The Form and Function of the American Family

Scott Yenor

Current Issue

All political communities depend on people marrying and raising children for their perpetuation. The most obvious end of marriage is procreation, but in a free, democratic society like ours, children must also be taught within families to take on the responsibilities of freedom and citizenship if the country is to survive and thrive. Indeed, until just a generation ago, it was uncontroversial to say that the family was the cornerstone of a well-ordered political community. The general form that families should take likewise went unquestioned.

For the last half-century, America has been running a series of social experiments on the importance of the marital form. The sexual revolution and American society's new focus on individual satisfaction and self-fulfillment have resulted in a new set of political priorities. The structures of the traditional family were found to be too constricting at best, and discriminatory at worst. As a result, the government has turned away from its traditional view of the form a marriage should take — a man and a woman, bound in an enduring union, ideally raising children together. Instead, it has adopted policies that affirm and often financially support alternative forms of family life. While the importance of the family's function is too obvious to deny, the traditional marital form has been demoted to one of several options.

This change has flowed from the progressive and libertarian emphasis on individual rights, which ignores the attendant duties that allow a free society to function. This way of thinking takes much about human behavior for granted. The devaluation, or the elimination, of the marital form makes sense only if one takes the view that society can assume the continuation of responsible human action absent the structures that have historically shaped those actions. In other words, proponents of this view assume that the state's interest in the "function" of encouraging people to have children and raise them responsibly will be met in the absence of the "form" — even as they cease to prioritize the only institution recognized by the state for the purpose of having and raising children.

The results have not been positive. Analysts now worry about the problem of two Americas, divided by marriage. Children from married, intact families tend to get more education and earn higher wages than children from broken families. The problem compounds as children from successful families tend to marry those from similarly successful families and perpetuate their success, while children from broken families tend to replicate their own parents' choices. For the first time in our history, we seem to have established distinct (though still permeable) social and economic classes, and the dividing line is the marital form. Where the traditional marital form remains strong, men remain relatively more engaged, women relatively more interested in having children, and parents comparatively more responsible in the raising of children. Where the marital form has dissolved, there are fewer children, fewer lasting relationships, less responsible parenting, less industriousness, fewer people making choices for the long term, and more violence.

Civil governments have an interest in promoting marriage, procreation, and responsible parenthood, but they are limited in how they can achieve these interests. The state cannot and should not require people to marry, have children, or stop having children. In general, it cannot tell parents how to raise their children. The incongruity between government's great interests in marriage and family and its inability to promote them has consigned the subjects of marriage and family life to the shadows of today's political theory. Political communities must rediscover the importance of families and protect a form of marriage and family life that can accomplish the indispensable goals of having children and raising them to be good citizens.

STATE INTEREST

The American founders recognized the central role that families would play in facilitating democracy. Beyond procreation, the morality and responsibility required of citizens in this new democracy had to be instilled in the home, particularly through the example of parental behavior. John Adams was unequivocal, writing in 1778 that the "foundation of national morality must be laid in private families." Parents shape the affections and beliefs of their children, with profound implications for their life courses and for the character of the political community. The state thus has a clear interest in the establishment and support of families, specifically in protecting children and maintaining enduring bonds between men and women. The accomplishment of those interests depends on a distinct protection for marital and parental rights, and the maintenance of marital forms conducive to the exercise of marital and parental duties.

American law through the 1960s promoted the state's interests in supporting families through the protection of marital and parental rights and through the protection of a monogamous, enduring, exclusive marital form between a man and a woman. While this protection was vital for maintaining the family form, marriage law did not always respect modern notions of equal citizenship for women. For example, from the American founding until the early-20th century, parental rights were attached to marital rights in the now-discredited legal regime of marital coverture, wherein women lost their legal identity in marriage. Under marital coverture, husbands covered — had authority over and responsibility for — wives and parents covered children for the purposes of state recognition. As a practical matter, this meant the state recognized family property in a man's name, restricted women's voting, and assumed that husbands were responsible for family debts, among other things.

This double-layered coverture — parents covering children and husbands covering wives — attempted to meet the challenge of legally recognizing the family as a single unit. It recognized families through recognizing particular persons — husbands and fathers — as heads of households, with the assumption that beneath male headship existed a community of sorts. Changes in law and opinion led to wifely coverture being legislated away piece by piece from 1850 to 1920, ending with the passage of the 19th Amendment. Women could own property apart from their husbands and thereby gained independence from their roles as wives and mothers.

From the state's perspective, the elimination of marital coverture resulted in a new need to recognize couples exercising joint responsibility for children and other common concerns. Birth parents still assume legal guardianship and fiduciary power over their children. They must feed, clothe, and house children; failure to do so constitutes neglect. Parents control the property, gifts, and labor of children, and take joint responsibility when children cause damage. Today, the state limits the powers of parental coverage when it insists that parents immunize their children, for instance, or requires that children be educated.

At the family level, the joint approach rearranged expectations in marriage. The move from coverture to what I call "jointness" seems to be a move from "obedience to intimacy," as historian Stephanie Coontz suggests. Couples settle disagreements not by paternal authority but through common consent without state involvement. Spousal harmony, it is hoped, increases with the promotion of spousal equality — which increases the need for harmony — leading to friendlier, more loving, and more sympathetic marriages known as "companionate" marriages. As the law recognizes husbands and wives independently of marriage, spouses have more freedom and independence from one another. This more egalitarian joint form can still be monogamous, exclusive, enduring, and centered on raising children, but the joint approach seems to be more elastic regarding how husbands and wives share duties within marriage.

Joint marriages, because they are more flexible, are also less stable and more complex. Since personal feelings came in large part to determine the success of a marriage, divorce has become far more common. Divorce, in turn, complicates the parental coverage of children. Custody after divorce may be "joint," but it is often not fully shared. Children of divorce must adjust to two different ways of parenting, two different households with different value systems, and, sometimes, hostility between custodians. Under such circumstances, the state will at times step in to resolve an issue, for instance, when parents disagree about how to educate their children or how to define support.

The more complicated marital structures or living arrangements are, the more difficulty civil government has in deciding who has parental rights and in enforcing parental cover, support, and obligation. New efforts to separate marriage, procreation, and parenthood have led to a thicket of problems, as the state attempts to define marriage and parenthood according to contemporary social demands. Left by the wayside are the state's old priorities of providing space and protection for families to raise good citizens, thereby perpetuating republican self-government.

The new priorities of recent decades, in line with an aggressive liberalism and libertarianism, are blind or hostile toward any serious reflection on the role of the family in ensuring the survival of our democracy. Of the utmost importance for these versions of liberalism is the recognition of people as autonomous beings who must be able to choose their lifestyles and identities without interference from anything outside their wills, including the government or public opinion. "Marital freedom" is the core of the left's contemporary marriage agenda; implicit in that agenda is the assumption that securing choice and options for the adults involved is the ultimate end of marital policy. It follows, then, that "taking rights seriously," as Ronald Dworkin writes, demands that government maximize individual freedom through recognizing all lifestyle choices equally and providing them with equal and tangible public support. Such support consists in channeling benefits through marriage, which is now defined far more loosely than ever before, including marriage between individuals of the same sex.

Contemporary liberals also see the need to re-engineer marriage and family life, since marital relationships can produce inequalities and habits that limit the choices of the individuals in those relationships, especially women. That re-engineering entails minimizing the effects of gender on the experience of marriage and family life, and cultivating a spirit of economic and emotional independence for those involved in a marriage. The logical end to these arguments, as political scientist Tamara Metz and legal scholar Martha Fineman have suggested, may ultimately be the end of legal recognition for marriage altogether.

The libertarian iteration of this view similarly would have government remove obstacles and maximize all individuals' freedom to choose. In an imagined republic of choice, individuals may, if they choose, marry and form families. The libertarian state, however, would not bestow any special privileges upon married couples. It would simply enforce marriage contracts as spouses define them the same way it enforces other contracts. Individuals would be free to form whatever marriages they want, regardless of the sex, number, or purpose of the union, and to take on the duties of parenthood, or not, as they choose.

Both species of thought hold that any number of forms can be consistent with care for children or satisfaction for adults, so each counsels a full-fledged state retreat from support for a particular, favored marital form. The libertarian Steve Horwitz, for instance, criticizes traditionalists for failing to "distinguish between the form families take and their ability to function." Similarly, Metz and other contemporary liberals embrace the idea of "disestablishing" marriage, because, through the establishment of a particular form, the state is involved in "defining, inculcating, and supporting...institutional arrangements" that promote and rely on certain beliefs about the public goals of marriage and the responsibilities of those within families. For liberals, this is an illegitimate use of state power.

Libertarians and contemporary liberals would limit the state's recognition of marriage, for now, to support for "close, personal relationships" (though it is unclear what interest the state has in promoting intimate relationships, close or otherwise). Contemporary liberals and libertarians either believe that form is unrelated to function, or that the functions of marriage are so nebulous and various, being defined by each individual, that almost any way of organizing one's life with another can accomplish them. Either way, government must ignore the question of form.

These thinkers ignore the way of the world: Form follows function and function follows form, and the function of having and raising children is best accomplished through the active engagement of married, biological parents. Marital and familial forms structure marital expectations, parental rights, and a conception of marital and parental duties. Focusing on matters of function and ignoring questions of form allows liberal and libertarian theorists to ignore institutions that mediate between individuals and the state. Such neglect reflects a principled unwillingness to consider what might be necessary, in the long term, to maintain our political institutions and to prepare individuals for citizenship.

THE MARITAL FORM

Despite the many varieties of oppression that contemporary liberals and libertarians have identified in the government's historical recognition of certain forms of marriage, the state has in fact pursued its interest in a well-raised future citizenry indirectly. Indirect government action is often misunderstood: In this case, it refers to the creation of a protected space in which citizens can pursue a common life in a private family. The state provides a legal framework that protects rights so that important duties can be better executed, and it protects the time-tested, joint marital form that connects rights to related duties. By providing this protection, the state accomplishes its valid interest in self-perpetuation through new generations of good citizens.

Indirection has been used by governments throughout modern history. States protect or shield many of the great institutions of civil society — private property, educational corporations, economic enterprises, and religious organizations, for example — in the hope that they will produce indispensable public goods, such as prosperity, civic knowledge, and self-governing citizens.

James Madison's discussion of property in Federalist No. 10 is illustrative. Instead of directly shaping people's faculties and talents, Madison counsels protecting the products of their faculties and talents. "[T]he first object of government," Madison writes, is the protection of the diverse and unequal "faculties" of citizens. Faculties come from a person's innate abilities, acquired talents, background, and education. According to Madison, the "different degrees and kinds of property" immediately result from "the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property."

Government can ably delineate and police the boundaries of property and thereby provide a framework of stability and protection within which people can cultivate their faculties. By protecting private property, governments create a legal environment within which people can pursue natural inclinations, and thereby create useful inventions and economic prosperity. (This indirect protection of property — instead of directing the faculties and talents of citizens toward specific aims — also avoids a host of problems related to government competence and legitimacy.) Much the same logic applies to the founders' protection of the rights of conscience, which provides space for vibrant religious life and practice; that religious life in turn helps to provide the moral foundations for the republic.

The policy of indirection that protects marital rights promotes the formation of marriage and secures its integrity, so the individuals in a marriage can pursue a common life with some confidence. For mothers and fathers, the protection of parental rights provides space for having and educating children, enabling parents to fulfill their duties. The protection of such rights has required different actions by legislatures and courts at different times and in different situations. For example, it can mean shielding parents from laws intruding into the proper sphere of parental independence, like laws that all but prohibit home-schooling, the mandatory-sterilization laws from the Progressive Era, or recent laws that limit legitimate parental discretion in matters of gender identity.

Indirection is effective when citizens have a sense of duty leading to responsible action to fill the space that civil government protects. Duties attach to, and derive from, institutions such as marriage, which themselves are not solely products of human choice. Duty is an obligation that at times constrains passion or can demand the performance of a task even when that performance goes against one's immediate desire or interest. Duties are essential to marriage and the family, and involve getting married and staying married, having children and raising them.

Some duties can be enforced through laws (e.g., a duty to pay a tax). Duties surrounding marriage and family life — especially duties related to raising children — would be executed poorly if the country depended primarily on legal incentives to get parents to take care of their children (though parental neglect is indeed against the law in every state in the union) or required spouses to cherish one another. Laws are indirectly relevant to marital and parental duties. Duties associated with marriage and family life more often arise from conscience and religious obligation, like the duty of marital fidelity or to be "fruitful and multiply." Duties may also arise from nature, from predominant habits, mores, and opinions, or from a worry about shaming oneself or one's family. In any event, duties arise from a form of marriage that channels nature, shapes habits, molds opinions, and grounds obligations.

The predominant understanding of marriage in any society supplies a notion of duty that tutors interests and passions. The marital form shapes and guides our understanding of which passions should be followed and what is in our interests, of what is right and what is wrong. Because of the institutional form, duties thus appear to be, and indeed often are, in one's interest and consistent with one's desires.

The forms that marriage and family life take are important because human passions and interests can point in any number of directions. So when discussing the family as an institution, it is vital to account for the complexity of passions and interests involved in having children, raising children, and attaching adults (especially men) to family life. Too many policymakers, especially those of a progressive or libertarian bent, take for granted that people will continue to act responsibly in the absence of the structures that define the duties that attach to all their rights. However, divorced from traditional forms that give meaning to family life and its attendant responsibilities, marriage and family become options that are easily forgone for other lifestyles. Women become mother material, men become father material, and both become marriage material when they understand their desires and interests in light of a more traditional marital form. 

It need not be like this. For example, there is no natural duty for women to reproduce, though many women have a natural inclination to have children, and many religious traditions encourage it. Having a child requires great personal sacrifices during a time in life when young women have great individual vibrancy and many appealing lifestyle options. Likewise, raising a child requires tremendous investments of time and treasure. Many parents bear these costs gladly, but no society can rely exclusively on parental feeling to accomplish such goals; duty and passion do not perfectly align, and creatures with limited time on earth must give priority to some natural passions over others.

These passions often present more of a challenge when it comes to men. Because mothers can know their children biologically and nurture them physically, motherhood has a more obvious natural basis than fatherhood; this physical connection provides a sturdier foundation for the exercise of duties. Men often seem more interested in sexual satisfaction, personal ambition, and vainglorious violence than in nurturing children. Fatherhood appears, as James Q. Wilson notes, to be more influenced by culture and opinions about what is honorable and noble. A political community has to find a way to get enough adults to prioritize parenthood so that enough children are reared to responsible adulthood to secure the perpetuation and health of the regime.

For modern governments, the solution to the challenges of having children, prioritizing parenthood, and cultivating male responsibility involves attaching husbands to wives and children through the promotion of an enduring, exclusive, monogamous, joint marital form. "Jointness" marriages are, even with the ongoing decomposition of the marital form, still the most likely to produce children. Marriage provides a stable union within which women are most likely to feel secure and supported so that they can depend on the provision and assistance of a husband; this fosters both procreation and an investment in a child's education. A monogamous marriage between a man and woman is the form of marriage most likely to coincide with a trusting equality resembling friendship that allows two people to live a common life.

Consensual, monogamous marriage attaches the wandering male to a wife and family. Jointness marriage tends to tame domineering tendencies, predominantly among men, since husband and wife must form and maintain a partnership. Men, uninvolved in the actual birthing of children, often find their importance in providing support to their families. A man's identity comes to be melded with responsibility, and his ambition becomes more likely to be directed toward the good of his family; this responsible support can, when the jointness form is honored or practiced, win him public approval. Within the context of marriage, a man is more likely to take responsibility for his children as a means of keeping and deepening marital harmony and out of genuine concern for the future of each child and for the happiness of his wife. Thus, a man's duty comes to match his understanding of his interest and passions. This transforms men's sexual desires into a desire to care for a particular child and mother.

Since marital forms shape how people understand their interests and prioritize their passions, the state has an interest in promoting some forms at the expense of others. Alternative marital forms — such as polygamy or severe patriarchy — tend to undermine the affection, consent, marital friendship, and trust central to a well-functioning marriage. The society's interests in procreation, education, and tutoring male sexual ambition are not promoted as well under these forms. Men and women are both prone to adultery and discontent under polygamous arrangements, and children are less well prepared for self-government.

Likewise, today's dissolved marital form, in which relationships do not need to endure and do not call forth as many demands from parents, fails to provide adequate provision for lasting relationships, tends to produce fewer children with less capacity for self-government. The dissolved marital form also guides parents toward personal independence rather than toward allowing their own interests to become those of their family.

Despite the unsettling changes in marriage and family life, many people still marry, have children, and raise them to be responsible citizens. Nature can point to marriage. Many, perhaps most, human beings desire sex with members of the opposite sex and want intimate, enduring relationships, so traditional marriage has a natural basis. Human beings desire to live beyond themselves and to express their love for another concretely, so procreation has a natural basis. Human beings want to care for children and to take on responsibilities, so parental education of children has a natural basis. (Of course, the line from some of these natural desires to duty is more direct in some instances than in others.)

The state's policy of indirection depends on the attractiveness of translating these experiences toward marriage. Some people find fulfillment in being married, having children, and raising them no matter what, while for others, marrying, having children, and raising them is never going to be the right choice. Mores and laws can make a difference for those who don't feel very strongly either way. If laws and public opinion are hostile to family life, then we should expect fewer marriages, fewer children, and less parental involvement in the education of children. Alternatively, a favorable environment will encourage more of this behavior.

For example, the presence of strong religious beliefs does much to point natural passions toward the discharge of duties. Evidence today suggests that those who faithfully attend church services are more likely to marry and stay married, have children, and invest significant time and resources in the education of their children. On this score, duty and responsibility seem to come from outside of liberal principles in a manner that reinforces what the state hopes to achieve indirectly. But communities that are friendly to families encourage dutiful family behavior.

In contrast, modern feminism has done much to affect our understanding of duties, in law and through public opinion. Some feminist thinkers and activists would point women toward independence from marriage and family life and away from feelings of maternal duty. While some feminists advocate extreme views about the oppression of motherhood, more diplomatic feminists have succeeded in slowly educating women (and men) away from an appreciation for the joys and duties of family life. This new education involves changing mores and expectations and elevating other human goods such as independence and careers, while dethroning motherhood and family life generally. When the cultural environment tells women to "lean in" to meaningful work and to resist allowing the duties of family life to get in the way of their professional ambitions, fewer women (and men) will be interested in taking advantage of the marital and parental rights afforded them.

Whether this slow re-education constitutes a suppression of nature or an exchange of one culture for another (or both), these new values might win out over the mutual dependence and community of marriage that ground parental duties. If that is the case, parental rights, though legally secure, will likely be exercised less often and perhaps become decreasingly important. Just as property rights and the rights of conscience are most vulnerable when fewer people own property or practice their faith, parental rights will become vulnerable when fewer avail themselves of those rights or are interested in the attendant duties.

STATE ACTION AND THE EXERCISE OF RESPONSIBILITY

The state's policy of indirection depends on the attractiveness of the family experience, as people must choose it for themselves. Defenders of that policy therefore have a responsibility to encourage a public view of family responsibilities as high duties, by ensuring that they are supported and reinforced through interest, conscience, and public morality.

In particular, government respect for familial integrity must involve maintaining a public morality that is, among other things, conducive to marriage and family life. To do this, civil government must respect the tasks and responsibilities that families can effectively discharge, and honor those who live responsibly within marriages and families. Civil society itself should find ways of honoring and supporting marriage and family life through independent initiatives and by shaping a favorable public opinion.

Given our political and cultural environment, restoring the traditional, joint marital form to its former position as the only recognized family form is unlikely, whatever its social benefits. Yet even in our current environment, there are some ways in which government could support marriage and childrearing with policies of indirection, protecting rights and supporting duties for the public goods that family life provides. 

To start, we should continue to use the law to sustain public morality. Passions are guided by public morality or mores: the community's general sense of right and wrong, and its opinions about what is honorable, shameful, acceptable, advantageous, and just. Public morality is largely, though not exclusively, shaped by laws. Civil government should therefore enact laws that shape an environment where duties can more easily be recognized and practiced. Laws regulating obscenity, some forms of gambling, public displays of explicit pornography, prostitution, drug use, polygamy, incest, violations of the age of consent, public nudity, or indecency continue to discourage and stigmatize actions that might further disrupt devoted monogamous marriage and corrupt erotic sensibilities. Laws proscribing such actions, particularly at the state and local levels, continue to broadly discourage ways of life inimical to monogamous love and responsible parenthood. These laws protect marriage indirectly by contributing to an environment in which the kinds of love, responsibility, and character central to marital life are more likely to flourish.

In creating family policy directly, lawmakers must always bear in mind the unintended consequences of too much intervention — specifically for policies that change the way parents view their degree of responsibility for their children. There is relatively little that can be done from a policy perspective to increase the birth rate, but the potential for harming the moral framework of the family is significant. 

Most policy proposals for promoting marriage and family life today take an economic view. Some imagine that reducing the costs of parenting will encourage more people to assume the duties of parenthood. Policymakers have suggested a number of ways to go about this: reducing the skyrocketing cost of parenting through a variety of adjustments to our tax code; relieving parents of burdens and duties that might free them to afford children or find a better work-life balance; or removing costly duties or functions from the family, such as paying for college.

Reducing the costs of parenthood would support families, of course, but the available evidence suggests such proposals are unlikely to fundamentally shape people's choices about marriage and childbearing. The decision to have children proceeds more from habits of the heart than from the pocketbook. If people value their wealth, careers, or independence more than they want to embrace parenthood and its attendant duties, there will be fewer children and fewer marriages no matter how much the government tries to reduce the financial burdens. Throughout the modern world, countries with historically high standards of living and generous social benefits have declining birth rates.

Policymakers should tread lightly in considering such benefits. As Alexis de Tocqueville warns near the end of Democracy in America, a government must be wary of "abusing its agility and force," either through usurping the rights of people to act together or through assuming duties that otherwise belong to individuals or families. Government today is at least as likely to assume or usurp parental and marital duties as to attack parental and marital rights. Furthermore, much state aid conceives of children as burdens, reinforcing the idea that children are simply burdens.

As our government becomes more and more like the "detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild" one that Tocqueville foresaw, citizens are tempted to allow the state to deliver the necessities around which a household is organized. At some point, removing duties and responsibilities weakens the family more than it strengthens it. Removing all the burdens of parenthood may, paradoxically, encourage people to invest less in their families. A public that asks parents to provide only psychological and emotional support to their children may thus have greater problems engaging parents. A better conception sees children as responsibilities over which concerned parents must exercise thoughtful discretion regarding significant questions of human destiny. Laudable proposals that mitigate the costs of marriage and family life must respect the idea that marriage and family life necessarily involve bearing burdens and exercising responsibility.

As a matter of policy, this might entail small steps, such as involving parents more in a child's formal education through school-choice programs or alternative schooling. The creation of government-run schooling, begun in the late 1880s nationwide, coincided with the decline of marriage and birth rates. Choice programs presume the capacity and involvement of parents; it is possible they may also encourage such capacity and involvement.

Any effective family policy must also recognize that economic incentives do not explain the gamut of human motivations. Indeed, most people govern themselves largely by implicit reference to public opinions about what is honorable and dishonorable, especially when it comes to family life. Today, public opinion concerns itself far more with protecting and celebrating individual rights than duties and responsibilities. The problem of recognizing duty as a good thing, then, is largely a cultural one, and the responsibility for honoring the dutiful must fall to civil society.

Much of this work must therefore be done through society's intermediate institutions, such as churches, and within families themselves. For instance, 50th wedding anniversaries are happy occasions where family and friends celebrate long-married couples. Perhaps couples should make additional efforts to broadcast the happiness and fulfillment that come from a lifetime of adjustment, caring, and responsibility. Philanthropists spend much time supporting college scholarships and expanding opportunities for youth as a way of promoting laudable activities in self-advancement and higher education. Perhaps similar efforts could be directed to honoring those who have well-established families with many children who themselves have married and had children.

FORM AND FUNCTION

Discussing the American people's characteristic philosophical method, Tocqueville describes how Americans "scorn forms, which they consider as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth." Scorn and hatred for forms comes from the aspiration for "easy and present enjoyments." Perhaps those who scorn the marital form hope that adults can live together in love without marriage and that children will be cared for regardless of how their parents relate to one another.

Yet forms embody a collective wisdom that channels individual passions toward the healthy exercise of duty. Forms provide beneficial results for most of society, though they may misfire in some cases and may not be necessary in every case. Forms elevate and extend people's interests toward long-term projects and toward thinking about one's long-term happiness and interests, leading to more responsible decision-making. A political community that protects the marital form exhibits a responsible deference to the wisdom of generations past, and a manifest understanding of human weakness. It is difficult for people to understand these benefits through autonomous reason or by consulting present pleasure.

Tocqueville also wrote that forms "serve as a barrier between the strong and the weak." Forms constitute salutary restraints that elevate those most in need of assistance by giving people an image of how life should be led. People who might be taken with irresponsible exercises of passion or who would forgo forging long-lasting relations with their children can be tutored to their long-term interests through marital forms. Overwhelming evidence shows that the weak and vulnerable are especially at risk when marriage declines. Without a publicly approved marital form, fewer women have children, and fewer adults marry. Without the marital form, men who might have been providers return to wandering — unattached, irresponsible, lacking industriousness, and seeking honor in socially destructive ways.

Indirect support for the joint marital form may be offensive to some who value marital freedom above all else. Yet all should remember that indirect support for marital and parental rights is designed to promote indispensable public goods in a non-coercive way. Such indirect support is consistent with our society's dedication to tolerance, and its interest not only in securing the blessings of liberty for our posterity, but also in ensuring that we have a posterity for which to provide.

Scott Yenor is a professor of political science at Boise State University and author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor, 2011) and David Hume’s Humanity (Palgrave, 2016).


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