[A lecture given at the Heritage Foundation in Washingon, D.C. on February 11, 2019]
In the wake of the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the liberalization of the Chinese economy, many observers judged at the beginning of the twenty-first century that socialism was dead. But if so, then like the zombies that have been all the rage in pop culture over the last few years, it is a corpse that walks. In the decade following the 2008 financial crisis, the rhetoric and politics of socialism – though, mercifully, not yet the actual practice of it – have seen a growing revival in the United States. During the same period, socialism has newly been put into practice in Venezuela, with predictably disastrous results.
The economic problems with socialism are well-known and have been addressed by other speakers in this series. What I want to discuss today is the danger that socialism poses to something more fundamental than the economy, indeed to the very foundation of the entire social order – namely, the institution of the family.
What socialism is
Let me begin by saying something about what socialism is, because the term is often used too loosely, by friends and enemies of socialism alike. Socialism is characterized both by a certain kind of economic and political order, and by an ethos or moral vision that that order is meant to reflect. Let’s consider these in turn. As an economic and political system, socialism in the strictest sense essentially involves centralized governmental ownership and control of the basic means for the production and distribution of goods. Naturally, then, a system is less socialist the more the ownership and control of these basic means is dispersed between diverse private hands.
It should be clear from this characterization that not all governmental intervention in the economy amounts to socialism, because not all such intervention entails anything like centralized governmental ownership or control of the basic means in question. For example, for government to impose a certain tax or tariff or to enact a certain regulation may or may not be a good idea, but taxes and regulations are not as such socialist. Everything depends on the nature of the specific tax or regulation. Some people indiscriminately attach the “socialist” label to taxes and regulations in general, and then either reflexively condemn all taxes and regulations (on the grounds that they are opposed to socialism) or reflexively endorse socialism (on the grounds that they are in favor of certain taxes and regulations). Such linguistic and conceptual sloppiness is regrettable and ought to be avoided. It adds heat to political debate while reducing light.
Having said that, it is also true that a policy or an aspect of the economy can be socialist in substance even if on paper it seems not to be. The key here is the notion of ownership. As philosophers who think about the nature of property often point out, to own something is essentially to possess a bundle of rights over the thing. For example, suppose I own a certain pencil. What that involves is my having the right to use the pencil whenever I want to, the right to lend it to others if I so desire, the right not to lend it to them if that’s what I prefer, the right to chew on it if I feel anxious, the right to break it in half if I want to shorten it or simply as a way to take out frustration, and so forth. To own the pencil is to have a bundle of such rights, and to have such a bundle of rights over the pencil is to own it.
Now, suppose that on paper I was the sole owner of a certain piece of land, but suppose also that the government forbade me from using, building on, renting out, or selling the land without its permission, claimed the right to some or all of whatever income I made using the land, claimed the right to build on or otherwise alter the land itself if it so desired, and so forth. Then we would have to say that in substance the government was really the co-owner or even sole true owner of the land, since it claimed for itself most of the rights that ownership would normally entail.
So, while it is certainly true that taxation and regulation are not of themselves socialist in nature, it is also true that the taxing and regulating of a resource or enterprise can become so extensive that it amounts to de facto government ownership of the resource, and thus to a kind of de facto socialism. For if government reserves to itself a sufficiently large number of rights over how a resource is to be used or how an enterprise is to be conducted, then in practice it functions as the owner of the resource or enterprise, even if on paper the ownership is in private hands. In that case, the economic inefficiencies and other problems that afflict officially socialist systems will to a large extent also afflict this more subtle kind of socialism. This is, of course, the concern many people have about a single-payer healthcare system.
I have said that socialism concerns government ownership and control over basic means for the production and distribution of goods. Goods are more basic the more other goods there are that presuppose them. Suppose the state claimed the sole rights to produce and distribute wooden toothpicks, but otherwise left the economy in private hands. This would hardly be a socialist system, because there is very little that depends on getting access to wooden toothpicks. The economy could get on pretty well without them if need be. But if the state claimed the sole rights to determine the use of wood – whether used to make toothpicks, or furniture, or houses, or whatever – then we would be much closer to a socialist system, since wood is presupposed by the manufacture of so many other things. And of course, if the state claimed the right to determine the distribution and use of all raw materials (wood, stone, iron, glass, etc.) then we would have a more or less fully socialist system, since nothing at all can be made without them.
Socialism can come in degrees, then. The more that specific taxation and regulation policies approximate the having of de facto ownership rights over various resources, and the more basic are the resources over which these rights are had, the more socialist in substance a system will be.
All of that concerns the economic side of socialism, but as I said earlier, there is also an ethos or moral vision associated with socialism. Suppose the state had total control over the economy, but that the state was in turn essentially the personal property of some individual dictator, who mobilized all of its resources for the sole end of benefiting him personally. Though the economics of such a system would be socialist, no socialist would regard the system as socialist in spirit. The reason is that socialism holds that the state ought to own and control the basic means of production and distribution for the sake of the collective, for society considered as a whole, rather than for the sake of any one individual or group within society.
Now, this collectivist ethos can be interpreted in either of two basic ways, depending on the attitude a socialist takes toward the broad liberal tradition that has dominated Western politics since the time of Hobbes and Locke, with its commitment to the ideals of individual liberty and equality. One approach would be to reject this tradition altogether, and in particular to reject the idea that a just society has anything to do with treating all individuals as equals or securing their liberty. Rather, on this first approach, justice has to do with securing the good of society considered as a nation or race, a single collective organism over and above the sum of the individuals that make it up. According to this view, not all individuals are equally crucial to securing the good of the nation or the race, and respecting their liberty might be contrary to securing that good. Hence individuals may be sacrificed for the sake of the nation or the race. This is national socialism, most notoriously associated with Nazi Germany.
Of course, most socialists would be horrified by this idea, and see themselves as heirs to the liberal tradition of regarding respect for the liberty and equality of all individuals as the essence of a just society. It’s just that they hold that a socialist economic order, rather than a capitalist one, is the only way to secure true liberty and equality. Their view is that the state ought to own and control the basic means of production and distribution, not for the sake of securing the good of society considered as a kind of collective organism (which might require sacrificing some individuals for the whole), but rather for the sake of securing the good of each individual member of society equally. Let’s call this egalitarian socialism.
Like contemporary liberals, egalitarian socialists would take a respect for the freedom and equality of all individuals to require that citizens of every race, ethnicity, and religious background should participate equally in the political process and enjoy the same level of economic well-being. Like contemporary liberals, they also take a respect for freedom and equality to entail liberation from traditional expectations where matters of sex are concerned. Hence, like contemporary liberals, egalitarian socialists are committed to the feminist program of ensuring that women participate in the public workplace and in the holding of political offices in more or less the same numbers as men. They are committed to the elimination of any discrimination, or indeed any stigma, against those with homosexual or transgender inclinations. And so forth. Contemporary liberals and egalitarian socialists both favor laws intended to promote this ideal of equal political and economic outcomes for citizens of every race, ethnicity, religious background, sex, and sexual orientation.
The difference between contemporary liberals and egalitarian socialists is that the socialist is inclined to take much greater control over the economic system so as to ensure such outcomes. While the rhetoric of liberty and equality can be heard from both liberals and socialists alike, the accent for the liberal is on liberty whereas the accent for the socialist is on equality. Hence the liberal is willing in the name of liberty to support a basically free market or capitalist economy, and to mitigate the inequalities that result by way of regulation and redistributive taxation. By contrast, the socialist is willing in the name of equality to give the state much greater control over the economy, and to mitigate the loss of liberty that results by arguing that the freedom from discrimination and hardship that he seeks to secure is more important than the economic freedom that he takes away. Similarly, their accent on freedom makes most liberals reluctant to curb even political speech that they deem to be racist, sexist, or homophobic, whereas their accent on equality appears to make at least some egalitarian socialists more willing to consider curbing such speech.
As this last point indicates, there is bound to be a temptation even for the democratic socialist to increase control over the political sphere for the sake of securing control over the economic sphere, because the boundary between the two is not sharp. If you think that justice requires securing equal economic outcomes even if this entails extensive curtailing of economic freedom, but find that freedom of speech keeps getting in the way, then it is hard to see why that should not be curtailed as well in the name of a purportedly more important kind of freedom, namely freedom from discrimination and the like.
In light of all of these considerations, then, we can characterize socialism of the sort with which I am concerned in this talk as centralized government control, in practice even if not on paper, over the basic means of production and distribution of goods, for the end of securing equal outcomes for individual citizens of every race, ethnicity, religious background, sex, and sexual orientation.
What the family is
Let’s turn now to the family. What is it? The late social scientist James Q. Wilson provided a useful first approximation when he characterized the family as “a lasting, socially enforced obligation between a man and a woman that authorizes sexual congress and the supervision of children.” He meant this as descriptive rather than prescriptive, a characterization of what has in fact been the usual basic arrangement underlying the diverse specific concrete forms that the family has taken in different cultures and periods of history.
The basic idea is that a family typically involves a man and a woman who have an ongoing sexual relationship that results in children, and where the relationship is perceived to be governed by social norms that require provision for the children and at least some expectation that the relationship will continue. In some cultures this relationship requires a formal marriage agreement, in others the arrangement is looser. In some there is an expectation of monogamy, while in others polygamy is allowed. In some divorce is permitted, and in others it is not. In some but not in others, marriages are arranged by parents. And so on. But the fundamental pattern persists despite variations in these secondary features.
As Wilson points out, the family so understood is more basic than marriage. Historically, the institution of marriage arose as a safeguard to the family, and has varied in the ways that it has largely because of different judgments in different cultural circumstances about what was necessary to safeguard the family.
Of course, there are also sometimes families that do not fit even Wilson’s bare bones description – for example, an unmarried and celibate single woman who adopts foster children. But these cases are parasitic on the kind that Wilson describes. The children in such cases come into being in the first place only because of at least a brief sexual relationship between their biological parents, and the woman in my example takes on a role that is modeled on that of a biological mother. Indeed, as Wilson points out, the basic pattern he describes is as universal as it is precisely because it is grounded in basic human biology.
I will come back to the biology in a moment, but first it will be useful to consider the normative or prescriptive implications that have traditionally been thought to follow from the nature of the basic institution Wilson describes. For ease of exposition, I will sometimes put things in language of the sort that a natural law theorist in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas would use, but the broad outlines of the understanding of the morality of sex, marriage, and family that I will be describing are by no means peculiar to that tradition. They are pretty much what people of all religions and cultures of the past have thought. These traditional moral views have also, needless to say, become very controversial in modern Western society, precisely because they conflict with the conception of individual freedom and equality that, I have said, contemporary liberals and egalitarian socialists have in common. I’ll come back to that controversy too, but for the moment let me just set out the traditional view.
Since as a matter of biological fact sex exists for the sake of procreation, and since in general there is a significant chance that any given act of sexual intercourse will result in pregnancy, systems of sexual morality have traditionally tended to hold that there should be some sort of stigma against sex outside of the context of marriage and family. For children require that context in order to flourish, and since sex exists precisely for the purpose of bringing them into being, it would be indecent or even perverse to indulge in it in a way that might leave the resulting children outside that safe environment. Sexual activity that tends to break the connection between sex and family – fornication, promiscuity, adultery, homosexuality, and so on – has thus traditionally been regarded as destabilizing to the institution, and disapproved of for that reason. To use standard natural law jargon, sex has a primarily procreative function, and its other legitimate function is the unitive function of bonding father and mother to each other and thereby to the family they have created.
Now, since their sexual activity has a natural tendency to result in children, men and women are taken by traditional sexual morality to have a natural obligation to those children, and to the family that the mother, father, and children comprise, by virtue of engaging in that sexual activity. That is to say, if you are going to do something that could make you into a father or a mother, then it is simply part of the deal that you are going to have to behave like a father or mother, with all that that entails. But of course, we are naturally very strongly inclined to engage in this sexual activity. Hence we are naturally made to be fathers and mothers, and thus to form families. That is part of how we fulfill our nature, just as birds fulfill their nature by building nests and feeding their young. This is the fundamental way in which we are social animals, as Aristotle put it. We are made for one another, man for woman, woman for man, and man and woman together for their children. The family, then, is a natural institution, a kind of organic unit. Even in traditional societies where divorce is allowed, it is more like the amputation of a body part than it is like the dissolution of a business contract – something unnatural and to be avoided if at all possible.
Like other organic wholes, each part of the family has, on the traditional view I am describing, its own distinctive role which contributes to the proper functioning of the whole. Pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, and basic childcare are so time-consuming, especially when (as was true for most of human history) a woman has many children, that mothers tended historically to focus on the domestic sphere. Their greater physical strength and freedom from the rigors of pregnancy and childbirth, together with the need for an income for what was often a large family, meant that fathers tended historically to focus on providing for the family. When you factor in the idea that woman tend to be more nurturing and empathetic and men more competitive and analytical, the model of mother as homemaker and father as breadwinner is, from the traditional moral perspective I am describing, in several respects a natural rather than artificial arrangement. How it works out in practice may be more complicated than this brief description implies, but for the traditional moralist, that the basic pattern has persisted for so long in such a wide variety of cultures shows that it reflects something deep about human nature.
It is important to emphasize that the roles of father and mother are traditionally understood to be complementary rather than in competition. It is not a matter of men pursuing their own interests and women serving them. The father’s labor and income belong to the family and not to himself alone. Again, the family is seen as an organic unit, with each member doing its part for the family unit rather than for himself or herself. The idea that either mothers or fathers are self-interested individuals bound to others only by voluntary contractual obligations is a modern liberal individualist idea, not one that would be understood by most cultures historically or accepted by traditional moralists. I’ll come back to that.
Now, providing for a family and making a home require material resources. Natural law thinkers take this to be the foundation of the natural right to private property. For ought implies can. If I have a duty to provide materially for the family that I help bring into being, then I must have the right to acquire the needed material resources. Since there is no set number of children the family may have and no foreseeing all the needs it may have, and since once the children have families of their own those families will in turn require material assistance, I must also have the right to amass these resources and to pass them on as an inheritance. Parents are also the ones most suited to provide for the material needs of their children, since they have direct knowledge of what, specifically, those needs are, and they have an innate inclination to worry for their own children’s well-being that strangers don’t have.
Unlike the offspring of non-human animals, human children also need to be provided for spiritually as well as materially. Natural law thinkers take this to be the foundation of the natural right to educate one’s children. When I bring children into existence, I take on the obligation to give them the knowledge and moral instruction they need no less than they need food, clothing, and shelter. If I have a duty to provide this, then I must have the right to provide it. Parents are also the ones most suited to providing for the educational needs of their children (whether they do the educating themselves or choose teachers for them), since, again, they have the most intimate knowledge of the needs and abilities of their own children, and the greatest incentive to see to it that those needs are met.
Again, though for purposes of exposition I’ve been using natural law theory concepts like procreative and unitive function, complementarity, and natural rights, these really just amount to a codification of what has been regarded as common sense in most cultures for most of history. Evolutionary psychology and social science confirm that, whatever one thinks of them, the basic arrangements I’ve been describing reflect something deep in human nature. Even just looked at in evolutionary terms, the basic family structure is what one would expect.
Hence, consider some basic biological facts and their implications. A man is capable in principle of fathering a very large number of children and need not be physically tied down to any of them or to their mother once he begets them, but if he leaves them it will be relatively much harder for him to be certain which children are his. A woman, by contrast, is capable of having a relatively much smaller number of children and is physically tied down by them for long periods of time given the demands of pregnancy, nursing, and the like, but at the same time she can be certain that the children she nurtures are her own. Though a man is likely, given these biological factors, to have a relatively greater interest in the sexual act than women are, he nevertheless has an incentive to stay with a woman he has children with, so that he can be sure that the children he provides for are his own. And to strengthen the incentive to stay, he will tend to favor a woman who is sexually attractive and fertile, and thus likely to be younger than himself. A woman, meanwhile, will have an incentive to look for a man capable of supporting her and her children, and thus will tend to be attracted to men showing indications of status and earning power. These biological imperatives will also entail a tendency in each sex toward jealousy, though in somewhat different ways. Both sexes will resent infidelity, but in men the accent will be on the fear that the mother of his children will be sexually unfaithful, since this might lead to him expending effort to support another man’s offspring. In women, the accent will be on the fear that the father of her children will fall in love with another woman, since this might lead to him abandoning her and her children.
What I am describing, of course, is the standard explanation given by evolutionary psychologists of the differences between the sexes that common sense has always recognized and that many social scientists tend to reaffirm. That men are more likely to be drawn to pornography and to frequent prostitutes and women more likely to be drawn to romance novels is taken to reflect the biologically grounded tendencies of men to focus more on the sexual act and women more on commitment. In every culture, women tend to be more concerned with childrearing and intimate personal relationships than men are, and appear to excel at reading body language and facial expressions and verbal nuance. In every culture, men tend to be more aggressive and violently competitive and prone to risky behavior than women are, and appear to excel at spatial visualization and spatial reasoning and to have a greater interest in things than in persons. These differences are thought to reflect the traits that natural selection would have favored in, respectively, nurturers and the hunters that provide for them. Even in modern Western countries deeply influenced by feminism, women tend to retain custody of the children when a couple splits and are more likely than men to sacrifice career goals for the sake of the family, and men tend to dominate business and public affairs. This is taken by evolutionary psychologists to reflect women’s greater physical investment in childrearing and men’s greater aggressiveness and need to attract women by attaining wealth and status.
Social scientists point out that the institution of marriage, the broad outlines of which have until very recently reflected these basic biological factors, has benefits for all concerned. It affords women a provider for themselves and their children. It civilizes men, channeling male competiveness in a constructive direction and moderating the male tendency toward risky behavior. It gives children stability, and boys, especially, the discipline and role-modeling without which they tend to fall into destructive behaviors.
It is true that these are stereotypes, but the biological and social scientific evidence indicates that the reason they are stereotypes is that they are true. Of course, the way all this works out in practice is more complicated than this brief summary lets on. And of course, the idea that something was favored by natural selection does not by itself entail that we should favor it ourselves. Nor, it must be emphasized, does the idea that sex differences are grounded in biology have anything to do with arguing for male superiority. Different doesn’t mean better or worse. It just means different. The point is just that modern biology tends to confirm the judgment of common sense and natural law moralists alike that complementarity between the sexes and the basic family structure are grounded in human nature and not a mere contingent social construct. This is acknowledged by liberals like Steven Pinker and Robert Wright, who urge their fellow egalitarians to frame their efforts at reform in a biologically realistic way. If people are left to themselves, patterns that reflect the basic family structure and the traditional sexual division of labor are bound to appear spontaneously at least in a very rough and general way. Cultural and political developments can weaken and distort the patterns, as the rise of individualism and feminism have in the West, but they will not entirely destroy them. As Horace famously said, you can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.
Where the conflict lies
This brings us at last to the conflict between socialism and the family. As I have said, egalitarian socialism shares with liberalism a commitment to equal economic outcomes and political power for all regardless of sex, and to the equal freedom of all from discrimination or stigma regardless of sexual orientation. The difference is that the socialist favors even more radical state intervention in the economy in order to secure these ends. The threat this poses to the family might be obvious from what has been said already, but it is worth spelling out explicitly.
It is important to emphasize at the outset, however, that the fundamental move that has exposed the family to danger from socialism was made by the liberal individualist tradition rather than by socialism. The socialist is merely walking through the door that the liberal individualist opened.
The fundamental move in question was liberalism’s replacement of the classical Aristotelian conception of the human being as by nature a social animal with the liberal idea of the human being as a sovereign individual. Again, for ancient and medieval thinkers, man is by nature made for woman and woman for man, and their union is by nature meant to result in a new family unit. This familial context is our natural state, the obligations that follow upon it are binding on us by virtue of our nature rather than by virtue of any social contract we agree to, and our fundamental natural rights are the rights to do what we need to do in order to fulfill our obligations as fathers, mothers, and children. The family is the fundamental unit of society, and the way we are social animals is primarily by virtue of being familial animals. Individuals are incomplete without the family. And larger social organizations, such as the state, exist primarily for the sake of assisting and safeguarding the family.
Liberalism replaced this conception with the idea of the individual as the fundamental social unit, related to other human beings only by contract rather than natural obligation. If I consent to taking on certain obligations to others, then I have those obligations. But if I do not consent, then I have no obligations. On this view, the individual is not by nature made for family or for any other particular end. We simply have whatever individual ends or desires we happen to have, and none of them is intrinsically better or worse than any others. They can be objected to only insofar as they might lead an individual to try to frustrate the desires of other individuals. The state exists for the sake of enabling all individuals to pursue their desires, whatever they happen to be, as far as this is consistent with other individuals pursuing whatever desires they happen to have. Whatever political or social barriers tend to frustrate individuals in the fulfilment of their desires, especially if these desires are compatible with other individuals’ fulfilling their desires, comes to be seen as oppressive and unjust. Justice comes to be seen as a matter of liberating people from such barriers.
The history of liberalism from Hobbes and Locke to the present, and of Western politics in general in modern times, is essentially a history of the working out of the implications of this basic idea. It is a history of ever more expansive conceptions of equality and ever more radical demands for liberation. John Stuart Mill’s celebration of diverse individual “experiments in living” and his call for the dismantling of the barriers to such experimentation that are posed, not only by law but by public opinion and custom, is the classic philosophical expression of the idea.
Mill was also clear about the implications of this idea for marriage and family. He argued that we should be skeptical about claims that men and women have by nature different and complementary roles and psychological traits, on the grounds that observed differences may reflect male oppression of women rather than nature. Even women who seem naturally to prefer traditional arrangements may have merely internalized conventional opinion rather than behaving as they would have in its absence. Mill advocated reconceiving marriage as a contract between self-interested individuals for the sake of their personal fulfilment, rather than an indissoluble organic union for the sake of children and family. This in turn required that men and women be more or less financially independent of one another both before and after marriage, and a relaxation of legal barriers and social stigma against divorce. And the family that results from a marriage ought in Mill’s view to become what he called a “school of sympathy in equality” and a “school of the virtues of freedom.” That is to say, for Mill the family ought to be a context in which children imbibe the liberal ideal of freedom for, and equality between, diverse “experiments in living,” an ideal children learn by seeing it lived by their parents.
It goes without saying that Millian liberalism has since the 1960s essentially become the governing doctrine of modern American society. Feminism and the sexual revolution and all that they have led to – the massive influx of mothers into the workforce, widespread divorce and remarriage, the routine use of contraception and legalized abortion, the disappearance of any stigma against sex outside of marriage and illegitimacy, the gay rights movement and same-sex marriage, the transgender rights movement, and so on – are all consequences of applying Mill’s principle of freedom for diverse “experiments in living” to matters of sex, marriage, and family. To be sure, Mill himself would not necessarily have approved of much less foreseen some of these developments, but they were bound to follow from the premises he laid down.
Now, there is nothing distinctively socialist about these developments considered by themselves. Nevertheless, there are several ways in which liberalism’s undermining of traditional moral views concerning sex, marriage, and family have tended to lead Western society in an increasingly socialist direction.
The first is that liberalism has come to regard the basic principles of feminism and of the sexual revolution as matters of justice. It is, on this view, unjust if men and women are not equally represented in the workforce outside the home and in various career fields, unjust if some women cannot afford to pay for contraception or abortions, unjust if a business or other private organization does not want to participate in a same-sex wedding or hire someone who is transgender, and so on. Hence, since government is supposed to ensure that justice is done, the logical outcome of these liberal premises is that government will have to intervene in the private economy so as to ensure as far as possible that equal numbers of men and women are represented in different fields, that traditional views about sexual morality do not influence the way businesses and other private organizations make hiring decisions and conduct their affairs, that health plans cover abortion and contraception, and so forth. In short, to secure the goals of feminism and the sexual revolution, the state will have to claim for itself greater rights to decide how private organizations can operate. Since ownership of an enterprise involves, as I have said, the possession of a bundle of rights concerning how it is to operate, the state’s taking upon itself the right to make these decisions amounts to its having partial ownership of private enterprises – a partial socializing of them, as it were.
A second way that the breakdown of the traditional morality of sex, marriage, and family has a tendency to give way to socialism is that the more the traditional family structure breaks down, the more individuals there are – especially single mothers and children – who find themselves without sufficient private means of support, and thus require greater governmental assistance. This plausibly accounts for what social scientists have called the “marriage gap” in U.S. voting patterns. Both married men and married women are likelier to vote for conservative candidates. By contrast, unmarried men are significantly more likely to vote for liberal candidates, and unmarried women are massively more likely to vote for liberal candidates. If you are a breadwinner capable of supporting a family or the spouse of such a breadwinner, you are less likely to need state assistance and are bound to resent the government taxing away income that could be used for the benefit of your family. By contrast, if you do not have a family to support you will be less resentful of taxation, and you are single mother with children or a woman unable to find a husband you are bound to regard government as a kind of surrogate provider.
These are material factors that lead in the direction of socialism, but a third point is that there are spiritual or moral factors that do so as well. Human beings are by nature social animals, and remain so even when liberal individualism prevents their social nature from being realized in the ways it traditionally did. People long to be part of something bigger than themselves, and when the family is not there to fulfill this need, they will look for a substitute. This can make the idea of a socialist society attractive, especially to young people who, in a culture of widespread divorce and remarriage, illegitimacy, and single parenthood, with the revolving door of stepfathers all of this often entails, have never known stable family life. At the same time, the sexual revolution has made people creatures of appetite, impatient with self-discipline and demanding of benefits without cost to themselves.
If the decay of the traditional family has a tendency to lead society in a socialist direction, socialism also has a tendency to undermine the traditional family. The causality goes in both directions. Consider first the purely economic side of socialist policy. Socialists often advocate a universal basic income, single payer healthcare, state funding of education for all even through the college level, and heavy inheritance taxes. All basic material needs will thereby be provided by the state rather than by the father or even father and mother together. The breadwinner role is dispensed with, which undermines the incentive for fathers to provide for their children or mothers to look for a father to provide for them. The state becomes the de facto breadwinner for all, and the economic ties that strengthen the bond between father, mother, and children are destroyed. Obviously, dependence on the state would be even greater given a full-blown socialist nationalization of the means of production or the abolition of private property, but it is important to emphasize that even a milder form of socialism that didn’t go this far and merely confined itself to the redistributive measures just mentioned would essentially take over the role of material provider for all citizens. Parents would be reduced to the status of local administrators of the state’s largesse.
But it is not just the function of material provider that the socialist state usurps from parents. He who pays the piper calls the tune. If the state is paying the bills, then the state will decide what it is going to pay for, when, and how. Liberal activists already fret over whether parents make sound decisions about what their children eat, whether to vaccinate them, and so forth, and are willing to interfere with these health-related decisions by banning junk food in schools and legally requiring vaccinations. Liberals are also already willing to interfere with parental health-related decisions in far more significant ways, insofar as they have long opposed laws that require parental notification and consent when a minor seeks an abortion, and now often oppose laws requiring parental consent when a minor seeks transgender treatments such as hormone injections. A socialist state, which involves a more thoroughgoing penetration of government into the private sphere in general, and direct state control over the healthcare system in particular, will inevitably usurp parental decision-making with respect to healthcare in an even more radical way than liberal governments already do. In a socialist state, this is bound to include mandatory sex education – presented as a kind of health education, and informed by the principles of feminism and the sexual revolution – and direct state provision to minors of contraception, abortion, and transgender treatments.
In this way, the socialist state even just in its role as sole healthcare provider will have a massive influence on the molding of the character of children. Naturally, it will have an even deeper influence in its role as sole provider of education. In a thoroughgoing socialist state, private schools and homeschooling would be abolished altogether and all children would have to be educated in public schools. But even a socialist government that refrained from going this far could achieve much the same results by heavily regulating the content of private education. Needless to say, the principles of feminism and the sexual revolution would determine what children are taught and how they are taught it. Anything that smacked of what liberals and socialists would characterize as sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the like would be forbidden. Mill’s vision of a society committed to the fostering of diverse “experiments in living” would essentially become a kind of state religion, inculcated from pre-school onward and informing all policy. The only “experiments in living” that would not be permitted would be those that involve a return to the traditional family structure or a traditional religious way of life. Teaching that sort of thing to one’s children would be prohibited as a kind of child abuse.
This taking over of the function of molding the character of children will be facilitated by the circumstance that the socialist state is bound to usurp the traditional role of the mother no less than that of the father. Socialists like Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels and feminist thinker Simone de Beauvoir argued that women’s equality could not be achieved so long as some women continued to choose to devote themselves to homemaking and childrearing. In their estimation, this choice reflected a kind of false consciousness, the internalization of patriarchal ideology, and ought not to be respected. To liberate women from this patriarchal oppression requires liberating them from the home, and this in turn entails requiring them to enter the workforce. In line with this sort of thinking, feminist writer Sarrah Le Marquand argued in a controversial 2017 article that it ought to be illegal to be a stay-at-home mother. Le Marquand writes:
Only when the tiresome and completely unfounded claim that “feminism is about choice” is dead and buried (it’s not about choice, it’s about equality) will we consign restrictive gender stereotypes to history.
Few socialists are willing to say this sort of thing, at least publicly. But it is a completely natural conclusion to draw if one applies socialist means to feminist ends. And less extreme policies have the same goal. The aim of government-funded daycare is, of course, to facilitate getting mothers out of the home and back into the workforce. Into the bargain, it provides an even earlier educational context in which the socialist state can begin to mold the characters of children – something mothers traditionally would have done by virtue of being with their children throughout the day during the entirety of their earliest years. The point is to make men and women essentially the same – fellow workers in the public sphere each pursuing his or her own individual careerist ends – with distinctive paternal and maternal roles disappearing, and spouses becoming roommates with benefits who administer the provision of state services to the children.
Recall that to have ownership over something is to possess a bundle of rights over it. Now, parents don’t exactly own their children, but they do have stewardship over them, and stewardship is similar to ownership insofar as it involves the possession of a similar bundle of rights. Parental stewardship involves having rights like the right to make decisions related to providing for one’s children, the right to make decisions about their education, the right to make healthcare-related decisions for them, and so forth. But the socialist state, as I have argued, will at least to a large extent reserve such rights to itself. Furthermore, in the name of feminism and the sexual revolution it will implement policies that attenuate the traditional paternal and maternal roles of men and women and encourage individualist careerism and sexual freedom over self-sacrifice for the family. In these ways the socialist state will make of itself the father and mother of all, and turn biological parents into something approximating nannies who implement the directives of this governmental parent. The aim is to turn human beings from social animals into socialist animals.
The worry is not that such a program would succeed. If socialist economics is contrary to the natural order of things, socialist family policy is even more so. It cannot possibly succeed. The trouble is that socialism, radical feminism, and sexual liberation are revolutionary ideologies, and revolutionary ideologues never admit that their revolutions have failed, no matter how overwhelming the evidence. Instead they conclude that the revolution hasn’t gone far enough, and double down, blaming the human suffering that inevitably results on those who resist the revolution. This happened in the Soviet Union, in communist China, in Cuba, in North Korea, and it is happening now in Venezuela. It has also happened in the wake of the sexual revolution.
As social scientists like David Popenoe and David Blankenhorn have shown, children in fatherless families are more likely to exhibit emotional and behavioral problems, health problems, and academic problems, to have greater difficulties in their own personal relationships and marriages, and to commit crimes, suffer abuse, and live in poverty. Social scientists like Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have noted that as the agenda of feminism and the sexual revolution has ever more thoroughly transformed Western society since the late 1960s, opinion polls have consistently noted a corresponding steady decline in female happiness, both in absolute terms and relative to men’s reported happiness. Feminists have denied that men and women inherently differ in terms of their attitudes toward sex and the sexual revolution destroyed traditional norms regarding modesty and male chivalry. The consequence has been the explosion in aggressively lecherous behavior that triggered the Me Too movement. Yet defenders of the sexual revolution refuse to admit the obvious: that children need both a father and a mother; that the traditional norms of modesty and restraint protected women from loutish men; and that women are biologically hardwired to yearn for children and for a stable provider for them, and most will therefore be unhappy when careerism and promiscuity delay these things, or even leave them in middle age childless, unmarried, and lonely. And then there is the horrific number of abortions that have been performed since the sexual revolution began – in the tens of millions. When a woman is biologically wired to nurture and protect a child, killing that child instead, and while it is at its most vulnerable, is inevitably going to leave scars of guilt and emptiness that feminist ideological rationalization can only do so much to paper over.
The disastrous nature of the sexual revolution is a topic of its own and I am not going to address it any further here. The point for present purposes is that as American liberalism morphs into socialism, these bad consequences are going to increase, defenders of the sexual revolution are going to be hardened further in the ideological thinking that prevents them from acknowledging the cause of the disaster, and the whole delusional enterprise will be backed by the full power of the state.
Naturally, political action is needed in order to counter these trends, but any political successes will be limited and temporary unless the root cause of the crisis of the family is addressed. That root cause is the cult of the sovereign individual, and unfortunately, too many conservatives halfway buy into this cult themselves. There is, especially in recent years, a temptation among conservatives to trade in the rich family-, culture- and religion-oriented conservative tradition from Edmund Burke to Roger Scruton for the thin gruel of libertarianism. This may have political advantages in some cases in the short term, but in the long term it is suicidal. The free market and free society cannot survive without strong and independent families. What Margaret Thatcher said of the former is true of the latter as well: There is no alternative.
 James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), p. 24.
 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), chapter 18; and Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), chapters 2-7.
 Cf. the useful discussion of Mill’s views in Scott Yenor, Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), chapter 6.
 Cf. W. Bradford Wilcox, "Mind the Marriage Gap: The 2014 Election Edition," Institute for Family Studies (November 6, 2014)
 Cf. Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York: Penguin Books, 2010); Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage, 1989); and Yenor’s discussion in Family Politics, chapters 7 and 9.
 Sarrah Le Marquand, “It Should Be Illegal to Be a Stay-at-home Mum,” Daily Telegraph (March 20, 2017).
 Cf. David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America (New York: Basic Books, 1995); and David Popenoe, Life Without Father (New York; The Free Pres, 1996).
 Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, 2009. “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 1: 2190-2225.