How government colonizes the family

By Stephen Baskerville

In 1947, with the baby boom in its infancy and few disposed to hearing of family crisis, Harvard sociologist Carle Zimmerman saw the long-term reality: the family had been deteriorating since the Renaissance and was nearing the point of no return. Whenever the family shows signs of dysfunction, Zimmerman observed, “the state helps to break it up.” During the 19th century, “law piled on law, and government agency upon government agency” until by 1900 “the state had become master of the family.” The result, he wrote in Family and Civilization, was that “the family is now truly the agent, the slave, the handmaiden of the state.”

Today we might regard 1947 as a golden age for the family. Without perceiving it, each generation has become acculturated to family deterioration and added to it. We now accept as normal what would have shocked our grandparents: cohabitation, illegitimacy, divorce, same-sex marriage, daycare, fast-food dinners. Indeed, shocking the previous generation is part of the thrill of filial rebellion.

What should shock even the liberal and the young—but today does not much disturb even the conservative and the old—are destruction of constitutional protections and invasions of personal freedom and privacy by the government’s family machinery. Some four decades ago, the Western world embarked on the boldest social experiment in its history. With no public discussion, laws were enacted in virtually every jurisdiction that ended marriage as an enforceable contract. Today it is not possible to form a binding agreement to create a family.

Few stopped to consider the implications of laws that shifted the breakup of private households from a voluntary to an involuntary process. Unilateral divorce involves government agents forcibly removing legally innocent people from their homes and seizing their property. It inherently abrogates not only the inviolability of marriage but the very concept of private life.

The most serious consequences involve children. Through involuntary divorce, a legally unimpeachable parent can be arrested for seeing his own children without government authorization. He can be charged with domestic violence or child abuse, without evidence that he has committed either crime. He can be hauled before a judge for not paying child support without proof that he actually owes it. He can even be arrested for not paying an attorney or psychotherapist whom he has not hired. No formal charge, no jury, no trial required.

To justify this repression, the divorce machinery has generated hysterias against fathers so inflammatory that few dare question them: child abuse, wife-beating, nonpayment of child support. The accused parent simply loses his family and finds himself abandoned, with everyone terrified to be associated with an accused “pedophile,” “batterer,” or “deadbeat dad.”

Our passivity before repression this serious is stunning and the starkest example yet of the erosion of that civic virtue that has been integral to American political thought since before the founding of the Republic.

Conservatives have labored this idea into a cliché. We preach that people must be more virtuous, less selfish, and more devoted to the public good. But these exhortations earn us nothing but contempt when we remain silent in the face of real tyranny, which, as usual, has appeared where we least expected it and are least equipped to resist it. Instead of resisting, we lament a decline in “culture” and declare there is very little we can do.

But as Linda McClain writes, families are “seedbeds of civic virtue” and “have a place in the project of forming persons into capable, responsible, self-governing citizens.” The family is where parents and children learn to love sacrificially, to put others’ needs before their own desires, to sacrifice for the welfare and protection of the whole. If this does not begin with one’s own home and loved ones it, does not begin at all. People unwilling to sacrifice for their own flesh and blood will not do so for the strangers who comprise their country. In the family, children learn to obey authorities other than the state—God, parents, clergy, teachers, coaches, neighbors. By accepting these, some of whom they love, children learn that government is not the only authority and is one that can and must be limited.

Conservatives have recently been eager to declare marriage and the family to be “public” institutions, largely in response to homosexual insistence that families are purely private and therefore may be defined according to the whims of individuals. But it is more precise to say that the family mediates between the public and the private, ensuring each its proper sphere. In the family children learn to distinguish and defend private life from encroachment by public power. Involvement in public affairs, which is important, begins as an extension of private responsibilities as parents, homeowners, neighbors, and parishioners. Citizens participate in public life as amateurs with a stake in their families, homes, and communities, not as professionals with a stake in a government program or ideology.

Children raised without intact families do not as readily absorb concepts such as family privacy, sacrificial love, parental authority, limited government, or civic virtue. For their rules and values come not from parents but from government officials, who have ultimate sovereignty over their lives: courts, lawyers, social workers, forensic therapists, public-school bureaucrats, and police. These are the figures they must obey rather than their parents. Thus children whose authority figures are government officials cannot distinguish the private from the public and come to see the public sphere as a realm not of civic duty and community leadership but of abstract ideology, government funding, professional employment, career advancement, and state power, in whose growth they acquire a vested interest.

It is no accident that the traditional family is described as patriarchal and that civic virtue traditionally suggested masculinity. It is also no coincidence that fathers are the ones marginalized by family decline.

Enormous attention has been devoted to the crisis of 24 million fatherless children, a phenomenon directly linked to every major social pathology from violent crime to substance abuse and truancy. Because these ills justify almost all domestic government spending, fatherlessness has resulted in a huge expansion of state power. The Obama administration aims to promote virtue with programs preaching “responsible fatherhood” and nagging men to practice “good fathering.” The Bush administration used similar schemes to argue for the importance of marriage. The result is the same: bewailing other people’s moral failings at taxpayer expense.

There is certainly truth in the connection between fatherhood and civil society. “Fathers play a key role in developing and sustaining the kind of personal character on which democracy depends,” writes Don Eberly of the National Fatherhood Initiative. Government therapy, on the other hand, cannot create virtue because it requires no sacrifice. Federal funding only gives officials incentives to perpetuate problems, so it is hardly surprising that not only have these programs done nothing to improve either fatherhood or marriage, they have exacerbated the breakdown of both.

Eberly’s point connecting fathers and freedom contains a larger truth. While families require sacrifice from all members, it is fathers whose sacrifice may extend to their very lives. Children deprived of their fathers by state officials therefore lose more than a parent. They lose the parent who connects them with the civic order. When the father protects and provides for his family, he will resist the state’s efforts to assume those roles. Under his leadership, the family is a force for limiting state power.

The single mother does not resist the state’s encroachment. On the contrary, she is our society’s principal claimant on a vast array of state services, without which she cannot manage her children. When the state usurps the roles of protector and provider and disciplinarian, the state becomes the father.

This is the story of modern politics: increasingly centralized police, plus the regulatory and welfare states that also promise various forms of protection. These paternal—and increasingly maternal—substitutes brought massive bureaucracies, fulfilling Tocqueville’s prophecy that democracy would lead to increasingly bureaucratic intrusion into private life. These agencies expanded by creating problems to solve. As police functionaries, they had to create criminals and newfangled, nonviolent crimes that most people (such as juries) could not understand and required “experts” to adjudicate—crimes that were safe for female police, crimes that could be committed only by men.

Fathers whose children are taken away by state officials do not heroically rescue them or organize opposition to the divorce machinery because the enervating power of the bureaucratic behemoth makes resistance pointless. Men are thus politically neutered and, as a result, often despised by their own children and the rest of us.

That most people do not regard these practices as tyrannical may be the most alarming aspect of all. Government agents seize control of children and property of vast numbers of law-abiding citizens through literally “no fault” of their own, and we accept it because of jargon that makes it all appear banal: “custody battle” and “division of property.” Fidelity to one’s word—let alone one’s spouse—is disdained. Basic civilities become irrelevant because family members can be made to obey through court orders. Family wealth—traditionally used to leverage both obedience from children and limits on government—is useless for both purposes. In divorce it is simply confiscated.

So vast numbers of children now grow up believing from the earliest age that it is normal for government officials to assume control over their family life, to order their parents about as if they were naughty children. This is causing more than social chaos. It is destroying our freedom and our will to defend it.

Stephen Baskerville is associate professor of government at Patrick Henry College and author of Taken into Custody: The War Against Fatherhood, Marriage, and the Family. A longer version of this essay will appear in The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.