How Ideas Of The Family Evolve Alongside Culture, Politics, And Law

Ever since widespread access to birth control and abortion made biological motherhood optional, and the welfare state severely eroded the economic responsibilities of fatherhood, Western Civilization has been struggling to redefine the family. In that context, the recent Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage should be seen as a milestone on the way to a yet unknown destination, rather than a terminal event.

The nuclear family arose from Darwinian reproductive strategies long before anything we would call civilization emerged. It persisted through thousands of years of recognized history largely because it worked. Every culture that tried to supplant the nuclear family failed. So far.

When trying to formulate a modern theory of the family compatible with the expanded role of government, people have sought guidance from the Bible, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Ayn Rand, and others. I’d like to suggest another sage we might learn from. The late science fiction author Robert Heinlein.

Although Heinlein’s book Stranger in a Strange Land, with its depictions of free love and radical individualism, is more celebrated, many consider The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to be his most profound work. On the surface, the 1966 novel is about a revolt on a lunar colony. Heinlein deftly uses this rollicking space opera as a canvas to explore numerous themes, including just governance, the art of diplomacy, the power of mass media, the rise of artificial intelligence, the nature of humor, and most interestingly the evolution of the family.

Shaped by an initial gender imbalance when the Moon was first populated as a penal colony (modeled on 19th century Australia), radical new family forms emerged. Many of these were polyandrous, including group marriages. Heinlein also invented what he called a line marriage, which bears some scrutiny because it highlights the fundamental economic foundations of marriage.

Like a modern corporation, a line marriage is potentially immortal. New young spouses are added as old ones die, making these families multi-generational. Some property is held in common and some individually, as defined by the particular family’s charter. Heinlein, reputedly a bit of a pervert, reveled in describing these families’ various permutations and combinations of sexual relations. Though he died 30 years ago at a ripe old age, nothing in today’s sexual smorgasbord would have shocked him.

My objective is not to promote any of these innovations, or rail against them. It is, rather, to point out potential political consequences of what can happen when the family is freed from its biological chains while the state takes on ever more responsibility for raising the next generation. Because as family forms evolve under the pressure of these new and powerful forces, a parade of social out-groups will inevitably use the levers of politics and media to clamor for recognition, equal protection, and their share of entitlement spoils.

If we are not to be riven by a constant culture war — a situation that plays into the hands of an activist left in perpetual search for group grievances to distract from their disastrous economic policies — social conservatives had better start playing a smarter game. Trying to defend a democratic society from its own choices is a fool’s errand. The best you can do is to defend your own families and communities from the depredations of the mob. And you’d better come up with a good strategy soon, because the mob will undoubtedly be coming after recalcitrant churches with a vengeance once they finish celebrating this round of victories.