The idea that democracy, the political organization we know and love, might be incompatible with—or worse, might gradually be undermining—the most intimate human organization we know and love, called “the family,” strikes most people as something close to heresy.
But is it?
When I presented this possibility to the World Congress of Families in Geneva in 1999, an awkward silence fell upon the room. No one moved or knew what to say. But 20 years later, I am persuaded more than ever of the Geneva argument, and I refresh it here for Epoch Times readers.
The Geneva Argument
Most of the disturbing changes in Western family life have to do with easily visible negative trends such as delayed marriage, falling birth rates, fatherless homes, poor single mothers, high divorce and abortion rates, and more. But research for my book “The War Against the Family” made it manifestly clear that, not far beneath the surface, there are invisible ideological forces rooted in the theory of democracy itself that are inimical to the formation and preservation of family life. That seems a little bizarre, so allow me to explain.
Every major modern democracy took root in the context of a protective faith culture where the good of all was foremost. They were “we” cultures in which the family was a near-sacramental institution rooted in privacy and freedom where natural human differences were expected to flourish. Equality before the law, and in the eyes of God, promised a fair starting line in the race of life, let the chips fall where they may. That was the dominant ideal, if not always met.
Accordingly, some families produced bright kids, some not so bright; some hard-working, some lazy; some rich, and some poor. As time passed, freedom and equality of opportunity produced a lot of successes. But a lot of distressing failures, too.
So the democracies of the West soon found themselves fretting over the possibility that by its very nature, a democracy will produce a permanent underclass. Freedom is not enough. Equality will have to be forced by the state. This meant the private family—proudly nourishing freedom, personal thriving, and natural differences—and the democratic state—nourishing forced equality—were on a collision course. They would be ideological enemies competing for citizen loyalty. Thus began the mutation of the Western democracies from their original equal start-line foundation to their present equal finish-line foundation.
It’s no secret that throughout history, states that seek to grow by way of forced equality do so by regulating, controlling, and weakening—sometimes by outlawing entirely—the various subordinate powers and rights of the free social groupings that constitute their own civil societies. They don’t want interference with the will of the state. Their objective—explicit in totalitarian systems, and subtly implicit in the softer forms of pervasive political regulation under which most of us now live—is to create a “national family” of equal citizens. Almost every national leader in the last century has used that expression.
The easiest way to understand how that is achieved is to think of the typical political ordering of a free people as having more to do with types of control than with degrees of freedom. Political reality may then be understood as a threefold structure:
1) At the top is the state, which relies on control of power and coercion through a monopoly of force exercised by law, police, courts, jails, and weapons. All citizens of the modern world are members of coercive political states when born. There is no escape, for there is no stateless state.
2) In the middle is civil society made up of countless groupings we call free civil “associations” (and which Edmund Burke called “little platoons”), which rely for control not of power, but of moral authority and persuasion (from parents, employers, clergy, teachers, coaches, officers of organizations, and so on). We are members by birth in some of these associations, such as our family and our religious group, and others we choose to join or to leave at will. Other than for things illegal, the coercion of power is never part of the daily life of a free civil society.
3) At the bottom are millions of autonomous individuals who rely on self control. Historically, this is the milieu for religious faith, moral dualism (that familiar internal struggle between our personal angels and our devils), and the lifelong inner dialogue of freedom from, or slavery to, our own appetites and ambitions.
Moral authority, at least once we are adults, demands our consent as subjects and agents, while state power demands our surrender as political objects. The recent course of Western political history has been the attempt—overtly and very aggressively by totalitarian states, but covertly and more gently by democratic ones—to weaken if not wholly dissolve the traditional moral authorities and bonds of the middle layer of this political structure, leaving power at the top and, as the institution of the family in particular weakens, millions of increasingly autonomous individuals at the bottom. A bleak symbol of this baleful trend is the number of individuals now living alone—from 50 to 75 percent of the residents of many big cities of the West.
The atomization of the social molecules of civil society in democratic states is achieved in two principal ways. First, by the state marketing the ideology of equal individual rights as prior in importance to the traditional privileging and exclusive social rights (and duties) of private civil associations. The primary target for any egalitarian is the destruction of privilege. But every civil association binds its membership with privileges. That’s why democracy and civil society have been on a collision course for such a long time.
Secondly, the state atomizes by deciding to supply, or massively subsidize and market directly to, individuals at the bottom a myriad of actual goods and services that formerly were created by the free organizations of civil society. In the process, the state does an end-run around the middle layer altogether, thereby converting citizens from free moral agents and subjects beholden to each other to autonomous individuals who will now switch their allegiance to the state.
At this point, the free and equal start-line ideology with which we began may still get some lip-service as a historical ideal, but it’s progressively smothered by the equal finish-line ideology that replaces it. This process is a work of strategic disorganization, an intentional disempowering and weakening of traditional society so that individuals dis-membered, so to speak, are by the same strategy exposed to the appealing order of rational state power as their newly dependable “family.”
True conservatives (I use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” here in their historical and philosophical, rather than party sense) have always resisted this movement by preference for strengthening the traditional bonds of a free civil society (that is, free from an overly grasping state) and the natural obligations of moral, social, and family life that produce not liberty, but rather, ordered liberty. They will generally give priority to defending civil society (the “we” culture) over the wants of mere individuals (the “me” culture).
The key distinction is that the modern liberal-progressive goes in the opposite direction, making the claims of the autonomous individual (me) prior to those of civil society (we), and all the modern democracies have done this to different degrees and at different rates.
For those of us who saw the breakdown coming in Canada, the judicial war cry uttered by the late Chief Justice Antonio Lamer in 1992—when he held forth, rather inelegantly during a newspaper interview—was ominous: “You know, I don’t think society is an end in itself. I think a person is the most important thing. Anything else is there to assist the person to fulfill one’s [sic] life … everything else is subordinate. Even collectivities.” Atomization starts at the top.
In this respect, the modern liberal now believes the immediacy and free revocability of every personal choice—because it’s sourced in personal will—is a mark of its sincerity and authenticity. That’s why “choice” is today the mainstream mantra of democratic freedom, and the clearest signal pointing to the modern triumph of individual will even over biological nature (as so visible in the transgender movement).
The conservative, in contrast, takes the longer temporal view, concentrating on the binding power of human duty and obligation, even if this limits personal freedom and choice. And that’s why G.K. Chesterton spoke of a “democracy of the dead,” by which he meant that “the people” is rightly the whole civilization and moral tradition in which we are embedded, and not merely the heated gathering of the moment we happen to be in. It’s why Burke defined civil society as a compact between the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. Real democracy is more about gratitude and obligation than personal will.
But the globalizing trend of what I have described elsewhere as “hyper-democracy”—whereby sovereignty, once deemed to reside in God, then royalty, then We the People, is now considered resident like some kind of secular soul in the autonomous individual—continues apace. One of the first and most striking—and strikingly absurd—examples of this tactic will do.
In 1994, the ambition to weaken the traditional family through the logic of egalitarian democracy was announced to the entire world by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which began a worldwide promotion of “The International Year of the Family”
For a year and more, the U.N. threw its considerable battery of slogans, banners, and conferences behind the truly dumfounding idea that the family is “the smallest democracy at the heart of society.”
Well now, that was pure drivel and bureaucratic meddling, because nowhere in the entire history of the world—except for a while by Plato, and then again for a while in the failed Kibbutz experiment of Israel—has the family ever been considered a democracy, nor should it be. I don’t mean we shouldn’t teach our children a wary respect for democratic ideals. But the family a democracy? Just try to imagine Mom and Dad with three or more children holding a vote on whether the children should attend school, or obey community moral standards, or be allowed to burp at the table, or—how subversive—whether Mom and Dad should have pocket money! Yet here was a bizarre, globalizing trumpet call from on high for the enforcement of the democratic “rights,” “choice,” and “freedom” of children. The subliminal theme was “the U.N. and ‘democracy’ will set you free.”
But that could only mean the enforcement of children’s rights as interpreted and supervised by government officials—usually against their own parents and their long-held family traditions. The civil societies of the West are presently having great difficulty—are actually ideologically quite disarmed—when it comes to resisting these statist intrusions, precisely because they are carried out in the radical language of a me-democracy that is our only political and moral language now, and we have not yet developed a higher pro-family, and pro-civil-society, language to fight back. This tells us we are in the presence of a political creed—or rather, of a political religion—that has reached an advanced stage of confusion.
As an example, I personally sat at a meeting of dignitaries, politicians, and social scientists in Calgary, Canada, addressed by one of the hundreds of emissaries who were being flown around the world by the U.N. during its Year of the Family to preach and avidly promote the idea that the family is a democracy. I listened with patient incredulity, then asked her how she would define “the family.”
As if by rote, she quickly trotted out the idea that the family is “any group of people who associate with each other, work together, and care for and support each other.”
So I asked her, “Would the 20 people in this room qualify?”
She paused for a second or two, hand on chin, as if thinking deeply.
And then said: “Yes. We should be called a family.”
All jaws dropped at once.
William Gairdner is an author who lives near Toronto. His latest book is “The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree” (2015). His website is WilliamGairdner.ca
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.