The Family and the Household
12 January, 2001
The primary axiom underlying all these essays is that the individual adult person is the fundamental political unit. The reason for this is that, apparently alone among all the creatures on Planet Earth, the human being has powers of will and self-reflecting consciousness which enable the individual person to form an intention and undertake voluntary action aimed at realising that intention.
A further axiom is that the total environment in which voluntary action is possible is sustained by implicit Natural Laws which hold the system together despite any mistaken human actions. Without such Laws, there would be no basis for rationality or morality. It must therefore be appreciated that while the individual person is free to act, he or she is not free to escape the natural consequences of his or her actions.
It should also be recognised that when individuals combine to form groups, the consequences of group action may not be confined to the individual persons forming the group. Furthermore, these consequences may affect different people in different ways depending on individual circumstances. It should be obvious that the larger and more powerful the group, the less likely it is that the consequences of group action will be accurately predicted. It therefore behoves the leaders of groups to be humble enough to recognise their limitations and to refrain from instigating group actions that might, inadvertently or otherwise, do more harm than good. In other words, small is beautiful.
It is common experience that conflict between persons or groups may arise when the intentions or actions of one person or group are frustrated by those of other persons or groups. It may reasonably be supposed that an adequate understanding of Natural Law in terms of cause and effect would enable and pre-dispose individuals to form intentions and take actions on a scale that would minimise the occasions for conflict and so increase the likelihood of universally satisfactory outcomes. The acquisition of such an understanding is an essential precondition for responsible action. A responsible person is one who may generally be relied upon to act in accordance with Natural Law. A society composed entirely of responsible persons could be self-governing.
It must, however, be acknowledged that many human beings cannot be considered 'responsible'. They include, particularly, children and young persons who require time to acquire adequate knowledge of Natural Law and learn to appreciate how their own actions may conform or conflict with its operation. Some people obviously take longer to learn than others: but my own opinion for what it is worth is that lowering the age of majority from twenty-one to eighteen, sixteen, or younger, does more harm than good by placing greater social expectations on young people before they have had an adequate opportunity for assimilating the true 'facts of life'. 'Growing up' is not easy.
As long as there are irresponsible people, of whatever age, in a society, the society must seek to protect itself from the unwelcome consequences of irresponsible action. Every society must therefore devise a 'social' system which provides incentives to encourage behaviour generally considered 'good' and punishments to discourage behaviour generally considered 'bad'. Such a system is an essential aid for training in responsibility and citizenship: but if it is to be effective for the control and resolution of conflict, its incentives and punishments must as nearly as possible mirror Natural Laws. The formation and application of social laws subordinate to Natural Law is the sole justification for systems of government.
If the development of personal responsibility is to be a primary aim of social legislation, it must be libertarian as opposed to prescriptive or repressive. There can be no personal responsibility without personal liberty. In other words, the system must leave the individual free to act in any way that cannot be shown to have detrimental effects on the community or society of which that individual is part. Any other consequences for the individual in question may safely be left to Natural Law which supervenes at a personal level irrespective of social law.
A characteristic of any responsible person is that he or she makes a positive contribution by way of service to any community or society in which he or she is a member. Natural societies are not designed to carry passengers. Every society must make provision for rearing its young people until they become responsible and for looking after those of its members who are temporarily incapacitated. But Natural Law makes no concessions to libertinism, and so there is no need for any social provision to "save people from themselves".
This, at last, brings me to the main point of this essay.
The Natural Law governing sexual reproduction is that the female of the species produces eggs which must be fertilised by sperm produced by the male to achieve conception of one or more offspring. Humans are no different from other species in that respect. Where humans do differ is that, by comparison with the young of other species, human offspring take a very long time to become economically viable. For the first few years of life, they must be fed, clothed, cleaned, transported, and kept comfortable, both physically and emotionally, while they learn the use of their bodies and mental faculties. Not many children below the age of about seven could be expected to survive without adult support. They require about another seven years to become sexually mature; and probably about a further seven years before they have completely mastered the social skills which are expected of fully mature, responsible adults in an integrated society. During all that time, young people benefit from having somewhere they can call "home", a secure base to which they can always return confident of a loving welcome, nourishment for their bodies, balm for their physical and emotional wounds, and a "space" that they can think of as their own.
Nature provides the basic essentials in the form of a mother who is always present at the birth of a child and is naturally equipped, both physically and emotionally, to feed it and care for it. In what we tend to think of as "primitive" societies, the mother may be all the child needs by way of support if she is able to obtain enough food and shelter for herself as well as her child. But this form of existence is both limited and precarious, and virtually every human society has evolved some system whereby its children may be reared more securely and satisfactorily. When devising such a system, it is natural to look to the provider of the fertilising sperm to accept some of the responsibility for rearing the child to which he has contributed half its genetic complement. Recognising that the natural father has nine months in which to make good his escape from his parental responsibilities, the institution of marriage was adopted by many societies, and very strong social taboos were invoked against sexual indulgence outside marriage. This was the basis for the unitary family.
There is no doubt that a family in which mother and father willingly shoulder their responsibilities to each other and to their offspring can provide an ideal foundation for rearing happy, confident, healthy children, and I can think of no better alternative. In former times, when it was usual for most people to live their entire lives within a few miles of where they were born, the family was also the basic unit in community. The sick and the old were cared for in an "extended" family whose members would have some more or less distant blood relationship or kinship. In the absence of a family, members of the community would provide help as a matter of course, just because they perceived the need. There is a proverb to the effect that a friend at hand is better than a brother who is far away.
But times have changed. People in Western societies have become globe trotters. Love of money predominates over all other loves. A culture of anonymity has overcome social taboos. Social, including sexual, irresponsibility is rife, with ugly consequences in disease and general coarsening in human relations. The unaborted foetus is too often a nuisance, and the young mother too often chooses to go back to a form of work where she earns only just about enough to pay a professional child-minder. Ageing parents are a handicap that their offspring would all too often prefer to be without, particularly if they are encumbered with children of their own.
Grandpa and Grandma are usually left to look after themselves as best they can, often in what used to be the family home. When death terminates the marriage or they become too infirm, one or both will be transferred to some sort of "death house" where the cost of keeping one person is enough to raise a family of four or five. At the end of the line, whatever is left of the value of what used to be the family home is all too often fought over by progeny who made little contribution to its upkeep.
So whilst the family can still work well for responsible parents, particularly from the point of view of giving children a good start in life, it is now far less usual for it to serve the later needs of parents or grand-parents who are too soon written off as redundant and too often left to die among disinterested strangers. This state of affairs is aggravated by governmental attempts at social engineering through penal taxation, selective handouts, and a virtual state monopoly in the supply of personal services.
Although it is still the most natural basic unit of community, the strains imposed upon the traditional family by social engineering and economic globalisation are proving too much for the fragile sense of responsibility which is all most young people have time to acquire before they are thrown into a rapacious adult society at what is still the "tender" age of sixteen, lacking a firmly embedded sense of values. No wonder they too easily succumb to invitations to eat, drink and be merry today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. And when to-morrow does come, far from home and stricken with remorse, how many of yesterday's jolly merry-makers are likely to prove responsible friends?
It seems to me that this helter-skelter world needs a new kind of basic social unit, perhaps as a supplement to the family rather than as a replacement for it. I call it a "household" because I think it must be based on a building designed for multiple occupation by a small community. I have no clear blueprint to offer: but it must almost certainly be based on a sense of social responsibility instead of blood relationship. It must cater for people of all ages: so it must accommodate enough members to make it viable. It must enable individuals to move through it, i.e. to join and leave at any age: but its members should make a sufficient minimum commitment of time and money to give it stability and continuity. It must be adaptable to the local environment, whether urban or rural. It cannot be imposed by force: so it must rely on the deeply embedded instinct for practical love that compels every human being to respond positively to the appeal of a helpless infant.
The building should have communal cooking, dining, social, and study spaces as well as single, double and family sleeping units, all in proportion to the expected occupancy. While designing and erecting such a building might appear costly, it would ultimately be far more economical than the aggregate of self-contained dwellings for one to five people that it would replace. It would not be necessary for everyone in the household to have the exclusive use of a car. Total energy consumption would be reduced, as would pressure on building land.
The financial and emotional benefits for the members of the household could be enormous. The household could achieve a high degree of self-sufficiency. The young and the sick could be taken care of by the unemployed and the healthy retired. Parents of young children would be free to undertake external activities, whether at the office or on a household small-holding. The older members of the household could pass their domestic, nursing, maintenance, and repair skills on to the younger generation. There would be potential for all sorts of educational and recreational activities besides the telly. All these benefits and more would be supplied at little or no cost by known and trusted household members instead of having to be bought from strangers or supplied by the disinterested mercenaries of the state. Everybody in the household would have a useful contribution to make and everybody in the household could learn at first hand the principles of economy and the facts of life and death.
Clearly, such an initiative could not be entrusted to any level of government. It could only be supplied by local co-operation among people who know and trust one another and who are prepared to donate whatever resources they can spare, after the depredations of taxation, to initiate a project that would be viable in their particular environment. Success on a significant scale can come only from a large number of independent local initiatives, each striving to meet its local needs as it understands them, and each learning from the experience of others.
So I hope there are enough people of independent mind to act in their own interests and show government that the less it interferes in their affairs, the better it will be for everybody. Then the household can supplement the traditional family in the real political economy in which real people live and move and have their being. Some of the tentacles of the busybody state can be cut off, taxation can be decreased, and a virtuous economic spiral can be established.
I had just written the foregoing when the news broke about eight-year-old Anna Climbie, whose great aunt and her live-in lover were both sentenced to life imprisonment for almost unimaginable cruelty ending in the death of Anna who lived with them. No fewer than three health authorities, two hospitals, and eight police officers had their attention drawn to Anna's plight; yet their combined efforts, such as they were, did not save her. What clearer evidence is needed to show that copious amounts of tax-payers' money buys no-one any love? Is it not obvious that the care of the helpless, whether young or old, is a matter for the local community rather than for the state? Would it not be virtually impossible for Anna's sadistic great aunt to get away with her crime if she lived in the kind of household I have outlined above? Does loving one's neighbour not demand an end to the Nanny State so that responsible individuals can once again take up the natural rôles that have been wrested from them?