Culture and Society

Strong Families (Help) Keep Big Government at Bay

Daniel Zekveld
June 6, 2023
What came before government? Family. The biological family of a mother, father and children has constituted the basic building block of society throughout humanity’s development. It is the wellspring of relationships, education, economics, law and basic well-being. The UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights referred to family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” Yet progressive thinkers and governments have long worked to erode this innate authority by undermining the definition of family and usurping its functions. Daniel Zekveld stands up for the biological family based on its tremendous social benefits and its role as a bulwark against an overreaching state.
Culture and Society

Strong Families (Help) Keep Big Government at Bay

Daniel Zekveld
June 6, 2023
What came before government? Family. The biological family of a mother, father and children has constituted the basic building block of society throughout humanity’s development. It is the wellspring of relationships, education, economics, law and basic well-being. The UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights referred to family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society.” Yet progressive thinkers and governments have long worked to erode this innate authority by undermining the definition of family and usurping its functions. Daniel Zekveld stands up for the biological family based on its tremendous social benefits and its role as a bulwark against an overreaching state.
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While he may have married his high-school sweetheart and fathered seven (or perhaps eight) children, Karl Marx was not a “family” man. In The Communist Manifesto he called for traditional family structures to be abolished because he regarded them as enabling capital and private wealth creation. And since the family is the primary mechanism for passing society’s values from generation to generation, strong families also reinforced the middle-class worldview Marx so abhorred. “The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parents and child, becomes all the more disgusting,” Marx wrote, as “the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.” To stop parents from exploiting their children, he argued, the state must take over their education and disrupt the familial nexus.

Marx borrowed this idea of the natural family as a tool of oppression from 18th century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rosseau. And it was carried further by Marxist thinkers such as Wilhelm Reich, who argued in the early 20th century that dismantling the nuclear family was essential to achieving political and sexual liberation, since it is an innately conservative structure and hence a barrier to his radical designs. French philosopher Herbert Marcuse – patron saint of today’s woke revolution – continued in this line of thinking with his 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance, arguing that the state must help form proper thinking by regulating education and speech to ensure correct outcomes. To Marcuse, family was an obstacle to achieving greater control over the minds of younger generations.

Karl Marx (left) said traditional family structures should be abolished, declaring “the hallowed co-relation of parents and child” to be “bourgeois clap-trap”; French philosopher Herbert Marcuse (right) believed families were an obstacle to state control over the minds of young people.

Redefining the Family

The progressive project to eliminate family as a social force has not succeeded. At least not at its most basic level. According to Statistics Canada, 98.5 percent of families in Canada constitute opposite-sex relationships. Of these, 77 percent are married and 50 percent have children. Yet a steady march of federal and provincial government policy apparently aims to fulfill the desires of Marx et al by continually diluting the definition of family, eventually to the point of meaninglessness.

Ontario is Canada’s most aggressive jurisdiction in this regard. In 2016, the province incorporated a radical redefinition of the family into its new All Families are Equal Act. Prior to this law’s passage, legal parentage was defined as follows: “For all purposes of the law of Ontario a person is the child of his or her natural parents and his or her status as their child is independent of whether the child is born within or outside marriage.” The only exception was legal adoption.

This was changed to allow for multiple ways to become a legal parent. A birth parent could be the legal parent, except in cases of surrogacy. The biological father could be a legal parent unless the child was conceived through sperm donation. In fact, up to four adults could sign a “pre-conception parentage agreement” whereby they agreed to co-parent a child yet to be conceived, even if none of these adults had a biological relationship to the child, or any legal or familial relationship with any of the other co-parents.

A mere contract: Ontario’s All Families are Equal Act discounts biological relationships and makes parenthood a simple matter of “intent”; B.C. and Newfoundland also legalized “throuples,” i.e. threesomes of any combination of sexes and genders. (Sources of photos: (top) Shutterstock; (bottom) Dan Toulgoet/Vancouver is Awesome)

In Ontario law, the concept of family has thereby become merely a contractual arrangement. These contracts are founded on the “intent” to become a parent. A biological mother is no longer a mother but “the person who gives birth to the child.” A biological father is now defined as the “person whose sperm resulted in the conception of a child.” Both of these definitions discount the biological relationship entirely, acknowledging the mother and father only as instruments for producing a child who is the object of a contract.

Other provinces are moving in this direction as well, diminishing the importance of a child’s blood relationships. Courts in British Columbia and Newfoundland have also given benediction to “throuples” – essentially, threesomes of any combination of sexes and genders – and definitions of families across jurisdictions are being changed to remove terms such as “mother” and “father.”

In B.J.T. v. J.D. (2022), the Supreme Court of Canada considered how biological ties should factor in determining the best interests of the child in a custody case. Four reasons were listed for reducing the weight of biological relationships. First, they may make decision-makers focus on parents’ wants instead of children’s needs. Second, a psychological and emotional bond is more important than biology. Third, the benefits of biology may be intangible and hard to articulate, especially as society changes and non-nuclear families become more common. And finally, since the case in question was about two different biological relationships, one should not be preferred over the other. In the interests of inclusivity, the law is being increasingly disconnected from natural, biological relationships.

Natural and Fundamental Group Unit

Despite what politicians and judges may say, however, there is ample and lengthy legal testimony regarding the role and importance of the strictly-defined biological family. Consider the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts the family to be “the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

The document’s emphasis on the significance of family as the basic building block of society was largely thanks to Charles Malik, a Christian Lebanese philosopher, mathematician and physicist and prominent anti-Nazi, who became one of the 1948 declaration’s drafters. In his 1998 book The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent, American political philosopher Johannes Morsink explained that Malik initially wanted to insert an even stronger endorsement.

The UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined the family as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society…entitled to protection by society and the State,” ideas incorporated thanks largely to Christian Lebanese philosopher and prominent anti-Nazi Charles Malik (right). (Source of right photo: charlesmalikinstitute.org)

An earlier draft stated that, “The family deriving from marriage is the natural and fundamental group unit of society. It is endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights antecedent to all positive law and as such shall be protected by the State and Society.” Malik’s original conception would have clarified the biological definition of family and explained how its rights are not provided by the state or society at large, but rather are inherent, eternal and independent of both.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights later influenced the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which describes in its Preamble: “Convinced that the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”

Similar language found its way into Canadian law as well. The 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights affirms the “dignity and worth of the human person and position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions.” And while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is silent on the role and status of family, its preamble states that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law.” This at least recognizes that the state is not God. The rule of law thus requires the state to recognize the limits of its own powers as well as the legitimate authority of non-government institutions. And the most significant of these is undoubtedly the family.

Family Functions

In addition to its most basic biological function of procreation (thereby saving humanity from extinction), the natural family serves an educational function (teaching and guiding children from the time of birth), a governing function (demonstrating a structure of authority, law and protection), and an economic function (providing for the support and well-being of the family unit).

When a child is conceived, that child is, or certainly ought to be, a result of loving intimacy between the child’s mother and father. The fellowship experienced and the bond established by a husband and wife and their children is called a family. A family headed by married, biological parents is where nature and nurture meet. By nature, a child is connected to its father and mother through a bond of blood, while resembling the father and mother in various physical features. Through nurture, the child is raised by its mother and father with attention to the child’s character, well-being and growth. And the parents themselves are bonded through marriage. The family is not a random collection of individuals but the foundation on which society itself has been established.

Where nature and nurture meet: Being the foundation upon which society is established, family serves multiple functions, from basic procreation and education to providing support, structure and protection for its members. (Source of photos: Pexels)

This does not mean the family’s authority is absolute. When for whatever reason the family cannot fulfill its core functions, the state may have to pick up the slack (which in the past, and to a lesser extent today, was the function of extended families, tribes and villages). But it will usually do so poorly, because it is unable to replicate the love and connection within the family unit. Government also has a legitimate role to play in prosecuting criminal abuse or neglect of a child wherever that may occur. But this does not mean it has the right to rearrange the family in order to assume authority over it.

The consequences of recognizing the biological, married family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society” are most evident in surveying the outcomes of children. In addition to corresponding to common sense, history and millennia of church teaching, ample academic evidence reveals that a child has the best chance for success when he or she lives with both biological parents. Father and mother play important, but differing, roles in their child’s life.

Swedish philosopher Marcus Agnafors (top left) says mother and child form a strong bond that benefits both; economist Melanie Wasserman (bottom left) found boys who grow up outside a family with two married biological parents do worse in school and are more likely to commit crimes. (Source of top right photo: Pexels)

Swedish philosopher Marcus Agnafors has explained that when a woman conceives a child, an intense bond is developed between the two which is beneficial to both. Fathers are also critical to the child’s well-being. Writing in the academic journal Annual Review of Sociology, U.S. scholars Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach and Daniel Schneider “find strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional development, particularly by increasing externalizing behavior.” Examples of the latter are increased risk of smoking or early pregnancy, reduced high-school graduation rates, and poorer mental health as an adult.

In her research paper The Disparate Effects of Family Structure, Melanie Wasserman explains that boys who grow up outside a family with two married, biological parents tend to suffer negative consequences such as weaker results at school and a greater likelihood of committing crimes, what was once known as “falling in with the wrong crowd.”

Psychologist Linda Nielsen, as well as a trio of psychologists writing in the journal Developmental Psychology, reveal how intact father-daughter relationships increase the chances of success in school, work and relationships and reduce the likelihood of risky sexual behaviour. A 2019 survey report headed by Dutch academic Janique Kroese concludes, “Growing up in single-parent families is associated with an elevated risk of involvement in crime by adolescents.” Another academic study found that single-parent households were linked to noticeably higher child mortality rates due to accidents and homicides.

A variety of research by Mark Regnerus, D. Paul Sullins and Douglas Allen has examined children living with same-sex parents and its effects on mental health and educational outcomes, poverty and risk of depression, suicide and abuse. The social scientists concluded that children living with unrelated adults are at higher risk of sexual, emotional and physical abuse.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children separated from one or both biological parents are more likely to suffer poverty, witness violence and live with someone who has a drug or alcohol addiction or will become incarcerated. The paper concludes, “Children living with two parents fared better than those living with one parent who in turn fared better than children living with no parents.” Biological ties are clearly a vital factor in a child’s chances of growing up with success.

“Resistance Cells”

Beyond these well-documented social and health benefits accruing to individual members of a family, the family unit is also a significant cultural institution in defending individual rights and acting as a bulwark against the encroachments of an ever-growing state apparatus. It is no coincidence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ recognition of the family as the foundational unit in society followed on the heels of the Second World War.

As with the regimes imagined by Rousseau, Marx and Reich, the clear and horrific record of fascism and communism left no doubt as to the attitudes of totalitarian governments towards family: it is an obstacle to sweeping societal change, so it must itself be swept aside. In his memoir The Burden of Hitler’s Legacy, Alfons Heck explains his childhood allegiance to the Nazi regime, his participation in the Hitler Youth and his eventual change of mind. “We who were born into Nazism never had a chance unless our parents were brave enough to resist the tide and transmit their opposition to their children,” he writes. The only effective counterweight to the state-sponsored fanaticism of the Hitler Youth (and the analogous Bund Deutscher Mädchen or League of German Girls) was, in Heck’s view, the family unit.

Cold War-era Communist Czechoslovakia provides similar evidence of the vital role played by family in pushing back against authoritarianism. Rod Dreher, author of Live Not By Lies, calls families “resistance cells” against the regime, writing that “family is where we first learn to love others. If we are lucky, it is also where we first learn how to live in truth.” As strong families empowered their members to push back against totalitarianism, totalitarian states saw the need to break down the family unit.

Former Czech dissident Vaclav Benda, who was imprisoned from 1979 to 1983 for “subversion of the Republic,” wrote a series of essays including The Problems of Family in a Totalitarian State. Benda describes the attack the Soviet-backed state launched against social institutions, and recalls that only the church and the family were able to significantly resist state pressure and create problems for Czechoslovakia’s totalitarian regime. Among the state’s many techniques to undermine the family were some relatively subtle measures such as imposing longer working days on parents and longer schooldays on children, eroding family bonds.

Writing in The Burden of Hitler’s Legacy, Alfons Heck (top right), a former member of the Hitler Youth (bottom), argued the family is an essential counterweight to totalitarianism and state-sponsored fanaticism. (Source of bottom photo: facinghistory.org)

Housing policy, meanwhile, focused on keeping living spaces small so that families could not grow considerably. Poorly built state housing throughout the Soviet-controlled states of Eastern Europe easily transmitted sounds, facilitating eavesdropping and discouraging free conversation. Benda also refers to the challenges parents faced in directing the education of their own children, as all children were schooled by the state and relentlessly indoctrinated in Marxism-Leninism and its atheist and socialist doctrines.

Author Rod Dreher (top left) calls families “resistance cells” against totalitarian regimes; former Czech dissident Vaclav Benda (bottom left) wrote that small, poorly-built state housing units, such as the 1970s era Soviet flat shown on the right, were a subtle way of undermining families in Soviet-era Eastern Europe.

Another example of the totalitarian state’s animosity towards autonomous families can be seen in Communist China’s former one-child policy. Its application of forced abortion and sterilization had profound effects on Chinese family life and the country’s future demography, creating a marked imbalance in the male-female population ratio that, today, is manifesting in a collapsing birth rate. These artificially small families were thus robbed of their autonomy, essentially becoming creatures of government diktat. The Uyghur population of China continues to suffer from this sort of control over basic human relations.

But democratic and ostensibly free countries are not immune to such thinking, either. In Canada, the Black Lives Matter movement includes as one of its guiding principles to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure,” advocating instead for the collective care of children by non-parents. Family values that reflect conservatism, loyalty to groups other than the state and independence of thought threaten all totalitarian regimes and revolutionary movements.

Traditional structures that promote conservatism, independent thought and loyalty to family threaten revolutionary movements; it’s no surprise that Black Lives Matter seeks to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” (Source of bottom photo: Pixabay)

Here in Canada, the risk is not overt totalitarianism but rather a creeping statism that gradually erodes the family’s role in political and social life. As a recent Cardus report explains, federal family policy has gradually shifted from a “family responsibility paradigm” to an “investing in children paradigm.” The former refers to policies that enhance the independence and autonomy of parents by offering tax deductions and subsidies so they can make their own decisions. The latter removes responsibility from parents and places it with state agencies and non-family actors, who slowly assume greater control over a country’s children.

The Trudeau government’s recent creation of a national child care system is a clear example of this process, offering benefits only to families who agree to have their children raised in formal childcare centres. It also reveals how what passes for family policy in Canada today is often just economic policy in disguise – with national child care frequently promoted as a means to increase the labour force participation of women and hence boost GDP, rather than as a tool to genuinely improve family well-being or cohesion. Canada’s education system has similarly reduced parental choice, leaving parents increasingly unaware of or powerless to affect what is happening at their child’s school, particularly when it involves controversial topics such as gender identity or sex education.

Putting Family Back in Family Policy

A free society should acknowledge the natural significance of the family, not only as a source of its own values and purpose – notions that so vexed Marx – but also as an important buffer between the individual and the state, a concept which Malik sought to emphasize. Family exists independently of the state (indeed pre-existed the conception of state) and represents its own domain within society, a fact that ought to be both celebrated and protected.

Canada’s education system is leaving parents increasingly unaware of or powerless to affect what is happening at their child’s school, particularly when it involves controversial topics such as gender identity or sex education. (Sources of photos: (left) EJ Nickerson/Shutterstock; (right) jglsongs, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Rather than attempting to redefine families and usurp their position in society, Canadian jurisdictions should acknowledge the family as the constituent unit of society. Canadian parents must be recognized as the primary authority for the well-being and education of their children. Further, Canadian courts and legislatures should restore our country’s traditional legal understanding of the biological family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society,” rather than the contract-based format for family currently in vogue. As Hungarian political theorist Gergely Szilvay has written, the latter view means that “any kind of human relationship could become a family simply upon request. This definition of family is so broad that it does not mean anything – it is empty.”

Family must not become an empty vessel to be filled however the state wishes. It needs to be defended as an institution separate from and independent of the state with its own distinct domains of authority. Families are vital to the stability of society and critical to the continued resistance against totalitarianism.

Daniel Zekveld is a policy analyst with the Association for Reformed Political Action (ARPA) Canada and the main author of the organization’s 2022 report Principles of Family Law.

Source of main image: Shutterstock.

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