Family Values? Let's stop playing Politics!
Abstract: This article was written by Ben Mettes, Managing Director of Quintessence, a marketing & consultancy company that has issued the policy magazine Optionality monthly since January 1991. This article was submitted to the Free Nation Foundation for discussion at their Forum on Family Structures in a Free Nation.
The article argues that family values have declined over time. Instead of looking back into history for solutions, as many do, the article suggest not to search for a revival of family values, but to look forwards to times when relations will be based on voluntary agreement and the pursuit of mutual benefits.
The Decline of the Family
Let's face it, the family has been defeated a long time ago. Conceptually, it was the Government that defeated the family. The event can be pinpointed to a theoretical moment in history that a man arose and declared himself king of the country . . . and got away with it! Yes, people crowned their King and in the process placed their loyalty to the country above their loyalty to their family in a move that was hard to reverse. The family and the Government are conceptually incompatible. At first, the Government managed to grab power by portraying itself as a kind of parent-of-the-people with a family-orientation (as in monarchy), but over time this family cloak was shed off and the Government showed its real face of a bureaucratic system that rules for the sake of power alone.
From the moment the Government emerged, all talk about family values became a political discussion about how people were supposed to behave in the country. Relations between people were no longer determined by the family one was born in, but by politics.
Politics have changed much over the many years since the Government first established itself as a system to rule over a country. As a general trend, individual people have received more say, which has led to a further decrease in importance of the family and the associated traditions and hierarchies. Concepts such as parenthood and marriage has become meaningless in many respects.
Of course, some politicians try to exploit family values for political gain, promising to restore family values, etc. But generally, such politicians are quickly exposed as hypocrites. In the end, politicians are politicians and they will place the political process above more autonomy for families. From time to time, an appeal for family values may attract the populist vote, but in the grander scheme of things family values are a lost cause in politics.
What is Family?
Ever since the Government took away the family's autonomy, family values have been in decline, but there is more behind this than the Government's grab for power. The family as an institution is losing its relevance in line with long-term trends caused by the drive for people to operate more efficiently, by technological progress, by greater awareness and by increased personal freedom.
Today, anyone with a bit of money can go to a donor bank and select both sperm and eggs, that are typically classified in terms of the academic achievements, health history and ethnic background of the donor. After IVF of the donor eggs with the donor sperm, selected fertilized eggs can be implanted in a surrogate woman, who gets paid to carry the child(ren) until birth. Further selection can take place in the womb by selective abortion, so that the persons who ordered the children end up with the children of the preferred gender, health, hair color, etc. In the delivery room, the proud new legal parents then pay the bills and happily walk away with the children of their choice. Such a child may not recognize its biological parents (including the woman who carried the child), if they happen to pass each other in the street later in life. The child may only have one legal parent, which can be a different person from all the above. The child may have only casual contact with this sole parent and may even regard the nanny as the most familiar person. So what is family?
This may be an exceptional, fabricated case, but it shows that many concepts that were traditionally lumped together into what was called family, can technically be separated. Biotechnological progress can only advance this process even further. Medical scientists are now working on artificial wombs that can hold multiple children for the first three months after their conception. Babies can be delivered by Caesarean many months before their "due date". Egg and sperm cells can be selected and modified in all kinds of ways. In a recent experiment at the Roslin Institute, a cell was taken from the udder of a mature sheep and frozen. The nucleus of this cell was later implanted into an egg from a second sheep, resulting in an embryo that was placed into a third surrogate mother sheep. The end result was a baby sheep that was a clone of (i.e. genetically identical to) the first sheep. Many reject such experiments as the ultimate form of incest, arguing that although this may be technically possible, it should never happen with human beings. Whatever one's ethical position is, biotechnology makes many concepts that are associated with family obsolete.
Technically, family as a concept is losing its relevance and this can also be recognized in the ways people live together. Traditionally, people were part of an extended family that included many grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, as well as animals such as dogs, cats and cattle. The family stayed together, even if they moved from one geographic area to another. Woman were mostly occupied with raising their many children, cleaning, preparing meals, etc. Families wanted as many children as possible, preferably males. Male family members tended to specialize in the same kind of activities. One's identity, wealth and future were pretty much determined by the family one was born in.
Today, fertility rates have dipped well under 2 children per woman in Australia, which is still high compared to places like Japan, Hong Kong and Italy. The median age of mothers in Australia is over 29 years. Woman have typically had a long education and career before they decide to have children. People also live longer these days. In Australia, life expectancy is over 75 years for males and over 80 for females. Such trends contribute to the fact that the period of people's life during which they live with their children decreases proportionally. According to recent estimates, the median age of people living in Australia, now 34, will be 43 by mid-next century. By that time, almost one-quarter of people will be 65 or over, and more than half of all households will consist of just one person.
As households get smaller and people spend a smaller part of their life living together with their children, the family as a concept decreases in importance. Associated concepts, such as parenthood and marriage, also lose their relevance. More couples in Australia now live on their own, i.e. without dependants, than with children or other dependants. There has been a huge increase in sole parents over the past decades. A quarter of all babies are now born outside marriages in Australia, while statistics for many European and US cities show even higher proportions. Half of all marriages break up. Of those couples who are married, more than half have lived together before getting married.
Most people aged 15 and over in Australia have changed their address at least once in the past five years. On average, people move 11 times in their lives. In the year to September 1996, 19.4% of Australian households moved. In Queensland the turnover rate is over 20%. As a general trend, people have become more mobile, the vast majority of people like to live together, but less and less in the traditional family configuration.
The End of Politics
The trends towards greater personal freedom are clear, but politics can only accommodate such trends to a certain extent. Even multi-party democracy remains a coercive system that not only forces a minority of dissidents to walk in line, but that infects all relations between people with coercive values.
So, what future should we look forward to? Clearly, believers in a free nation do not want to go back to tribal times in which family values prevailed. After all, believers in a free nation, or in any nation for that matter, will tend to put their loyalty for their nation ahead of their loyalty to their family. As some will say, it is hard to serve two masters. The case is similar to politicians who claim to advocate family values, but on the other hand aspire to become Parliamentarians with the power to overrule parental authority. Family values and a free nation can hardly go together. A free nation that claims to promote family values, incorporates a fair amount of hypocrisy.
So, let's stop playing politics, because that is the game of the Government. Let's not pretend to design a superior political framework and above all, let's not pretend to defend family values. Any political system has shortcomings and restoring family authority can only bring us back to dictatorship. Instead of promoting politics to organize relations between people, it is better to move away from the idea of any centralized and overall planning. It is better to base relations on voluntary agreement and the pursuit of mutual benefits.
This may sound utopian, it may sound like you have heard it all before, like all the visions of love, peace and understanding that have come and gone. The difference is that until now such visions generally lacked a consistent perspective. Generally, they were not visions of the future, but they were political games. They were part of politics because they did not reject the Government. They were part of politics, because they borrowed old-fashioned perspectives that only turned out to endorse the position of the Government. A complete picture requires a perspective that also looks forward into the future. A vision of the future should not look back into history for guidance. To see the complete picture, what better perspective can one take than optionality?