Editor’s Note: The following essay has been adapted by the author from his recent National Affairs essay.
American public policy long recognized the importance of marriage and the family to the country’s future. But 60 years of liberal theories have obscured from view why marriage and family are important and have made many forget how liberal policies actually support marriage and family life.
Today’s liberalism and libertarianism are hostile toward reflection on how the family ensures the survival of our democracy. These versions of liberalism recognize people as autonomous beings who choose their lifestyles and identities without interference from anything outside their wills.
For example, contemporary liberals assume that the goal of marital policy should be to secure adult choice. Generally, this demands that government maximize individual freedom by recognizing all lifestyle choices equally and providing them with equal public support. This involves some re-engineering of marriage and family life since marriage can produce inequalities and habits that limit the choices of the individuals involved. That re-engineering entails minimizing the effects of gender on the experience of marriage and family life and cultivates a spirit of economic and emotional independence for those involved in a marriage. These arguments point to the end of the legal recognition of marriage altogether.
The libertarian iteration of this view sees the government removing obstacles and maximizing all individuals’ freedom to choose. In an imagined republic of choice, individuals would be free to form whatever marriages they want, regardless of the sex, number, or purpose of the union, and to take on the duties of parenthood, or not, as they choose.
Both species of thought disclaim state support for any marital form. Contemporary liberals and libertarians either believe that form is unrelated to function, or that the functions of marriage are so nebulous and various, being defined by each individual, that most any way of organizing one’s life with another can accomplish them.
These thinkers ignore the way of the world: form follows function and function follows form. The “function” of having and raising children, the reason governments support marriage, is best accomplished through the active engagement of married, biological parents supported by a particular marital “form.” Focusing on “function” and ignoring “form” allows such theorists to ignore institutions that mediate between individuals and the state and reflects an unwillingness to consider what is necessary to maintain our political institutions and to prepare individuals for citizenship. Modern states accomplish their interest in a well-raised future citizenry indirectly.
Indirect government action protects rights and thereby creates a protected space in which citizens can pursue certain duties. For example, it protects parental and marital rights and the monogamous marital form that connects those rights to related duties—thereby accomplishing its interest in having generations of good citizens.
For mothers and fathers, the protection of parental rights provides space for having and educating children so parents can fulfill their duties. The protection of such rights can mean shielding parents from laws intruding into the proper sphere of parental independence, like mandatory-sterilization laws, laws that prohibit home-schooling, or recent laws that limit parental discretion in matters pertaining to gender identity.
Indirection is effective when citizens have a sense of duty leading to responsible action to fill the space civil government protects. Duties are essential to marriage and the family and involve getting married and staying married, having children, and raising them.
Duties arise from a publicly-supported marital form that channels nature, shapes habits, molds opinions, and grounds obligations. The marital form guides our understanding of which passions should be followed and what is in our interests—of what is right and what is wrong.
Nature can point to marriage. Many, perhaps most, human beings desire sex with members of the opposite sex and want intimate, enduring relationships with others, so traditional marriage has a natural basis. Human beings desire to live beyond themselves and to express their love for another concretely, so procreation also has a natural basis. Human beings want to care for children and to take on responsibilities, so parental education of children has a natural basis. (The line from some of these natural desires to duty is more direct in some instances than in others.)
Yet nature does not unambiguously point to marriage and family. There is no natural or political duty for women to reproduce. Men often seem more interested in sexual satisfaction, ambition, and vainglorious violence than in marrying or nurturing children. Creatures with limited time on earth must give priority to some natural passions over others.
Why prioritize marriage and family?
The solution to the challenges of having children, prioritizing parenthood, and cultivating male responsibility involves attaching husbands to wives and children through the promotion of enduring, exclusive, marital forms. Marriage provides a stable union within which women are most likely to feel secure and supported so that they can depend on the provision and assistance of a husband; this fosters procreation and an investment in a child’s education. Within the context of marriage, a man is more likely to take responsibility for his children as a means of keeping and deepening marital harmony and out of genuine concern for the future of each child and for the happiness of his wife. A monogamous marriage between a man and woman is the form of marriage most likely to coincide with a trusting equality resembling friendship that allows two people to live a common life.
The state’s policy of indirection depends on the attractiveness of translating natural passions toward marriage. Defenders of indirection have a responsibility to encourage a public view of family responsibilities as high duties, by ensuring that they are supported and reinforced through interest, conscience, and public morality.
A Healthy Family Policy
How do we get back to promoting healthy families through policy? To start, we should continue to use the law to sustain public morality. Passions are guided by public mores—the community’s general sense of right and wrong—its opinions about what is honorable, shameful, acceptable, advantageous, and just. Laws regulating some forms of gambling, public display of explicit pornography, prostitution, and public nudity, or indecency continue to stigmatize actions that disrupt monogamous marriage and healthy family life and corrupt erotic sensibilities.
Removing all the burdens of parenthood may, paradoxically, encourage people to invest less in their duties and take on fewer responsibilities. Better is a conception that sees children as responsibilities over which concerned parents must exercise thoughtful discretion regarding significant questions. As a matter of policy, this might entail involving parents more in a child’s formal education through school-choice programs or alternative schooling. Choice programs presume the capacity of parents; it is possible they may also encourage such capacity.
Any family policy must also recognize that economic incentives do not explain the gamut of human motivations. The problem of recognizing duty as a good thing is largely a cultural one, and the responsibility for honoring the dutiful must fall to civil society.
Support for the marital form is a non-coercive way to secure the blessings of liberty for our posterity that is consistent with our society’s dedication to tolerance and its long-term interests. It is also a way to ensure that we have a posterity for which to provide.
Scott Yenor is a Professor of Political Science at Boise State University and author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor, 2011) and David Hume’s Humanity (Palgrave, 2016).