How Ideas Of The Family Evolve Alongside Culture, Politics, And Law

Bill Frezza Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
Font Size:

Ever since widespread access to birth control and abortion made biological motherhood optional, and the welfare state severely eroded the economic responsibilities of fatherhood, Western Civilization has been struggling to redefine the family. In that context, the recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage should be seen as a milestone on the way to a yet unknown destination, rather than a terminal event. 

The nuclear family arose from Darwinian reproductive strategies long before anything we would call civilization emerged. It persisted through thousands of years of recognized history largely because it worked. Every culture that tried to supplant the nuclear family failed. So far.

When trying to formulate a modern theory of the family compatible with the expanded role of government, people have sought guidance from the Bible, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Ayn Rand, and others. I’d like to suggest another sage we might learn from. The late science fiction author Robert Heinlein. 

Although Heinlein’s book Stranger in a Strange Land, with its depictions of free love and radical individualism, is more celebrated, many consider The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be his most profound work. On the surface, the 1966 novel is about a revolt on a lunar colony. Heinlein deftly uses this rollicking space opera as a canvas to explore numerous themes, including just governance, the art of diplomacy, the power of mass media, the rise of artificial intelligence, the nature of humor, and most interestingly the evolution of the family.

Shaped by an initial gender imbalance when the Moon was first populated as a penal colony (modeled on 19th century Australia), radical new family forms emerged. Many of these were polyandrous, including group marriages. Heinlein also invented what he called a line marriage, which bears some scrutiny because it highlights the fundamental economic foundations of marriage.

Like a modern corporation, a line marriage is potentially immortal. New young spouses are added as old ones die, making these families multi-generational. Some property is held in common and some individually, as defined by the particular family’s charter. Heinlein, reputedly a bit of a pervert, reveled in describing these families’ various permutations and combinations of sexual relations. Though he died 30 years ago at a ripe old age, nothing in today’s sexual smorgasbord would have shocked him.

My objective is not to promote any of these innovations, or rail against them. It is, rather, to point out potential political consequences of what can happen when the family is freed from its biological chains while the state takes on ever more responsibility for raising the next generation. Because as family forms evolve under the pressure of these new and powerful forces, a parade of social out-groups will inevitably use the levers of politics and media to clamor for recognition, equal protection, and their share of entitlement spoils.

If we are not to be riven by a constant culture war — a situation that plays into the hands of an activist left in perpetual search for group grievances to distract from their disastrous economic policies — social conservatives had better start playing a smarter game. Trying to defend a democratic society from its own choices is a fool’s errand. The best you can do is to defend your own families and communities from the depredations of the mob. And you’d better come up with a good strategy soon, because the mob will undoubtedly be coming after recalcitrant churches with a vengeance once they finish celebrating this round of victories.

There are only two logically sustainable positions on marriage. The first is the classic “that government governs best which governs least” approach, which is to get the state out of the business of licensing marriages altogether. Imagine, for example, a constitutional amendment that reads “Congress shall make no law that differentiates citizens on the basis of marital status.” That is, make everyone equal before the law, treating each person as an individual in matters of entitlements, taxation, inheritance, and all other matters. Family law would then become a matter of contracts, with the definition of “family” being whatever mutually consenting adults specify in writing when they register their contract with the state, just as shareholders register a corporation.

The second option is to acquiesce to a totally permissive, government-driven marriage licensing regime. This means immediate recognition of polygamous marriages and the ultimate recognition of group marriages, line marriages, annual renewable marriages, and whatever else the mind of man concocts. I suspect conservatives will find this anything-goes approach less palatable than withdrawing from the field altogether. But it’s exactly where this steamroller is headed, so what profit is there lying down in front of it?

In either case, social and religious conservatives can best defend traditional marriage by retreating to their church communities, putting their energy where it belongs — defending religious freedom and toleration for the shrinking minority they’ve become. Rainbow liberals can then live and let live without being enlisted as shock troops in the progressive political machine, making up their own minds on the far more important economic and foreign policy issues that face our nation.