Cameron Pritchard
Cameron Pritchard

Why Conservatives Like to Keep it in the Family

Throughout history would-be advocates of liberty have tried to base freedom on dangerous foundations. God, utilitarianism, the protestant ethic – you name it, it has been trumpeted as a would-be defence for capitalism. Whether capitalism is based on serving the Almighty, or being your ‘brother's keeper’ - or both - all too often its advocates fall over themselves to reassure the socialists that they too support altruism. It is unsurprising then that many conservatives (‘radical’ or otherwise) have a pet form of altruistic dogma to be used whenever they actually feel like trying to defend liberty. They base their support for capitalism on one particular kind of altruism - the notion of ‘family values.

The doctrine grants to the family unit a mysterious ‘intrinsic value’. The religious undertones are clear. God has ordained the family as the basic social unit - and all those deviants who want to destroy it must be stopped. We often hear supposed defenders of the free market advocate this notion, often accompanied by a thoroughly anti-freedom Christian ethic as loud-mouthed as it is bigoted.

Can defenders of liberty justify such a morality?

Not if we know anything about liberty - and the conservatives clearly do not. They will offer pin-up notions of duty and self-sacrifice as ‘virtues without which society cannot function; none of this ‘self-interest’ nonsense for these people. These conservatives are merely authoritarians who want to change the pinnacle of authority from the state to the household. The family values preachers want the state to get out of the way alright, but only so individuals can pursue their real role - as servants, not to the state, but to their blood relations (and thence to their spiritual leaders).

The idea that we as individuals have duties simply by virtue of genealogy is pure tribalism. Moral responsibility cannot be applied to anything outside the individual's choice - one cannot be judged for that which is outside one's control. Nor can one judge others by that which is outside their control. Yet the individual is told that he must - automatically - love, value and respect people with whom he may hold nothing in common except the blood running through his veins. To the altruist the unchosen is superior to the chosen. An individual's values must be acquired by his own mind and his own choice, but his relatives are not. What better form of self-sacrifice then to demand an individual give up the very essence of his self - his own private, freely chosen values - in the name of the bloodline he has no choice about? What could be more ingenious?

Recently the United States government decided in the name of ‘parental rights’ to override the individual rights of young Cuban refugee, Elian Gonzales. Ignoring the boy's Miami family - who still fight for him to stay in a society where he can grow up in liberty, rather than in the backward totalitarianism of Cuba - Attorney General Janet Reno ordered the boy's kidnapping from his Miami relatives, and forcible return to his birth father. Reno even stated that she carried out this action because she could not bear to think of the boy being "without his father at Easter time". To the American government ‘family values’ are a vote winner – sadly, even more than the supreme value of life and its basic requirement, liberty.

But to Reno tribalism is more important than real values. Elian belongs, she believes, not in a free society but instead with a father who is himself the property of Castro. How could such an action as Reno's be justified? Elian had a family in the United States who respected his freedom. But he had a father who had been ordered to return him to a dictatorship. Reno saw ‘intrinsic value’ in the father-son relationship, acted accordingly, and sold the boy into slavery.

Thus granting an intrinsic value to blood ties ultimately means making no distinction between loving parents and abusive parents; between families that encourage the individuality of their members and families that demand blind obedience and self-sacrifice; between family members who demand love and respect because of lineage and family members who earn love and respect. Yet the conservatives continue to glorify the intrinsic value of the family while remaining blind to such a notion's collectivist implications, believing – somehow - that they can have a free society populated by something other than free individuals. They need only look at the history of China to see that there is no link between enshrining the family and enshrining freedom. Confucian values made every family member morally and legally responsible for every other family member. Respect and authority came from one's position in the family. The family functioned as society's disciplinary tool with husband ruling wife, and old ruling young. Those who wish the family to be the basic social unit should take note - here was a society in which an authoritarian family structure was translated into a totalitarian social structure long before the birth of today’s People's Republic.

What is needed then is not the dubious protection of conservative family values but instead a cultural and ethical change of revolutionary proportions. We must draw a line through all of mankind's ethical history - thoroughly rejecting the ethical doctrines of self-sacrifice, duty, obedience and tribalism from which the family values preachers take their cue. To grant man his freedom means to respect his ability to live his own life. This means allowing him to be both legally free to seek self-expression and self-fulfilment, as well as being morally entitled to do so. Without this recognition of man's moral entitlement to his own happiness, his legal rights will not long remain. Yet traditional ethics have never recognised such an entitlement. Virtue has had nothing to do with the expression of the self and fulfilment of one's happiness, but more with the denial and sacrifice of the self. The young girl who gives up the career of her dreams in order to satisfy her mother's arbitrary demands is simply the latest victim of the millennia old command to honour thy father and thy mother – come what may.

Individualism is the only basis for liberty, and nothing less is good enough. And individualism is the only basis for proper, rational family values. Families can allow for the flowering of individuals, encouraging young people's independence and igniting their potential for achievement. An environment driven by real values rather is a far cry from the religious dogma and categorical duty of family values preached by conservatives, from their stale notions of deference and of unthinking respect for authority. Such values breed only musty tradition-worship, blind tribalism and - ultimately - statism. The negative implications for our freedom are all too clear. Those who understand the real, objective value of families – encouraging opportunity for personal growth, respect for freely chosen values, and a hunger for rational self-expression -- should speak the loudest in rejecting the conservative dogma of gene-worshipping tribalism.

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