How to Revive the American Family

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The American political Right is broken into two major factions. One emphasizes family values, tradition and ordered liberty, the other focuses on personal choice and a more expansive notion of freedom. But both groups need to gain a better understanding of America's cultural roots.

Conservatives who emphasize "family values" are certainly right that American family life is a big part of what makes us what we are. Our families have been the foundation of our freedom and our entire way of life. The English type of family, which became the American type of family, is different in many essential ways from the type of families that were found in neighboring European countries, let alone communities located farther away.

The family type we have in the U.S. is technically called the Absolute Nuclear Family. It has existed for about a thousand years in England, and it was then transported across the Atlantic and rooted in North America. Its features include: (1) adult children choose their own spouses, without arranged marriages, (2) adult children leave their parents home to form a new, independent family in a new home, (3) the parents do not have a duty to leave their property to any child, and they may sell it during their lives or leave it by will to anyone they choose, (4) children have no duty to provide for their parents, and (5) extended families are weak and have no control over personal decisions.

This almost-unique type of family life has been hugely important. The underlying Anglo-American family type was the foundation for all of the institutions, laws, and cultural practices that gave rise to our freedom and prosperity over the centuries. Compared to people elsewhere, Americans tend to value liberty over equality of outcome, to be enterprising and competitive, to move far and often for work and housing, to be suspicious or hostile toward government power, to engage in voluntary rather than coerced collective action.

Yet this aspect of American family life is little known even to its defenders. Most American conservatives, even those who believe in "family values," have no idea how unusual the American family has been, compared to the rest of the world. Nor do they realize how important the American type of nuclear family has been in making us what we are. In other words, American conservatives have failed to fully understand what they are trying to conserve.

On the other hand, the foundation of the freedom that libertarians prize, and that conservatives want to conserve, is the nuclear family as it has developed over many centuries in the English-speaking world. To many people, this history and its central importance will not be welcome news. Many freedom-loving Americans oppose what they see as traditional values regarding sexual morality, and have a visceral dislike for religion and its rules, they find (or imagine) churchgoing people to be boring and bigoted, and they recoil from people who use the word "family" when they talk about political issues. If many Americans cling to their God and their guns, libertarians only like the guns part. But our free institutions have grown up on this family foundation. In other words, American libertarians failed to understand the historical foundations of the liberty they prize so highly.

A clearer understanding of this little-known history could make stronger, more effective, and more congenial allies out of conservatives and libertarians. We hope this knowledge will spread more widely. We need both schools of thought to help us build a better future.

Of course, the historical roots of the American family appear to be eroding rapidly in recently decades. We are in the midst of rapid and even chaotic change in family life in America. By many objective measures, and by simple observation, the world has been turned upside down in recent decades. The birth control pill, a transformative technology on the scale of the steam engine, was a cultural supernova whose blast is still ongoing, and whose effects are still impossible to estimate. Effective antibiotics, which reduced the risk and virulence of venereal disease, had a related and compounding effect. Other changes include:

  • the liberation of women from back-breaking domestic work because of the electrification of the home and advances in power machinery,
  • the move of many women out of the house and into the cash economy,
  • the dissolution of traditional family life,
  • the legality and widespread use of abortion,
  • the sweeping impact of no-fault divorce,
  • the effect of fragmented families on several generations of American children,
  • the social acceptance of single motherhood,
  • the appearance of a political and cultural movement demanding civil rights and marriage for gay people, and
  • the rise of ubiquitous pornography on the Internet.

These and other developments have changed or undermined the family as it was known to Americans two or three generations ago, and for centuries before that. Each of these phenomena is apparently at odds with our belief that an Anglo-American style of nuclear family will continue to be a major determinant of culture and institutions in America. In fact, in light of this onslaught, which occurred over the course of barely two generations, it is amazing that the American family has survived as well as it has, at least as an aspiration for many people.

We expect that the momentum built up over many centuries is likely to continue for some time to come. In all communities we know of political attitudes are shaped by old family patterns that are no longer as pervasive as they were. People's expectations are shaped by upbringing, language, institutions, and unconscious patterns of behavior that take centuries to form.

It is too early to say where the many novel developments we are living through now will ultimately lead. We are in the early decades of changes so massive, not only in family life but in technology and politics, that no one can possibly predict how it will all play out. But although there will continue to be changes to the American family, we do not expect to see a total break with the past. Our attitudes and expectations are still shaped by centuries of continuity, and these are likely to evolve but not disappear entirely for a long time to come.

Furthermore, the prospect of a reassertion or revival of family life along more traditional American lines, either generally or among self-selecting communities, is certainly possible in the decades ahead. Patterns of radical change followed by partial retrenchment have happened before and may do so again. Notably, the wealthier and more successful families in America, whatever their professed beliefs, tend to stay married and live fairly disciplined lives. If they begin to preach what they practice more than they do, we may see a reversal of some of these anti-family trends. Further, the unhealthy consequences of masses of out of wedlock births and the hardships suffered by single parents and their children are undeniable. A backlash is certainly possible.

The process of Americans sorting themselves out into communities that are more culturally and politically homogeneous, which is underway now, will also likely continue. In that case, there may be a patchwork pattern of self-selected communities that are more strongly influenced by the traditional family and its culture, whereas others evolve in different directions. Those who want to follow different paths, personally or by voluntary association, will increasingly demand to be allowed to do so and to adopt their own community standards. It's a big continent. There is room for all of us. And the appeal and success, or lack of it, of each community will tell over time. Also, more traditional families, and more religiously observant ones, tend to have more children than others. As a result, more traditional families may inherit the Earth over a few generations through a steady demographic shift.

Despite many current troubles the future will be bright for the United States. We are not in a period of decline, but a period of transformation. America has already once made a change on the scale what is happening now. That was when it transformed itself from the rural and agrarian society of the founding era -- which James Bennett and I call America 1.0 -- to the urban and industrial society that peaked in the mid-20th century -- which we call America 2.0. That earlier transition, from roughly 1860 to 1920, was more painful than most people think. Yet the transformed, industrial America became the wonder of the world.

The American political and economic regime now in crisis was built for the world of America 2.0. Today, we are in the midst of a dramatic transition to a new technological and political configuration -- which we call America 3.0. Institutions that once looked permanent are cracking at the foundations. Technology will drive the transition, and the shape of future technology can be known at most in broad outline.

As the 2.0 state fails, we are seeing increasing awareness, urgency, and activism in response to a deepening crisis. The emerging America 3.0 will reverse several key characteristics of the 2.0 state: decentralization versus centralization; diversity and voluntarism rather than compulsion and uniformity; emergent solutions from markets and voluntary networks rather than top-down, elite-driven commands. Strong opposition to the rise of America 3.0 is inevitable, including heavy-handed, abusive, and authoritarian attempts to prop up the existing order.

But this "doubling down" approach is doomed. It is incompatible with both the emerging technology and the underlying cultural framework that will predominate in America 3.0. It is imperative that conservatives and libertarians begin formulating policies and reforms to adapt our government institutions to these changes, including an orderly dismantling of the legacy state we inherited from industrial era America. We cannot merely oppose the destructive rear-guard actions of the inaptly named "progressives." We need to aggressively and creatively develop and promote policy initiatives of our own. An awareness of the cultural foundations of America, and the fact that we have made one major transition already, should help to develop policies which will work for us in the future.

In our book, we speculate about politics, economics and technology in the years ahead. We did not try to predict religious revivals or re-awakenings. Such events do occur in history, and they have fundamentally reshaped the world, but they are impossible to predict. The appearance of great religious leaders, of saintly men and women, of the Holy Spirit moving people in new ways, happens on a schedule, and follow a logic, that only God can understand.

Nonetheless, the historical record does give one hint: Major religious movements often happen at times of social upheaval. The United States is now embarking on a period of massive and transformative change. Old ways of life will be uprooted, and some of the changes will be wrenching. People will need to look within themselves, and outward to God, for the strength to adapt and to build a new and better America for themselves and their families.

We believe America's greatest days are yet to come. We focused on the freedom and prosperity we hope to see in the decades ahead when we reached that conclusion. But getting to a better America 3.0 will be hard. It may be that the new era we are entering, especially the transition phase immediately before us, will provide fertile soil for a flowering of religious faith, of charity and kindness toward our fellow citizens, and a revival of family love and loyalty. May God grant that it will be so.

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