September 22nd, 2006


Visions of Families

Various people have been discussing an essay by Doug Muder. "Red Family, Blue Family" looks at the cultural clashes in America as a product of two different ways of structuring a family. Muder uses this to come up with a new approach for persuading lower income conservatives to support liberal issues.

First I want to think him for writing this article, one which looks at political opponents as reasonable people with different goals and assumptions about how the world works, not simply stupid or evil. He's also willing to acknowledge that his preferred policies have costs for other people and discuss the tradeoff in making decisions. This is the kind of civil discussion we need to have for healthy politics in this country.

I recommend reading the whole essay, but I'll describe his key points. "Red Families" work by the Inherited Obligation (IO) model. This is the traditional family, where everyone has duties assigned to them at birth to each of their relatives. This includes the duty to marry—and carry out the duties of a husband OR wife, as appropriate—and have kids to carry out your duties after you. The roles are defined so "husband" and "wife" each have specific duties to carry out and are not interchangeable with each other. There's no outside force picking up the slack, so if anyone falls down on the job the whole extended family suffers as they carry the load.

A "Blue Family" uses a Negotiated Commitment (NC) model. This allows the greatest possible freedom to all individuals. All relationships except with children are defined by the agreement of the participants. Children must be taken care of but this is a gift, with no reciprocal obligations laid on the child. Any set-up is fine as long as everyone involved is happy. Since some people can't create relationships, or have existing ones fail, the government has to provide a safety net to take care of them.

This model does a good job of explaining how the parties break down on our hot-button political issues:
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Muder wants to have the relative success of IO and NC families judged by statistics of social problems—divorce, teen pregnancy, crime, etc. But since he's a liberal it's safe to assume he's opposed to Creationism and Intelligent Design. Let's look at how IO and NC compare in evolutionary terms. IO families have a much higher birth rate. It's one of their duties. They're doing it well—the states supporting Bush had much higher birth rates than Kerry's supporters did.

NC families are much more likely to have one or no children. Muder explained at length why he and his wife have no children. But that means the blue states have to sustain their populations through converting immigrants to their way of life (Maybe all those farm subsidies to the red states are intended to encourage having more children who'll go to liberal universities and never go home). Even with converting people who grew up in IO families and accepting most of the immigrants from overseas the blue states have been losing the population race with the red ones. This shows up in the reapportionment after each census. Western Europe is doing even worse with the NC model—they're not having children and taking in immigrants who refuse to assimilate.

If we were looking at a struggle for survival between two species wanting the same habitat the odds would seem to favor the red one. Regardless of how enlightened the blue critters may be, if they don't have kids they're on the path to extinction. For people who teach evolution so fervently they sure don't practice it.

I'm unhappy about that. I like the NC model. I think it's made my life much happier than it would be otherwise, and I want to give my children the freedom to improve their lives. I don't think we can go back to the IO model either. IO is designed for people who are born into it. Immigrants have had to build ties when moving to a new land, which is why it's so common for people from IO cultures to form tight clusters with people from the same country (as my grandparents did with other Irish immigrants in Islip, NY). Churches and fraternal organizations provided meeting places and reinforcement for those bonds. But the Masons and other fraternal orders are greying and many churches are losing membership. The old structures aren't surviving as more people shift to NC lives. And one people make that change they can't switch back. IO communities can lose their cohesion if they let in people they can't depend on, or who don't know all the unspoken rules. So people who grew up in NC communities, or moved to one as an adult, "can't go home again." It's an attractive idea—stories such as Where the Heart Is center on just that fantasy—but it's rare in practice. Megachurches are a modern attempt to try to create such communities but haven't been able to fight how the mobility of today breaks bonds apart.

I think we need to recognize that the Negotiated Commitment structure we have today is a transitional state. We have to come up with something new that assures that children and parents will be supported by their community. Enough support to give that culture an edge in the Darwinian competition.

There's a lot of exploring in making that happen—intentional community, polyamory, and other "family of choice" groups—but they're fighting uphill against the pressure pulling people apart. The internet lets us connect over long distances but to have mutual assistance that holds families together requires being there, in person, able to change a diaper or give someone a lift. When people form such bonds the greatest threat is someone being pulled away by a new job elsewhere. The more of an economic contribution someone can make to a community, the more likely he/she is to be yanked elsewhere. If we can move from the current big-company sit-in-the-office/factory model to one with more telecommuting and cottage industry I think we could have more healthy families.
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