EEnsuring that the link between family and liberty remains strong is a prime commitment of the Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. Based on this commitment, pro-family conservatives ought to be natural allies of the Tea Party movement.
The Tea Party response to the dramatic expansion of government in the last two presidential administrations has usefully highlighted the serious threat to liberty posed by a large, active and centralized state. The movement has also focused attention on crucial responses to this threat, ranging from reclaiming the historical role of states to decreasing government spending to eliminating wasteful government programs.
Similarly, pro-family conservatives have long been proposing solutions that would limit the scope and reach of the centralized state because they understand the intrinsic connection between family and liberty.
As Robert Nisbet noted, the “treatment of the family” is an important indicator of the stance of a political philosophy towards liberty. The authoritarian tradition regards the family as something “to be obliterated,” while for the tradition reflected in the thinking of Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke, “the family is declared vital to the achievement and preservation of freedom and order alike in society” (Robert Nisbet, “The Pursuit of Equality,” Public Interest, Spring 1974: 103).
Authoritarian governments insist that there be no barrier between individuals and the state. In the infamous phrasing of Benito Mussolini: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.” The centralized state seems naturally to demand complete allegiance, sometimes through naked threats but more often by offering security through cradle-to-grave welfare entitlements. These, of course, come with strings attached and accepting government largesse seems inevitably to enervate the spirit of independence.
Conversely, the strength of family ties derives from their origin in an ethic of obligation rather than of force. Families nurture the ability of individuals to meet unchosen obligations, free from coercion. The family exercises an authority completely independent of, because not derived from, the state. The Utah Supreme Court has explained that “the rights inherent in family relationships – husband-wife, parent-child, and sibling – are the most obvious example of rights retained by the people. They are ‘natural,’ ‘intrinsic,’ or ‘prior’ in the sense that our Constitutions presuppose them, as they presuppose the right to own and dispose of property” (In re J.P., 648 P.2d 1364, 1373, Utah 1982). These inherent rights provide a powerful barrier to the overreaching state, standing between the individual and the government and providing an independent source of identity, protection, purpose and provision.
The state threatens the independence of the family, and by extension, liberty by co-opting its existence and usurping its functions. Thus, when the government begins to compete with parents to inculcate the virtues of citizenship in children, liberty suffers. When the state asserts that it can redefine family to ignore its traditional touchstones like biological ties and marriage relationships, liberty suffers. When, in the name of enhancing individual autonomy, the state colludes with a disloyal spouse to end a marital relationship and thus, extend its own jurisdiction over all of the family’s interactions, liberty suffers.
The more families are allowed to do, independent of government control, the more freedom will be enhanced.
So, along with cutting taxes, reining in public spending, and eliminating agencies, friends of limited government should promote measures that strengthen the autonomy of the family unit and that limit government interference in family functions.
Among the measures that would accomplish these ends would be:
• ending the governmental collusion in family breakdown inherent in the no-fault divorce system;
• providing meaningful parental choice in education, from protections for home and private schools to requiring parents to opt-in to controversial elements of curricula (rather than forcing them to opt-out when they have objections);
• allowing families to keep more of their income by using tax formulas such as income splitting.
These ideas would, of course, just be a start.
In a state like Utah, surely the connection between strong and independent families on the one hand and liberty and self-reliance on the other should make sense. It is the legacy of our pioneer past. The Center for Family and Society will continue to work to ensure that this legacy continues into the future.
Co-author Bryce J. Christensen, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Southern Utah University and adjunct fellow of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He is a contributing editor to The Family in America and author of Divided We Fall: Family Discord and the Fracturing of America(Transaction, 2005). He has also published articles on family issues in Society, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Modern Age, and other journals.
Co-author William C. Duncan, J.D., is director of the Marriage Law Foundation and is the director of Sutherland Institute’s Center for Family and Society. He formerly served as acting director of the Marriage Law Project at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and as executive director of the Marriage and Family Law Research Grant at J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University, where he was also a visiting professor.