What is the family? In what manner should one view and evaluate the various models that exist bearing this designation?
In order to finally arrive at the most honest and fitting answers to questions as thorny as these, we must first turn to several other questions: What are the family’s primary purposes? In conjunction with this, can only certain family forms fulfill these purposes? Or can even the most seemingly aberrant and divergent forms serve to accomplish them?
The first of these questions is the simplest to address. It is demonstrable that in various ages, cultures, and contexts, the family has consistently been considered the institution necessary for generating, supporting, and readying its individual members for participation within the larger society. The origin of members within families has often been biological in nature, but this clearly is not the only manner in which families can assume new members and develop. Since adoption, surrogacy, and bond-forming are all possible paths for individuals’ incorporation into families, it is most accurate to view the family as a socially-arranged unit as opposed to purely a biologically-arranged one. Families may simply include individuals who have prolonged emotional connections with one another, regularly interacting and communicating as opposed to merely being irregular acquaintances.
Whatever the manner in which families are formulated, they have always emerged for particular reasons. Economic theorist Ludwig von Mises perfectly relates these in his classic treatise Human Action:
Family life is not merely a product of sexual intercourse. It is by no means natural and necessary that parents and children live together in the way in which they do in the family. The mating relation need not result in a family organization. The human family is an outcome of thinking, planning, and acting . . . The mystical experience of communion or community is not the source of societal relations, but their product (167).
Families, then, have emerged in society because individuals seek to somehow be in community with one another. It is important that Mises adds the distinction that humans forming families does not necessarily follow the birth of children. Rather, it is a conscious decision on the part of human individuals to incorporate any children into a social community. Drawing from Mises’s original description, it is also crucial to note that a family does not even require children in any sense to be categorized as such. Having a family only requires at least two individuals who have a special, conscious form of relationship where those individual’s responsibilities for one another are heightened. This is the most important distinction to be made between families and casual relationships.
In arriving at a definition of the family, it is also vital to recognize that the confines and boundaries of “families” are not determined by nation states or any other power structures. To be sure, such factors may have enormous influence. But the designs of families themselves are established by the very individuals who make them up. That this is the case is reflected in the steady evolution of family law, where social realities can be demonstrated to regularly set precedents for legal responses—although, of course, the origin of legal measures has often been in tandem with reigning ideologies, whether they be sexist or classist or racist. The diversifying of family law has also had the important effect of encouraging the maintenance of all families, not the quenching of some forms in order to promote particular others.
Yet there are still various factors that have led to oppression of individuals and undermined the aforementioned conception of family. First, there are spurious claims to traditionalism among social conservatives, particularly in their maintaining the notion of a 1950s nuclear family ideal as universal and long-standing. Their regular rhetorical and legal warring against all other family forms ultimately undermines and ignores the majority of families. It does not truly preserve anything, least of all a tradition which was never actually much of a tradition at all. There is also the matter of direct state intervention in the family, which has invariably resulted in the monopolization of idealized relationship forms over purportedly less-desired ones. For instance, Judith Stacey describes in Unhitched how some of the early American colonies sought to suppress “interracial intimacy” (7), thus preventing such families from even coming into being without facing officially-sanctioned harassment and persecution. In the vast majority of modern countries, too, options for gay partners and same-sex parents have oftentimes been limited or even completely barred by default. Stacey also demonstrates how the Maoist government’s forced dissolution of Mosuo families in the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, under the guise of “liberation,” severely jeopardized their existence (156-61).
Even today, we are still living in a world where scores of governments have preserved a privileged, heterosexual married class, one which receives thousands of benefits and subsidies to the exclusion of other familial arrangements. One example of a slight loosening of this in the United States was the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which declared all state same-sex marriage bans to be unconstitutional. Quite arbitrarily, there are still no such protections in the U.S. for any relationships where the number of partners is greater than two.
The primary reason that such legal monopoly privilege has been afforded to particular family forms over time is that they are consistently upheld as the most “natural” or “necessary.” Even allowing additional family arrangements to exist and flourish is held to be too dangerous for societies, for adult individuals, and for their children. The proponents of restrictions on families maintain that we would be inviting too many negative consequences to expand the confines of freedom in family forms, allowing countless varieties of divergent parenting styles, alternative sexual practices, or unusual kinship paradigms to populate so many households and influence so much of society’s approaches to family law.
On the other hand, the fairest and most reasonable approach is to maintain that, in an ideally free society, any family form that is voluntarily arranged and does not cause objective harm toward or undermine another’s life, liberty, or property should be decriminalized. Anything less than this is arbitrary. It is morally suspect. Even more than this, it is tyrannical.
“But these alternative families aren’t ideal,” the detractors will still argue.
But neither is the current state of affairs ideal. It is a reality in which families can be split apart and denied equality under the law because of a monopolistic regime where the most ideologically-favored family forms maintain the greatest privilege. We often see this played out in immigration policies, where only those who pay a fee and obtain the correct identification cards are deemed worthy of staying with their family members (Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco 281). Journalist Rachel Aviv even discusses how culturally-relative parenting styles could be used as a precedent for Child Protective Services removing children from a legitimate guardian, as was the case with Niveen Ismail in Huntington Beach, California (Aviv).
Arriving at the most honest and appropriate response to the so-called “problem” of family diversity begins with acknowledging that it is not, in fact, a problem at all. As family law theorist Linda C. McClain affirms, “A diversity approach to parenthood begins with recognition of the fact of diversity in patterns of family life in contemporary society” (47). In a freer society without such impediments, we would see all sorts of family arrangements competing on the open market without coercive state interference. Certainly, this type of situation would place the burden on any defender of a particular family form over others to demonstrate its superiority. The orthodox and the heterodox alike would need to be legitimately sold to willing, accepting individuals and not foisted upon them as a result of limited choice.
Primarily, the first approach toward entering a new era of familyhood is to begin eliminating the monopoly protections that exist for any and all family forms. This is a matter of getting the state out of not only the marriage business, as authors like Judith Stacey, Martha Albertson Fineman, and Nancy D. Polikoff have advocated, but also getting them entirely out of the romance and relationship business.
Some will further insist that government programs—which are sustained only by forced money collection and concealed debt accumulation—are the only way to ensure the integrity of families in the long run. But this idea is just as foolish as a tongue-in-cheek suggestion of Julian Adorney in The Freeman, that governments should regulate dating with certification and licensing to protect people from ever entering into poor relationships (6-7). Even beyond the philosophical difficulties in this claim, we know that the historical record of government family maintenance has been unsteady at best. In her book The Way We Really Are, for instance, historian Stephanie Coontz points out that it was only the “job programs and family subsidies” (43) of the 1950s that ever allowed that decade’s atypical nuclear family ideal to be sustained. This is an especially problematic point for social conservatives, who curiously rely on the state to enforce their own strain of family values even while disparaging it in their rhetoric. Since the existence of the supposedly “natural” dual-parent, stay-at-home-mother household depends on specific political and economic factors, even this idealized family form is vulnerable to wild fluctuation because of government involvement. Even a more “progressive” notion, that governments should provide child daycare, is rooted in the frightening ideology of a guardian state; the power structures of the state, after all, have long enabled a system of patriarchy and indoctrination to prosper undaunted. Such government programs also have the net effect of disempowering families by indebting them to another holding the purse strings.
Many will still make the mistaken assertion that allowing multiple familial options would require total moral and philosophical approval of every form. But even McClain is careful to maintain that “the fact of greater family diversity does not translate into accepting or valuing all such diversity” (49). This, again, suggests an open market analogy. It would be just as true to say that desiring a great deal of choice in a store’s product offering does not entail that customers must buy absolutely everything, if even anything at all. While a nuclear conception of the family with opposite-sexed parents—one of whom is a breadwinner—and two biological children might reign supreme, this would not at all have to be the case. Perhaps, in the context of a society with markedly higher economic hardships and lower purchasing power than in past generations, as many countries have, a more egalitarian or polyamorous family form could rise to prominence. In any case, a thoroughly freed market of family forms would incontrovertibly allow for the most beneficial and desired arrangements to emerge the most victorious in the public stadium.
Regardless of the specific family forms that may appear in a given society, they will always and inevitably fulfill the original purposes for which familyhood exists. Even from the beginning of civilization, human beings have found it necessary to reject “individual autarky,” as Spanish historian and theorist Faustino Ballvé relates, in favor of “the household economy of the individual family” (11) as a basic economic unit. There is not a single configuration that has been deemed family in this entire essay—even those who are regularly purported to “threaten” the family—that does not live up to satisfying this pivotal social need. Despite this, however, there are numerous forces under the cover of political authority that have regularly been shown to weaken and compromise it.
Adorney, Julian. “Regulate the Dating Market: A Modest Proposal for Romantic Justice.” The Freeman Summer 2015: 6-7. Print.
Aviv, Rachel. “Where Is Your Mother?” The New Yorker. N.p., 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Ballvé, Faustino. Essentials of Economics: A Brief Survey of Principles and Policies. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1963. Print.
Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families. New York: Basic Books, 1997. Print.
McClain, Linda C. “A Diversity Approach to Parenthood in Family Life and Family Law.” What Is Parenthood?. Ed. Linda C McClain and Daniel Cere. New York: NYU Press, 2013. Print.
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action. Auburn Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008. Print.
Stacey, Judith. Unhitched. New York: New York University Press, 2011. Print.
Suárez-Orozco, Carola and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco. “Transnationalism of the Heart: Familyhood Across Borders.” What Is Parenthood?. Ed. Linda C. McClain and Daniel Cere. New York: NYU Press, 2013. Print.