in certain societies, of the single-parent family, where “the children are left to the Mother, follow her, and are wholly under her Care and Provision.”  So, too, with polygyny and polyandry: These could also serve as household forms adequate to the tasks of rearing children as “free and rational creatures.”  All that would be required for these forms to be legitimate is cultural acceptance, what Locke called “fashion.”  Such shifts in fashion we now observe.

Second, the Lockean family lacked function.  Locke’s “Conjugal Society” rested on a “voluntary Compact between Men and Women” that was limited to the “things of their common interest and [common] Property.”  Under patriarchy, the economic lives of men and women had been merged, wholly and completely.  As expressions of preindustrial life, such households were also characterized by a great array of productive activities.  The sexual and the economic were fully together.

In Locke’s vision, property could be held separately, by either spouse.  Since for him the purposes of marriage were only procreation and the socialization of children, and since marriage was always provisional, a strong home economy was neither necessary nor desirable.  While Locke probably did not foresee the full ramifications of his views, his limited family model would prove to be admirably suited—in some ways—to the future industrial economic order.

In the 1950’s, Talcott Parsons—channeling Locke—celebrated this liberal family for having become much “more specialized than before.”  It no longer produced goods of any significance.  Following the advent of women’s suffrage, the family had ceased to be a unit in the political system.  With the demise of the extended family, the new family no longer played a role in integrating its members in the larger society.  This allowed the family to focus on what Parsons called its two remaining “basic and irreducible” functions: the socialization of children and the stabilization of adult personalities.

Yet there is no reason why such an institution “must” continue, as Parsons (again following Locke) implied.  Indeed, this exclusive focus on psychological tasks easily became both enervating and boring.  As Philip Abbott summarizes in his fine book The Family on Trial, “Complete social disintegration is a reality that [was] beyond the scope of Parsons’ vision.”

Third, the Lockean family heavily relied on social engineering.  In his project to reshape the political order, Locke concluded that he had to remake the family as well.  Humans are not born “rational and free”:  They have to be made so.  Locke invented the “nuclear family” as a vehicle for shaping individuals, making them suited to the liberal order.  This task resembled later efforts to mold Socialist Man and Fascist Man.  Moreover, lurking within the project was a latent totalitarianism.  John Stuart Mill took the first step in this direction, replacing the goal of a “free and rational” child (which implied that all persons would reach the same conclusion) with the modified liberal quest for “individual development” (which could move in a multitude of directions).

In his quest for “perfect equality,” Mill moved closer to the totalitarian imperative.  Once it had been put forward as the only desirable model, and given that it is not natural, the concept of the egalitarian family  must be imposed.  As Mill concluded, “The family, justly constituted, would [then] be the real school of the virtues of freedom.

T.H. Green took the next step, suggesting that the “institutions of civil life”—that is, the state—could “render it possible for a man to be freely determined by the idea of a possible satisfaction of himself.”  This is the sort of muddled thinking about self-actualization that could have leapt from a Court opinion written by Anthony Kennedy.

John Rawls brought the argument home.  His quest for “distributive justice” and “fair opportunity” for each individual always foundered when it reached real flesh-and-blood families.  Rawls famously asked (and answered), “Is the family to be abolished then?  Taken by itself and given a certain primacy, the idea of equal opportunity inclines us in this direction.”

As some critics have stipulated, it is true that, having reached this conclusion, John Rawls “flinches.”  Thus, in 1981, Philip Abbott asked, “But how long can we count on liberals to flinch?”  We learned the answer to that question during the second term of Barack Obama.

Finally, liberalism undermined the one force that actually allowed its family model to work.  The Lockean family could flourish only within an atmosphere informed by Christian faith.  But liberalism and liberals insist on subjecting every social practice to rational analysis.  Such practices under scrutiny have most certainly included all traditional understandings of marriage and family that stem from Christian doctrine, which liberal skepticism has worked relentlessly to deconstruct.  Liberalism has now consumed almost all of the moral capital provided by the Christian Faith.  As a result, the flaws and internal contradictions of liberal society are being set loose, with the dire consequences described earlier.

Admittedly, Locke’s family scheme, whatever its internal contradictions, managed to operate, even thrive, for roughly 250 years—an enviable record.  Perhaps so.  But that does not help us now.

This article is drawn from a lecture presented to the Academy of Philosophy and Letters at Villanova University.


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