Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Natural Family Manifesto and Liberalism

In the course of a conversation about liberalism, Caleb Stegall referred me to this Manifesto by Carlson and Mero, as an example of the type of position that he favors, and presumably that he considers non-liberal (since that is the context of the argument). I would recommend it highly.

I believe that Caleb considers this document to be non-liberal because it lists among its goals the limitation of certain "rights" that are currenly enjoyed by members of our American society, such as the right to abortion, to no-fault or easy divorce, and to government-sponsored daycare. If this is so, then I am decidedly non-liberal, as I endorse all the goals in this document. Furthermore, I would suggest that nearly all the folks he has accused of being incurably and unconsciously liberal would endorse this document and its goals. True libertarians, for sure, should have difficulty with this document. But it strikes me as odd that Caleb could have missed that most of those taking issue with him are on record elsewhere as opposing gay marriage, abortion, modern feminism, and divorce. The document's view of capitalism seems muddled; the authors seem to like small-scale, family-business capitalism but not large-scale, corporate and global capitalism. Some of his readers might disagree with the Family Wage concepts discussed therein, but I suspect that most would agree (again, including myself.)

My difficulty with Caleb may be that he seems to find fault with the modern liberal democracy in its processes, and does not distinguish this from its ends. He does not seem to like the process of sitting at a common table with representatives of antagonistic (to the goals of the Manifesto, for example) groups and foregoing coercive methods in favor of seeking consensus, seeming to believe that to procedurally grant equal discursive weight to contradictory beliefs or goals is tantamount to reducing those beliefs or goals to mere preferences or styles. If this is his view, and I am by no means certain that it is, it seems a willful ignorance about the depth of commitment by his blogging colleagues to many of these non-liberal, rights-limiting goals of political discourse and action.

This manifesto uses the formula, "We will...(recognize, allow, empower)." It nowhere states the mechanism by which these changes will be made. It is presumed that the Manifesto envisions such changes in the law of the land to occur through the processes of our modern liberal democracy. Interestingly, it traces the origin of our problem back to the French revolution, but not to our own. Is our own liberal democracy not deeply founded upon the thought of John Locke? It is undoubtedly so. If the Manifesto were to suggest that these changes are to take place through a military coup, or that after gaining political power through the means of liberal democracy we should abolish that democracy, and that process, in favor of rule by the church and an active suppression of dissenting opinion, then I would be against not the Manifesto's goals but its methodology. I see nothing in the Manifesto to suggest that it has anything but the highest regard for the process of modern liberal democracy. It merely makes the assertion that the smallest political unit is the family, not the individual.

This was actually the subject of one of my oral exams (which are really discussions led by the student) at St. John's: whether Locke's system requires the individual to be the smallest unit, or whether its account of government could be developed from some larger unit, such as a family or clan. It was my premise that it could be developed from a presumption of families or clans as the smallest unit. supported by the observation that Locke develops his sytem from individuals already organized as families (as opposed to Hobbes, who sees his state of nature as being mate-in-the-woods and move on.) For Locke, the family and clan were precursors of the larger state, very close to the state of nature, and not identical with the organization of the state of course. (He eschewed the argument for monarchy based on patriarchy). Nevertheless, all such formulations with the family as the smallest unit have difficulty comprehending the renegade individual. Just as biology, while recognizing the organism as a unit in some circumstances, must recognize the cell as a unit in many other circumstances. One cannot ignore the individual cell, simply because all larger tissues are, in one very important sense, simply organized collections of them. About half of us will die from the consequences of a single cell losing control of itself and escaping from the surveillance of the collective's systems to replicate itself, commandeer resources, and ultimately destroy the whole organization (cancer.)

Anyway, the Manifesto is an excellent document, somewhat simplistic perhaps in some of its macroeconomic ideas. The rights it proposes to curtail are not rights of access to the "public square", or to a "seat at the table", but only "rights" to behave in certain ways or to have one's property taxed or not taxed based on one's position in society and families. All this seems to me to be totally consistent with Locke's system, and hence with the modern liberal democracy, with the sole exception that this document asserts (though without working it out) that the family, not the individual, is the smallest political unit. Perhaps it is therefore crypto-patriarchal, but I don't think so. I'd like to see someone work through, as I tried at St. John's, a representative form of government based upon families. Would adult unmarried children vote? If so, would they have to vote like their father? Mother? If not, isn't this individualistic?

1 comment:

  1. I found some of the microeconomic ideas distressing as well. The idea of a housewife is a Victorian idea predicated on the very kind of extra-familial industrialized career employment they oppose. It also seems very historicist, in the sense that they assume that what went before is inherently better than what comes after. What is their metaphysic or ethic for saying that the family is and ought to be the center of the economy? It's a nice-sounding theory, but short on explanatory facts or argumentation.