Karl Gallagher (libertarianhawk) wrote,
Karl Gallagher

  • Mood:

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:

  Inherited Obligation Negotiated Commitment
Abortion Duty to raise children Relationships must be voluntary
Gun Control A gun is part of the duty to protect your family A gun coerces someone into a bad relationship
Gay Marriage A husband's duties must be done by a man. A wife's duties must be done by a woman. Two adults should be free to do as they want
Welfare Encourages people to abandon their family obligations Keeps people from being coerced into bad relationships

Clearly the difference between the models is a spectrum, with polyamorists at the NC end and those practicing arranged marriages at the other. NC people often use the IO model as "menu" to start from. There's always been pressure for people in IO families to break out and make their own choices. Lots of great literature has come from it. My favorite is Fiddler On the Roof. The plots are driven by the daughters seeking to negotiate exceptions to their inherited obligations, which shakes Tevye the point where he tries to renegotiate his relationship with his wife in "Do You Love Me?"

The IO and NC models don't describe everyone. Muder is conflating two variables in defining them. Deciding to negotiate your own relationships doesn't require you to trust in the government. Nor is avoiding government support inherent in having predefined roles. There's really two different issues here. People can define their own roles or have them assigned by tradition or government decree. Separately, the responsibility for taking care of people can rest with individuals or the state. If we graph that we see four options rather than Muder's two:

    Individual State
Roles Defined
Inherited Obligation
New Soviet Man
Negotiated Commitment

[This looks much like other diagrams people use to display political views.]

Those are ranges, of course. Few libertarians favor letting the unlucky starve to death and few liberals want the government to fund every insane concept out there. But I want to separate out the issues to make it clear that there's more choices available than the ones Muder discussed. It also shows why I worry about giving more power to the government. Britain is already contemplating using the power of the National Health Service to decree who can and can't be parents, I'd hate to see how the power to assign roles could be abused by a stronger government.

My personal views are clearly on the "Negotiated Roles" side. I've even predicted the success of gay marriage and polyamory over the long term based on the trends I've seen. The IO family has a functional purpose in protecting people from starvation through mutual reliance, but as our society becomes richer there's less need for that. At the same time the chance to enjoy new relationships, or move elsewhere for business reasons, pull people out of their IO connections. So I agree with Muder that the IO model is crumbling. But I'm not as sure as him that the NC model he presents is the best one possible.

I certainly think it's an important issue for us to debate. Muder and Frank focus much of their anger on poor and middle-class red-states who vote on cultural issues instead of supporting the liberal economic agenda which is intended to help them. I've never grasped why they assume everyone should base their votes on economic issues instead of cultural ones. George Soros isn't voting his pocketbook. If we had a proportional representation voting system Kansas farmers could cast their vote for a socially-conservative, economically-liberal party. As it is they have to pick one of the two parties we've got. [And as an aside, some people vote against liberal economic proposals because they think they won't work, not because they hate poor people] So they have to choose which issues to base their vote on. The cultural issues aren't as settled as Muder would like them to. We need to make some important decisions about them as a nation. What kind of families do we want to support?

Muder makes a point of the high divorce rate among "red" families as something that can be used to highlight the superiority of NC over IO. But a divorce means something very different in each system. In IO it means someone has failed in meeting his/her obligations, either trying to run away from them or recognizing that a partner has failed so utterly that they have to be cut loose. This is "fault based" divorce. The innocent newly single person stays in the church and gets sympathy about what a louse the ex was. This is seen as a deviation from the ideal because of one person's failings.

In an NC divorce, there's no "wronged" party. It's simply another change in the agreed commitments. People strive for amicable "good" divorces and avoid struggling over "custody of the friends." Gossip avoids blaming one member more than the other. To IO observers this looks like both members of the marriage failing in their obligations. If one was even trying she'd be trying to stir up some peer pressure to get him to remember his duties. It's an example that's making it worse for them by setting bad examples for the people tempted to abandon their marriages. To the IO model they aren't failing their marriages, they weren't married in the first place, and it casts doubt on what the marriages around them are like.

Conversely, a lot of NC marriages may be held together by social isolation. If you moved to the other coast for a new job and know no one there you're going to stick with your partner rather than be totally alone. IO spouses may feel freer to divorce because they have a network of other ties to fall back on.

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.
  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened