In a recent panel discussion entitled: “The Future of Marriage in America,” three panelists, Wade HornJennifer Marshall, and Heather MacDonald, explored marital trends in the U.S. over the past several decades, and offered insights into the possible ramifications on the family of such phenomena as the rising median age of marriage or the growing percentage of cohabiting couples having children out of wedlock. Studies have shown that the well-being of marriage and the family carries large consequences for children and for the economy, but the Heritage Foundation’s Jennifer Marshall offered an additional warning when she cautioned, “If we want a limited government … conservatives need to stand for the family.” Marshall’s statement draws on the idea that the family, as the basic unit of society, is also a bulwark against big government. If the family, extended and immediate, is failing in its fundamental duty to lead members to care for one another, the government will step in to fill that vacuum. Subsequently, as the state grows in power and increasingly provides for citizens’ material needs, the need for the family is diminished.

Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw the danger of weakening family ties in democratic societies when he wrote:

In [the past] man almost always knows about his ancestors and respects them; his imagination extends to his great-grandchildren and he loves them…in democratic ages on the contrary, the duties of each to all are much clearer but devoted service to any individual much rarer. The bonds of human affection are wider but more relaxed…they form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation

For generations, raising a family was a community venture with young families rallying together for support and family members pitching in to help with new children. The extended family was the bedrock, and was the first source one looked to when in need, whether for a loan to purchase a new home or merely for someone to watch the children for an evening. Boys and girls learned generosity and duty at the knee of the generations who raised them, and it was within this thriving sense of community where virtues of civil society were first instilled into children. Unfortunately, the highly individualistic tendencies of democracy that Tocqueville warned of have taken firm hold in the past several decades, and the importance of the extended family has thus been significantly de-emphasized. Since the Industrial Revolution, and most especially in the Northeast, young men and women move away from home towards the city in large numbers, determined to earn their independence and make their way. Once they’ve done so, they often settle down to raise their families far removed from their own parents, grandparents, and ancestral roots, resulting in the rise of the nuclear family structure over a multigenerational one.

Now, the effects of individualism are piercing even the nuclear level of the family. As noted in the 2013 “Knot Yet” report issued by UVA’s National Marriage Project, marriage and children are no longer considered the cornerstone upon which we must build a life. Rather, they are seen as capstone achievements, only to be embarked upon when all the risks have been carefully calculated and calibrated, and individual measures of success will be augmented. Once we’ve attained the ideal degree, job, and house, then we can tack on a spouse and 1.7 children. Consequently, the family is now built upon—and oriented around—individual aspirations, and the expectations of having a family support system are continuing to shrink further.

To grasp the full scope of this societal shift, one need look no further than the expenditures of the U.S. government on the care of children and the elderly. Where once the broader community of the extended family could be counted on to help with the raising of children, including feeding and educating them, now many parents rely on government tax deductions and childcare services. Even in the nuclear family, aging parents who could at one time have depended on moving in with their grown children now rely on Social Security, a program that at least in part supplants the cyclical pattern in which the young members of society care for the old who once tended to them.

The reality is, that to prevent the further atomizing of U.S. society on this most basic level, families need to reclaim the role they once had in each other’s lives. The “capstone” model must be replaced by the “cornerstone” notion of old, which acknowledges that the nuclear family is a social foundation, not the crowning achievement of individual success. Marshall’s fellow panelist, Heather MacDonald, said in her opening remarks: “No government program can substitute for the love, guidance, and stability that parents provide.”

At best, even the most well-intentioned government programs can only be a shallow imitation of the unconditionally loving communities which should form the lifeblood of civil society. Parents must reinstate the importance of the extended family in the raising of their children, and society must reinvigorate the weakening links that once supported the virtues of familial obligation, instead of passively accepting the state as a suitable replacement.

Kelly Thomas is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.