happy-family-silhouette-In a recent editorial, demographer Joel Kotkin laments both the practical and the normative consequences of the rejection of family ties among members of modern societies:

Although sensible for many individuals, the decision to detach from familialism augurs poorly for societies, which will be forced to place enormous burdens on a smaller young generation to support an ever-expanding cadre of retirees. It also frames a spiritual crisis in which people no longer look out for their relatives, but only for themselves, inevitably becoming dependent on government to provide the succor that used to come from families. [1]

Mr. Kotkin, who describes himself as an old-fashioned Democrat, sees in recent decades a destructive trend toward rejection of child-bearing and child-rearing and to family formation of any kind. He recognizes this trend´s tendency to undermine civil society and individual character, leaving people dependent on an increasingly overburdened state. Both fiscal and moral bankruptcy may result.

th-century-parade-nuns-and-monks-almadenaOne who eschews family life is not necessarily selfish, of course. Many of us know very good people who either have not found the right person to marry or have affirmatively chosen to devote themselves wholly to God and/or community, leading lives of service and high virtue. Sadly, however, such people are the exception among the childless in contemporary societies, in which the distractions of modernity and the false promises of autonomy encourage willful ignorance of the emptiness of disconnected lives.

As to the demographic catastrophe Mr. Kotkin predicts, and shows is well under way in East Asia and much of Europe, conservatives long have warned of the consequences of modernity´s hostility toward the natural family. When people choose self over family, they sever the ties between the dead, the living, and the yet to be born. The result is not just spiritual entropy, but economic collapse as the elderly become increasing burdens on the relatively few young who achieve conception and survive to birth. Broken ties and increased burdens create resentment. Little wonder, then, that “progress” in the medical profession today focuses on replacing medical with hospice care and the insertion of death panels into treatment for the elderly. Rejecting the natural order, people eventually come to eat their own.

I am not at all certain that Mr. Kotkin would agree with this last observation. I say this because, while he is astute enough to recognize a moral component to the demographic breakdown caused by our flight from the family, he studiously avoids addressing moral issues at the core of that breakdown. As he presents his concern: “Seeking to preserve a place for families requires us to move beyond nostalgia and focus on how this most precious institution can be reinvigorated amidst the challenges of modernity.” His project clearly is the salvaging of an important economic and social structure in light of what he deems the general progress of modern society. Thus, he seeks to encourage a very pragmatic ideological rapprochement, in which conservatives and “profamily liberals” work to encourage child-rearing in putatively intact families. As he notes, “some of these elements are pretty basic: good public education, tax policies that do not penalize married couples and allowing greater tax deductions for children.”

One might see in this proposal the possibility of a new alliance aimed at salvaging that most essential institution for nurturing children to become productive, virtuous, and potentially happy adults. Sadly, the price of such cooperation for conservatives is their souls. For Mr. Kotkin´s call to conservative action is very specific and very limited.

In the next few years, social conservatives need to engage [in defending the family], but in ways that transcend doctrinal concerns about homosexuality, or even abortion. It has to be made clear that, on its current pace, Western civilization and, increasingly, much of East Asia are headed toward a demographic meltdown as people eschew family formation for the pleasures of singleness or childlessness.

Indeed, Mr. Kotkin is quite explicit in his rejection of the conservative vision of what the family is and is for, outside its utilitarian byproducts. The family, for him, is simply an economic institution necessary for bringing up good citizens and providing economic security. And this means that its economic and social roles must be preserved, however much the institution itself may be changed—which in his view it can be, potentially to an infinite degree.

Leave-It-to-BeaverConservatives, in particular, need to give up the idea that the fifties—the era of “Leave it to Beaver”—will ever come back. Too many factors, such as women’s growing role in the workplace and the sexual revolution, have altered reality permanently. Only 45 percent of children live in intact married families, and those who cherish the institution of families have little choice other than to embrace other models, including blended families, single-parent households, as well as same-sex parent households.

The notion that conservatives as a group would simply accept that the family means or rather is something different from what faith, tradition, and common sense tell them it is and “move on” is actually quite insulting. This is not to say that some, including among Catholic neoconservatives, have not been trying to sell society on the family as a necessary and useful institution that should be valued for its byproducts. But such ill-advised pandering should not distract either conservatives or their would-be allies as to the nature of our attachment to the natural family; nor should it blind them to the rather severe limits of a utilitarian defense of an institution that rests on a willingness to sacrifice one´s more selfish impulses—“the pleasures of singleness or childlessness”—for a greater, longer term common good.

If the family is not valued for itself, for its essential nature as the bonding of man and woman in a relationship that makes them into parts of a greater whole even as it makes each more than they once were through this relationship, it will not be valued. Family life is best for us, it in fact makes its members happier than they otherwise would be—provided they enter into it with some understanding (whether educated or instinctive) that it aims at something more than a contractual arrangement among individuals making them potential “life partners.” Without such realization, family is a disposable convenience that cannot maintain itself over time.

real-loveNatural law understandings are out of favor. Among other things, they tell us that we cannot make words and institutions “mean” what they by nature do not mean, or aim at goods (including the emotion and physical act of love) that are not by nature good. Love may or may not be good depending on its object. Most of us recognize that love for a child must be of a certain, non-physical kind if it is to be good, rather than evil. Even among goods, it is important to recognize the right and highest good of an institution if it is to survive and flourish. A family that is seen as little more than privatized childcare will appeal to very few people, whatever the tax consequences.

Alexis de Tocqueville noted that a man who asks anything of liberty other than itself is suited to be a slave. Anyone who asks of the family anything other than itself—that is, anything other than a natural, lifelong bond of man and woman with the essential purpose of bringing children into the world and raising them to love God and serve their fellows—will find it impossible to overcome the plethora of contrary desires and goals our atomistic society tells young people they must have and indulge. No policy based on such a vision can bring anything but disappointment.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[1] http://www.ocregister.com/articles/families-671094-children-social.html

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email