The Liberal State Must Support the Conditions in Which Families Thrive

Until recently, liberal political theory has had little to say about the inevitability of dependency in human lives. Liberalism, particularly in its American versions, has largely conceived of citizens as able adults and has focused on them as individuals rather than as members of families. Conceptualizing citizens in this manner has served valuable functions: it has helped ground the liberal moral ideal that all citizens should be treated as free and equal. It has also justified the important notion that all citizens have an entitlement to rights that the state should safeguard.

Yet while the liberal conception of humans as able adults is an important moral ideal, it is still only a moral ideal. It is not, as it is often treated, an adequate understanding of the reality of the human condition. In truth, people spend most of their lives dependent on one another to some greater or lesser degree. They are born as helpless babies and live in near total dependence on others for much of the first decade of their lives. They spend their next decade requiring considerable assistance from others. During these first two decades, and often longer, they will require extensive caretaking, assistance with human development, and considerable material resources including food, clothing, a roof over their heads, and more, to become healthy, flourishing adults and contributing members of the polity.

Some small but significant number of citizens will never achieve a significant degree of independence from the caretaking of others because of physical or mental disabilities. Most others will enter an adulthood in which they are largely, although never completely, independent. Adults are not islands unto themselves; virtually all adults have some periods in which they require significant caretaking because of physical or mental illness, and most have intermittent periods of such dependence. And as they age and approach the end of life, most adults will become increasingly dependent on others for care (Brault 2010, 4).

Focusing on the dependency of the human condition makes the picture of what citizens need from their government more complex than mainstream versions of liberal theory would have it. If adults are conceived as capable and autonomous, the respect for human dignity that grounds liberalism requires, above all, ensuring their freedom and equality. Mainstream theorists therefore debate how each of these two goods should be traded off against the other to best support human dignity

(e.g., Rawls 1971). These theorists also consider how central liberal institutions should be structured to support the goods of freedom and equality, accepting the longstanding view that government should regulate to ensure sovereignty of the people, a limited state, and the security of its citizens.

Once we adjust the image of citizens to account for the dependency in the human life cycle, however, respect for human dignity entails more than just protecting citizens’ individual rights: the importance of caretaking and human development come to the fore as every bit as important to human dignity as safeguarding citizens’ liberty and security or ensuring a just distribution of societal goods among citizens. This transforms the liberal democratic project. Respect for human dignity now demands more than the protection of individual rights and freedom. It also requires considering how we can bring into being, care for, and develop the faculties and virtues of sound citizens. The state’s responsibility to ensure a society can support caretaking and human development becomes every bit as fundamental as its responsibility to establish an adequate police force and military in order to safeguard citizens’ individual rights. The importance of caretaking and human development, in turn, calls attention to the role of the family, which, as our society is currently structured, has been the institution largely responsible for performing these functions, as well as for meeting the material needs of dependent family members.

The term “family,” as used here, is defined expansively. A wide range of long-term relationships foster the well-being, caretaking, and human development that humans need to flourish. These relationships extend well beyond the heterosexual marital family together with their minor children - the grouping that many used to think of as the “natural” family. Today’s families include, among others, single-parent families, same- sex couples, with or without kids, unmarried cohabiting couples, adults with aging parents, and adult siblings.

To the scant extent that mainstream liberal theory has attended to families, it has generally conceptualized them through the lens of liberal autonomy. In this reading, families, like the adults within them, are and should be autonomous. The goal of public policy, in this view, is to keep the family as free as possible from state intervention. Furthermore, as this view has it, the state should be neutral with respect to the health and well-being of families.

This standard view of the state’s relationship to families, though, gets it wrong on two counts. First, it misunderstands the relationship between the state and families. In today’s complex society, the ways in which families function are always deeply and inextricably intertwined with government policy. To mention just a few examples, child-labor laws keep children financially dependent on their parents, equal employment legislation has encouraged women’s movement into the labor market and out of the home, and Social Security survivors’ benefits influence some recipients not to marry. Most importantly, for the purposes of this chapter, law and public policy affect families’ ability to deal with dependency needs. The family has no “natural” baseline of functioning that it can be left to apart from the state and public policy, and that would be adulterated if the state were to intercede. Nor does the modern administrative state have a neutral, isolated position it can assume while leaving families autonomously to deal with their own affairs. Instead, the state is always and continually influencing how families conduct their affairs. The relevant question is not whether its actions can avoid affecting families but rather whether it will consider the implications for families when it does act.

Second, the expectation that the state should be neutral with respect to families is wrong as a normative matter. The critical role that sound families play in the lives of flourishing citizens makes them central to the success of the liberal project. In carrying out this project, the state cannot equally take or leave families (at least without vastly overhauling how we deal with dependency issues in our society). As society is organized, a large proportion of the caretaking and human development that people need to flourish will come from families, if it comes at all. This means that, to succeed, the liberal enterprise requires families that have the resources and the capacity to support and nurture their members.

We need a better theory of the state’s role with respect to families, one that accounts for the fact of human dependency, and the critical role that families play in resolving dependency issues. In place of positioning the liberal state as distant from and neutral to families, I propose that we treat ensuring the conditions that support sound families as a basic responsibility of government. By the term, “sound families,” I mean the strong, stable relationships that can support the caretaking, human development, and material needs of their members.

But why must the state support sound families? Can’t we expect individuals to arrange the circumstances and provide the support that families need on their own, without state assistance? Because raising children, caring for dependents, and developing human capabilities are time- consuming and complex tasks that generally are part of a process that takes years. During this time, families inevitably have to interact with a number of institutions that profoundly affect their health, as well as heavily influence their ability to provide the circumstances family members’ need. Individual family members have little ability to change the rules of the game that structure these institutions. The state, though, has a unique ability to regulate societal institutions in ways that support families. This ability, coupled with the importance of sound families to the liberal project, means that the state should treat regulating to support families as a basic part of the liberal project. Doing so would recognize that the ability of families to nurture their members does not simply exist as a matter of fact or spring up as a matter of spontaneous generation.

Instead, it is an achievement that must be accomplished jointly by both citizens and the state.

We don’t have to believe that families are perfect to recognize the state’s responsibility to facilitate conditions that support them. The fact of the matter is that all families are imperfect, many reinforce some dynamics like sex inequality that are problematic, and some are downright abusive. These imperfections and risks are not, however, reasons for the state to avoid support for families. That’s because we have no other credible alternative in our society for dealing with the great bulk of caretaking and human development needs. Because of this, most people will continue to get much of what they need through families, if they get them at all. This gives the state strong reason to construct supports in ways that address and cabin these flaws, for example, through measures that seek to minimize gender inequality and domestic abuse. The flaws that all families have also means that the state should build some redundancy into institutions, for example, providing human development at schools to help make up for children not getting all they need at home. In addition, the state should seek to ensure that exiting families is both safe and practicable for adults within abusive relationships and that an adequate foster-care system is in place for abused children who need to be removed from their homes.

In sum, despite all the faults of actual families, we haven’t developed other institutions that come close to meeting the attachment, caretaking, and human development needs that families provide. And that makes state support for sound families critical to sound lives, as well as central to the liberal project

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