Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Family as Sub-Contractor for the State

One point I keep on trying to pound home is that political debate in the USA is often fundamentally distorted by an ignorance of what the our history actually was. I would like to extend this argument to family policy.

Today we have two points of view on the family and the state. Both assume that the family and the state as autonomous organizations are opposed: a strong, purposeful state means a weak, passive family and vice versa. Liberals think the state should exercise stronger, more purposeful collective powers over citizens for their own good, but that the family should have less strong, purposeful collective powers over its members for their own good. Conservatives (especially paleo-conservatives and religious libertarians) think the state should exercise weaker, less purposeful collective power over citizens for their own good, but that the family should have stronger, more purposeful collective powers over its members for their own good. Strong state, weak family or strong family, weak state. Either/or.

Going along with this assumption of antagonism is a false view of history. Liberal historians look for evidence that the state has traditionally had more powers to regulate families than we think, thinking that this would prove that the autonomous family has weak historical roots. Likewise, conservative historians like to emphasize how even state powers over the family we now take for granted didn’t used to exist in the part, thinking that this would emphasize how families resisting interference from the state is an old, old tradition.

For Eurasian societies as widely distributed as Puritan New England, Württemberg peasants from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, and Mongolian and Tibetan nomadic societies*, however, either way of understanding state-family relations was alien. Rather than real family-state praxis, the conventional opposition of family and state reflects only crude and unreflective 19th century post-French Revolution social theories, the phlogistons of social theory. And even today, I think this old praxis survives, despite having no articulation, since the liberal and conservative intellectuals are still divided into "let's have more/less phlogiston!" parties.

In this different praxis the traditional family is itself a sub-contractor of the state (or if you prefer, the community as a whole). As a sub-contracting organization of the state-community, the family is represented by its head. It has a responsibility for producing a number of things for the state: as a rule taxes, in some states trained and equipped soldiers, for some families responsible officials, and in every case, children who will be able to play the contractor role in the next generation. In the Greek city states, performance of such public functions by private families were called "liturgies." Depending on the type of society, this might also involve making sure the children are equipped by literacy to respond to community admonitions (texts, government decrees, scriptures, etc.) It will in any case require that children be trained in the appropriate moral code to be hard-working, responsible contractors themselves. Since the family as a contracting unit for the state/community has a duty to produce both specific persons (soldiers, officials, corvee laborers, as the case may be), and future contractors, unwillingness to procreate is a selfish betrayal of the community/state.

In order to make sure that the sub-contractor can do its job, the state also parcels out to the family a significant chunk of its own authority, entrusting certain police and juridical functions to the heads of the households over the members (and to elders over juniors generally). The head of the family that acts to some degree as an agent of the state’s authority, even as he (or sometimes she, as a widow) resides on his ancestral patrimony. This patrimony is itself a fund for the performance of contracted obligations to the state.

The state/community’s interest in the family is therefore in keeping the sub-contractors functioning. One essential precondition of this is that the family has to have its own resources. The family has to have a sufficient fund of resources, tangible and intangible, to work with to produce the outputs it needs. A family with no land and no skills cannot fulfill its tax obligations. For that reason bad management, such as drinking one’s patrimony away, breaking it up with an irresponsible divorce, and so on, should not be tolerated. And if a family falls into that situation, it needs to have property restored and disciplined so this doesn’t happen again. Moreover, since only a family can produce the necessary outputs demanded by the community, individuals who are without family need to be put into a family.

Social policy in this "family as sub-contractor for the state" assumes a peculiar cast which the liberal-conservative point of view today is almost guaranteed to misunderstand. In it, what looks like charity is simultaneously fiscality: the state gives aid not just to help the individuals involved, but also to get the family receiving the aid back on its feet as a tax-paying/soldier-supplying/official-providing contracting unit. Equality is thus not just, or even primarily, a goal of such assistance, but rather a means to an end: the maximum possible effective provision of necessary persons/goods for the state and community. This is so even when the primary way of supplying such aid is not directly state to family, but lateral: neighbor to neighbor, or even structured by kinship (redemption right of land that might be sold to strangers). For example in the Secret History of the Mongols, we read that the emperor Ögedei ordered one sheep out of a hundred taken from each person and given to the poor in his own unit. This was in part to "let them put their feet on the soil and their hands on the land" but was just as much connected with the periodic renumbering of militiamen in the Mongol army to make sure that each unit had enough prosperous families to supply its share of taxes and soldiers. Among Tibetan pastoralists, Rinzin Thargyal describes how one ambitious lord encouraged the formation of functioning households. When a girl got "knocked up," he would pressure the man responsible into marrying her, loan the new family animals to herd, and hold off on demanding labor service from them until they were a going concern. He did the same with poor immigrants arriving in his estate: find them a wife or husband as needed, loan them animals, and get them going. As a result his estate was unusually prosperous, and his population -- and influence -- grew rapidly. In these cases, charity merges with the aim to preserve family units as sub-contractors of the state. Note also that almost all such societies also had distinctions of families: some produced taxes, others produced soldiers, others produced officials, and these status distinctions are maintained as part of the same system imperatives that forces one family of tax payers to give aid to another family of tax payers facing the danger of break-up and dispersal. In the Tibetan case, for example, the aristocratic household so actively building up its followings' families itself had to supply officials to the Dege principality.

A very common way to maintain households facing crisis is through redemption laws, specifying that households sell their property it may be redeemed from the buyer by a relative or neighbor of the seller. Redemption within the collateral family line, as found in the Mosaic laws in the Bible, is quite common comparatively, and can be found in eighteenth century Germany, as well as Qing dynasty China. Usually interpreted solely as part of compassion for the “poor” (although structurally at least the real poor in ancient Israelite society were not the full-blooded Israelites who had fields subject to such redemption, but the strangers and aliens who did not), this collateral redemption was actually an important part of fiscality (state tax policy) as were the limitations on mobility (in a weak state apparatus, staying in one place so the state can find you is important). Theologically as Christopher H. Wright in God's People in God's Land has pointed out, this works as an analogy: just as earthly kings demand a regimes of sub-contractor families, so the divine King demands a regime of sub-contractor families. Traditional sociological interpretation of this practice/ideal in the context Israelite history has usually read this as a survival of primitive tribalism, resisting the imposition of royal tyranny. In this comparative context, however, I think a better argument could be made that the importance of redemption indicates not "tribalism" but a strong state/community interest in preserving a network of effective sub-contracting and tax-paying militia families.**

Inversely, the elimination of the redemption regime (which took place in Würtemburg for example in the early nineteenth century or in China under the Republic) is not the state going from “respecting intermediate institutions” to “rejecting intermediate institutions” as the libertarian reading of state-family relations would have it, but rather sub-contracting with different units and different calculations. Similarly the family receiving moral guidance and tutelage from the state is not necessarily toxic to family authority—if the state is actually interested in buttressing that authority.

What are some of the implications of this history?

First of all, it helps understand what people are talking about. It is, I think, exactly this sense which is still meant when people, trying to explain why they find the challenge to the traditional constituted family so wrong-headed, say that the family is "the building block" or "foundation" of the country. Not having got the paleo-conservative/social democratic memo that the family and state are inverses -- one can't be a strong institution without the other being weak -- they insist on appealing to real social praxis, rather than the delusions of the political philosophies.

Second of all it points out again how very un-libertarian our Eurasian traditions are. And as Jim has written here, in common law it was taken for granted until the twentieth century that the US state governments had police powers, that is, the right to interfere more or less at will in the life of its members to defend good morals, tax paying capacity, optimal family structure, and so on. In this view, which was the Puritan New England view as David Hackett Fischer emphasized, the state as a sovereign community was, absent any self-limitation, virtually universal in its competence. However, in practice, specific liberties are carved out from this sovereign power and assigned to subcontracting units, such as the family, guild, township, or trading corporation, or what have you. Liberties are thus in the plural, and each one has to be defended either by a specific historical charter, or at least by specific evidence that it existed in the past. Note that it is for this reason that Puritans could join the US constitution. Strong believers in this police power and families as contractors of the state, they could never have joined a constitution that either eliminated these police powers entirely, or assigned them to a non-Congregational government. Only a government that had special liberties above the state (in both senses) could be accepted as the national government.

Thirdly it highlights how many traditional institutions have been misunderstood by a state vs. society framework. This misunderstanding takes the specific form of a what I call “the great inversion” in which institutions first nurtured by the pre-modern state came under attack in the nineteenth and twentieth century, whether by liberals as blocks to the free circulation of resources in the market or by socialists as buttresses of inequality, but then were rewritten by their defenders. This rewriting of history turned them into pre-state, primitive society institutions that had always served as bulwarks of "the people" against the state. The classic case of this is the obshchina or Russian commune, which began as a tax-guarantee institution: the village owed taxes in common and each family was assigned labor to make sure that each family thus contributed to the tax payments. In the 1840s, an idealistic German, looking for remnants of early communes in Europe's countryside reinterpreted this state-generated institution as such a survival of pre-class society. This interpretation was accepted, written in Russian law in 1861, and became the foundation of the populist idea of the Russian peasants being instinctively socialist and communal.***

In American, as well, this happened very early on with gun rights as shown by Joyce Malcolm’s To Keep and Bear Arms started not as an individual right against the state, but a collective sub-contractual obligation of citizens to the state. The English state required all men to participate in its function of maintaining order, training in long bows so the king of England could have enough soldiers in wartime. With the advent of firearms, this obligation to train as a potential soldier of the king was transferred to from long bows to firearms. In the seventeenth century, this hazardous duty was reinterpreted as a valuable right, and in this form was transported to the American colonies. (Although with the New England Puritans, gun ownership was also requirement of community self-defense, not an aspect of individual defiance of the community. Here, as in so many other aspects the New England Puritans typify the phenomenon of "peripheral preservation" where archaic customs and ideas are preserved in remote, provincial areas.)

Finally, the most important implication is for those adhering to the traditional family as valorized by the laws of the Eurasian religions whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Confucian. Despite their differences, I would argue that virtually every feature of the laws -- indeed the very possibility of having a law of family formation and functioning -- was shaped by the family's role as a sub-contractor of the state’s authority. Adherents of these Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Confucian ethics have to recognize that strong family they love became a social reality only in concurrence with state power and through receiving as a sub-contractor a share in the power of the state. The implication is then that the state, in a fairly strong sense, is a precondition for the traditional religious family life. For those adhering to such traditional religious family ethics, the libertarian argument that the state is thus at best a necessary evil runs directly against the historical facts, since those family ethics themselves were first realized in human society as a result of the existence of the state. The predicating of the family's rights on opposition to the state, as in religious libertarianism or paleo-conservatism, is likely to be as ineffectual politically as it is erroneous historically.

*Some sources on this:
New England Puritans: Albion's Seed, by David Hackett Fischer
Württemberg peasants: David Sabean, Production, Property and Family in Neckerhausen, 1700-1870.
Tibetan pastoralists: Rinzin Thargyal, Nomads of Eastern Tibet.

** Maybe more an ideal than a reality. That redemption laws might exist without having much of an anti-market effect is indicated at least by the Neckerhausen evidence as read by Sabean.

***See T.K. Dennison and A.W. Carus, "The Invention of the Russian Rural Commune: Haxthausen and the Evidence," The Historical Review 46.3 (2003), pp. 561-82.

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