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Free families to statist societies and back again

by Philip E Jacobson

What would families be like in a free nation? This question would take at least several volumes to explore thoroughly. And there is really no definitive set of answers. The biggest difference would not be that something new would be present, but rather that something would be absent — the influence of the state. The state's interference in society encourages some kinds of family behaviours and discourages others. In the absence of the state it is likely that some entirely new family traditions would emerge, but also that the previously established ones would continue to exist, including some which are currently rare. Overall the choices made by individuals in this matter would probably be more diverse and open than is the case in statist societies.

Rather than trying to provide a complete list of the alternatives, I will discuss how the history of human families indicates a wide variety of possibilities for family structure, then examine the state's historical relationship to families. In doing so I will be working under the thesis that in statist societies the family is in direct competition with the state for the loyalty and the control of the resources of individuals. Finally, I'll explore themes for just a few of the many modern opportunities that a free nation might offer families.

Contemporary discussion of the politics of the family often involves a notion of "family values," or what is good for "the family." In such discussions, "the family" is often held to be the basic social unit of civilised society. It is, however, a very specific kind of family which is being referred to, a family with one adult male and one adult female, who have a state-licensed marriage, and who are raising two or three children. The man and the woman typically have or have had a sexual relationship and are typically the biological parents of the children. The members of the family live in a single residence. They may or may not have blood kin nearby. But most of their social interactions are with persons with whom they are not related.

It is often assumed in discussions of social problems, that a society which fosters this kind of family is desirable and that this kind of family is the most natural one for humanity. But these notions are clearly wrong. In the natural history of humanity the family mentioned above is a very recent phenomenon. Variations on the human biological type (characterised by, among many other things, the use of stone or more advanced tools) are thought to have existed for at least 2 million years. These, our ancestors, lived for most of that time in hunter-gatherer bands, in a social structure with very different characteristics from the "modern family" ideal.

Mankind's Earliest Family Structure

The hunter-gatherer band was certainly a community, though usually a small one. It would typically be composed of fewer than 100 individuals of both sexes and a wide range of ages. It would roam the countryside in search of small to medium game, typically hunted by the adult males, and very small game, insects and edible plants, typically gathered by females and children. This was the most significant division of labor, producing in some ways separate environments and subcultures for men and women. Men might hunt individually or in groups. But when they cooperated, leadership was not based on official rank, but rather on one hunter proposing a group hunt and recruiting others to follow him. None were compelled to follow, however, and different hunts might have different leaders based on the relative charisma of different individuals at different times. Women needed even less coordination. With them leadership would be more a matter of the wiser or more skilled giving advice as the need arose.

Evidence suggests that there were few if any persons we today would call "old" (over 50 years). Care of children was primarily the job of each child's biological mother, but all children were nurtured to some extent by all adults, especially the women. For most of humanity's existence the notion of fatherhood was non-existent, as the relationship between sex and pregnancy wasn't known. It is impossible to say when this discovery was made, but even after the notion of paternity was established there was a tendency for a child's kinship to be traced primarily or only through its mother as the biological father's identity was still doubtful. However, at any one time, a child's mother might have a special adult male friend within the band who had regular sex with her and who shared food with her and any small children she might have. This man's association with the mother would benefit her younger children, though he may not have been their biological parent. These smaller groups of individuals would be roughly approximate to the modern notion of "households." Each child would almost certainly know who was its mother, thus also who were its mother's other children, thus also who (on its mother's side) were its aunts, uncles, etc. If these persons were nearby, a certain affinity between such blood kinsmen would exist. Most of the adults would have been raised together and would to a large extent be raising their own children together.

However, blood kin (on the mother's side), while known, might not stay with the band. During most of the period when humans organised only as hunter-gatherer bands, humanity had not yet filled up the available habitable space. The total number of humans on earth rose extremely slowly. Great risk from disease or animal attack kept most children from reaching adulthood. Many women died in childbirth. Men could be injured in confrontations with animals. Getting enough food was not the biggest problem. But there would be times when the food in some specific area might be a little thin, motivating the band to split into two or more groups and go separate ways. None were likely to starve, but individuals might lose contact with relatives. Loss of a group member might also occur when different bands met. Ordinarily they could afford a reasonable degree of cordiality. And as they went their separate ways, each band might lose a few members to the other. Sometimes, but not always, this would involve fresh sexual relationships, thus diversifying the gene pools of each group as is the case with great apes to this day.

"Anatomically modern" humans are thought to have emerged between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago. Yet most if not all humans continued to live as hunter-gatherers until at least 10,000 years ago. The older and longer period is referred to as the "Palaeolithic" (or Old Stone Age). The newer period is called the "Neolithic" (or New Stone Age, covering the period up to the first use of metal). Only in the Neolithic did some communities begin developing other means of providing themselves with food. Slowly the number of non-hunter-gatherers increased until the vast majority of cultures were not of that type (though a few hunter-gatherer communities still exist today). So at a minimum, at least 90% of human history is characterised by social organisation which was very functional but which did not include any institutions which were much like the "modern family" ideal. The hunter-gatherer group was a "family" but by modern standards a fairly large one, with loyalties that were as much socially based as they were biologically based, and which lacked entirely many of today's "family values." If there is any such thing as a "natural" family, this is it. But should we expect a re-emergence of this kind of family in a free society? Probably not.

New Food Sources Influence Family Structure

When people first started associating in patterns other than the hunter-gatherer band, they still did not organise into modern families. During the last part of the Palaeolithic age humans had become especially good hunter-gatherers. They became the dominant predators in most places, much less likely to be attacked by big cats. They'd even formed a partnership with some of the canines. The human population had begun to rise to an extent that in some places it was difficult to feed everyone in the traditional ways.

Three new types of economy emerged — herding, fishing, and plant cultivation. These tended to produce new family patterns each distinct from the others, but none of them like the modern family. Indeed, even within each of the new economic traditions, a great variety of family structure existed. In many instances, the human communities formed were much bigger than hunter-gatherer bands, but this was not always true. There was also a greater tendency for family members to stay in contact, especially when communities settled in definite geographic areas, but this was not always true either.

When larger, more densely packed groups began to come into very regular contact with others, they became less fluid. As bands found it convenient to lay claim to specific farmland, specific herds of animals, or sites especially good for gathering seafood, the notion of group territory became more important. Group membership became more valuable for individuals. The little groupings composed of a woman, her small children, and her mate became true households. The children tended to keep closer contact with one another as adults, to help maintain and exploit common claims to food resources. Hunter-gatherer bands solidified into "clans" with clearer membership traditions based more strictly on blood-kin ties. The notion of a marriage, or lifetime sexual and child-raising commitment between adults of opposite sexes, while not completely unknown to hunter-gatherers at the end of the Palaeolithic period, became very important to Neolithic peoples. Marriage confirmed the association between an adult born into one clan but living in another, and confirmed the clan membership of children born to the union.

In the larger and especially in the settled communities, there was a tendency for some division of labor beyond hunting vs. gathering. Peoples settled in one location could possess more material goods, which created a demand for skilled specialists who provided various goods in trade for food or other goods. These specialists might pass their skills to their children and thus establish family occupations. Additional value to family membership was created when traditional trading relationships formed between clans or between families within clans.

Yet the customs of the Neolithic, including traditions of family structure, varied widely in terms of specifics. The most significant generalisation that can be made about any of them is that they were significantly different from the families of hunter-gatherers. So among the few things that we can say about what is "natural" about the human approach to family structure (as opposed to, say, that of specific species of birds or of other mammals), is that human communities can thrive using a wide variety of family structures. Another thing that can be said is that economics can be very influential in determining what family forms a given human culture will adopt.

The Emergence of the State

The concept of the modern family is not just a product of modern economic institutions. It is also a product of thousands of years of interaction with other social institutions, notably the one known as the state. A state is at its core a military institution which claims resources from the individuals in a society in exchange for providing defence from the predatory behaviour of competing military institutions. Individual citizens of a statist society will abide by this relationship either because 1) they are afraid to challenge the military power of "their" state, 2) they fear a rival military power more, or 3) some combination of both. The state is not, however, "natural" to human communities.

It is not clear exactly when the state emerged in the natural history of humanity, nor exactly when the early military institutions which were clearly the ancestors of the modern state should be called "states." The hunter-gatherer band was not a state. There were few persons in each band, and no special military sub-group existed. When a band was attacked by animals or other humans, any group member capable of providing any kind of defence to the group did so. Often, however, the primary line of defence would be composed of the band's adolescent and adult males. Such a coordination of armed force was an extension of the hunting patterns used by the males, but would be supplemented by the women and children when they could provide support. This pattern can also be found in other social primates. But while the hunters can be viewed as a subsection of the band as a whole, they were not a separate community in the sense that modern soldiers and police are a separate group within a larger society. There was no clash of loyalty for individuals between "family" and "military unit." The individual fighter did not have to leave the family to participate in the defence of the community as modern soldiers often do during active military duty.

Neolithic communities, with denser populations and often serious competition for food, modified the Palaeolithic family structures to accommodate their environments. No modern-style military institutions developed in the Neolithic period, but many Neolithic cultures developed new ways to coordinate organised violence. Large military formations formed as warriors from several households combined under one leader. This war chief might hold the position formally and for long periods of time. Clan-sized military units based on a recognition of blood ties (sometimes via adoption, sometimes via marriage) became common among Neolithic peoples. Especially charismatic war chiefs might have been able to assemble several clans into a military alliance to defeat a common rival clan. These alliances would have been easier where the allied clans were thought to be blood kin.

Military and other advantages eventually encouraged associations of clans to form as "tribes," larger groups speaking a common language and thought to be descended from a common ancestor. Tribes are not completely "natural" to humans, but neither are they completely out of the "natural" Palaeolithic context. Members of hunter-gatherer bands would have known of the existence of other bands which had blood relations to them, which spoke a common language, and which shared many customs. And such related bands would have been distinguishable from yet other bands with differing language and customs, to the extent that such were known. Palaeolithic cultures, however, probably tended to think of "related bands" and "strange bands" rather than in terms of tribes. And they would have had no occasion to think of military units formed from alliances of bands, at least not while all humans were hunter-gatherers.

In the Neolithic, pockets of zero-sum and negative-sum political philosophy emerged on a regular basis, especially in the most densely populated areas. The new food sources could support many more persons on some lands than could hunting and gathering. But not always. Bad weather could hurt agriculture, especially. Sometimes people living in dense settlements found that the only alternative to starvation for their group was to force starvation on their neighbours. This was an ideal climate for the formation of statist attitudes and institutions.

The emergence of the fortified city as a basis of a "civilised" (no longer Neolithic) politics may have signalled the first instance of a statist institution. But there certainly were statist enclaves established in cities. The statists increasingly dominated towns and urban (walled city) areas. The largest military formations were either levies from the male population of the walled cities, or clan-sized raiding parties attacking the cities from herder populations. In the case of the herdsmen, the clans sometimes organised into tribal-sized raiding parties, but this was rare until military-based, patrilineal (descent of the child determined by established paternity) clans emerged to lead them. A man with sons and grandsons to follow him into battle could coordinate them best if he was thought to own their loyalty to him. As hereditary military leader of such a clan a charismatic war chief might recruit most of the warriors from a tribe into a single army.

The Rise of "Noble" Families

The social structure of cities was influenced by overpopulation amongst neighbouring herder groups. In times of strife amongst the herdsmen, wave upon wave of these tribes fell upon the walled cities. Few city-bred generals could defeat herder military formations in the open when the herdsmen were led by a skilled general of their own, though the cities were usually well protected by their walls. But across time herder commanders came to displace the military leaders native to the walled cities. Sometimes as mercenaries, sometimes via hereditary relationships, the descendants of herder clans forged clan-based proprietary claims to most civilised military institutions. In more recent times, this claim came to be termed "nobility." Noble clans — families often the size of the very largest Palaeolithic gatherings (but no more) — allied with one another to become a tribal-based military institution, which became entrenched as the politically dominant force in many cities. Their generals administered, in addition to their kinsmen, an army composed of conscripts from most of the non-noble families in the city. They began to learn how to use non-military institutions to control this kind of army. They learned to insure that all the military forces of their city (later their empire) remained under noble control. Amongst these non-military institutions were those of religion and law.

Early urban areas often evolved where families from separate clans met, tried to join together as a single separate tribe, and instead developed ethnic aversions to one another. Yet still they might have to make do (if there wasn't any place better to settle). So they would evolve legal institutions based on custom — but a custom born out of the relations between the separate clans. This system worked so well that it came to be used to form in each city political units from amongst many tribes' worth of "domesticated" non-noble clans (clans which had given up the hope of military revolt against the nobles). However, it depended on the lack of strong tribes other than the nobles themselves. So other tribal affiliations within the city were reduced to a minimum. The nobles encouraged as best they could customs and laws for the city which were biased against any rival tribal-sized groups. And adjudication of these laws would be kept from the hands of non-noble clansmen and placed in the hands of nobles.

Through most of the period since the rise of the walled cities (sometimes called the "Civilised" period), clans continued to thrive, despite the weakening of most tribal associations in the lands controlled by the cities (which always included a lot of farmland, not just the cities themselves). Tribal affiliations began to be associated in the minds of many with religious affiliations. The nobles came to see that they could not control the non-nobles except by allowing them a certain crippled form of tribal identity — domesticated tribes. Would-be rebel generals in suppressed clans learned that they could operate politically as members of a religious order. Peace was made with many priesthoods from many ethnicities by the nobles in each city. As long as the priests preached against political rebellion, they could attain considerable social prominence.

The Politicians: Leaders Without Noble Family Connections

But clan-level family activity continued to thrive. In part this may have been because the nobles saw clan-level family as more natural, seeing as they themselves stayed together as a tribe primarily in order to dominate the city. The nobles could also invigorate their own ranks by recruiting, as new noble families, clans without noble standing, from time to time. Eventually this happened to such an extent that leadership in many cities passed to a new class — the politicians. A politician might or might not be noble, despite the fact that hereditary wealth and influence was still a major factor in the politics of the community, but in any case his influence as a politician — that is, the influence of the class of politicians — began to exceed that of the non-politician nobles. Thus individual non-noble politicians could rule over individual noble non-politicians — eventually over individual noble politicians as well — perhaps over all nobles.

In some ways social mobility as politicians gave commoners tremendous opportunities for acquiring power. But such power had to be gained and held within the traditional order of the society. Hereditary power and wealth continued to wield considerable influence. Various institutional assaults were made against rival clans by the politician/noble tribes in association with the priestly tribes. Various programs of religious oppression were sometimes tried as well. Still rebellion was fostered from time to time against the political order by non-noble clans who would form criminal syndicates (thus rival tribes).

Over time the politicians learned how to deal with this in various ways. As powerful potential rivals were recognised, they were encouraged to form additional domesticated tribal associations beyond religion — but not beyond the law. Guilds of merchants, craftsmen, or professional associations were recognised, licensed, and sometimes subsidised by the state. A special domesticated tribe of bureaucrats was formed in many states to administer the details of the state below the highest policies controlled by the politicians. The notion of a corporation was conceived — an economic organisation rivalling the clan or tribe in size, chartered by and answerable to the state rather than by ties of kinship, and able to operate in any field of activity. Individuals who joined these domesticated tribes were encouraged to involve themselves deeply in them, and to develop strong loyalties to them which would rival (and as often as possible push aside) blood-kin loyalties. The politicians began to foster the notion that not only the tribe, but now also the clan, was undesirable. The politicians could not exactly outlaw clans. It wasn't practical. But they could do things to discourage behaviours which facilitate clan formation.

The Final Assault on the Family

As more and more "self-made" politicians came to prominence without the aid of family connections, there arose amongst them a desire to eliminate the competition from all family-based power. Politicians began to draw support from the state's bureaucrats and from the members of the "domesticated" clans, especially the occupational groups and corporations (including "non-profit" corporate entities like universities). Eventually the noble families were driven from power in revolutions or via a slow erosion of their privileges. Families whose power derived from inherited wealth were subjected to increased taxation. Laws were instituted to discourage nepotism in the state's bureaucracy.

The notion of the "ideal family" mentioned above has been used primarily as a way to keep strong clans from forming. Clans (sometimes called "extended families") are portrayed as "old fashioned" compared to "modern family" patterns (sometimes called the "nuclear family"). In modern times various social forces were encouraged which would weaken all family connections, even between parents and small children. The most significant of these were implemented via the public school system. All citizens were taxed to support state schools, which conscripted any children whose parents chose not to, or simply could not, pay both these taxes and separate fees for private education. Within state schools children were encouraged to prepare themselves for work in a bureaucratic setting, one where their own family had little or no influence. Tax and regulatory advantages given to corporations and tax money given to state enterprises increased the numbers of such jobs greatly and increased the pay of those who worked in them. Meanwhile the increased tax burden required to fund these policies encouraged both parents in most "nuclear families" to work outside the home, giving parents less time and energy to supervise their children. The youngest children are sent to day care. Older children are recruited into sports teams or the audiences for team sports where their tendency to form strong group loyalties is channeled towards state-assigned organisations. As adults, this training encourages individuals to view sports as the only appropriate way to vent a desire for group competitiveness until the state is ready to channel that energy into a war.

In modern industrial societies, the list of state-sponsored domesticated tribes has grown huge. Politicians have begun to see less need for religiously based tribalism and have begun to squeeze religious leaders out of the alliance at the top of the political hierarchy. In a counter-assault against the politicians, many religious leaders have begun to portray themselves as conservative defenders of "the family." But this can be as misleading as the politician's effort to divert individuals into state-supported pseudo-family relations. The emphasis on the married couple with children which religious leaders make tends to brush aside clan-sized blood affiliations. Instead, religious leaders want a structure wherein each nuclear family is associated with a clan-sized religious "congregation" which in turn is associated with a larger tribal-sized "denomination." No religious leader says that clans are bad, but they are quick to assert that loyalty to the traditions of the religious denomination should take precedence over loyalty to blood kin if a conflict between these two occurs. "Nuclear families" are not really the foundation of society in this model; they are just another example of a domesticated family unit. Basically, these "religious conservatives" are less concerned with building strong families than they are with building a political order to rival that of the politicians, based on religious social structures instead of state social structures. And they are not really opposed to statist dictates to individuals or to families. These religious leaders simply wish to reorganise the state so that it is dominated by their own institutions and so that the state is controlled by religiously affiliated politicians rather than the more general purpose politicians who currently dominate most industrial societies.

Thus concludes my discussion of the history of the family and of the influences on family structure which a free nation would not contain — the influences of a state. How would the removal of state influence make a difference?

Families in a Free Nation

The emergence of a free nation will not simply be a matter of those believing in it choosing to create one. Technological and economic changes must, do and will continue to provide an environment increasingly suitable for stateless communities. We can see this coming since, worldwide, there is less and less the perception that one needs a military protector to keep from starving. And without the support of citizens who feel they must have military protection, it becomes harder for a state to instil the fear necessary to coerce support from everyone else. So voluntary associations, including family associations, will become more common.

It is likely that, in a free nation, some individuals would choose to form families modelled on the idealised nuclear family model currently promoted by politicians in many states. Others might adopt patterns very similar to those of hunter-gatherers. Still others will probably form new clan and tribal-sized family affiliations. We cannot predict just how this will come about. But we can observe how, in the absence of state coercion, many family patterns will appear more attractive than they do now.

Education was originally a very informal process, provided exclusively by the family. In most modern societies the state conscripts a majority of children into a government-run education system. In a free nation, more people would choose to provide their children with family-based education. The family may be organised as a nuclear family, but it might also be an extended family or clan. And if so, the clan might not be limited to blood kin, but might be based on ties of religion, residence, or occupational affiliation. Very closely associated clan-sized communities might even be organised simply to provide quality educational opportunities for the children.

Economic productivity has at many times and places been coordinated by families. Family farms, family businesses, and other traditional family occupations still play a reduced part in modern economies. It would be reasonable to expect more of these in a free nation. Clan-sized family businesses could become very common. Additionally, patterns of financial assistance between family members might become more common than they are in modern statist societies. Many immigrants, especially Asians, with strong clan traditions find it possible to bootstrap themselves to prosperity in Western industrial economies by pooling their savings and investing these in family businesses. Yet Westerners rarely cooperate in this way, especially in low or middle income families, because their family ties are usually too weak to generate the trust required.

New technologies have increased the opportunities for individuals to prosper by conducting professional activities with business associates far away. Until very recently, individuals often needed to relocate their residences far from traditional family roots in order to pursue attractive careers. Now careers in virtual space allow business in the home. Persons wishing to keep in contact with blood kin or wishing to form new families with non-blood ties, can more readily reside with their choice of family members regardless of whom they do business with. For these persons, family businesses might not be appealing, but many family members might dwell within walking distance of one another. Clans based on common lifestyle reinforced by common residence might become popular in this way. The zoning of real estate by the state makes this impractical in most of the residential areas of modern industrial societies but a free nation could be quite different.

In addition to education and housing, clans might benefit from common purchasing for other goods and services. Consider, for instance, a group health plan for a very large family. Sheer numbers might get the group a better insurance rate. Additionally, various home care services could be arranged for more effectively. The care of all age groups would be enhanced by the fact that medical histories were common knowledge and by the fact that home care for incapacitated family members could be provided by having several of the other members take a little spare time each to help out. In modern nation-states laws often give groups with state-issued charters of incorporation favourable treatment which families could enjoy if allowed to negotiate fully voluntary arrangements with health care professionals and insurers.

Lifestyle issues will, of course, be much more open to individual choice in a nation where the state does not use taxes and regulations to favour one set of practices over another. We in America are all familiar with modern controversies over "alternative" marriage practices. But we must also consider as possibilities the many customs followed by human families since hunter-gatherer days. And as we do this we see that there will likely be a lot more innovations as new families emerge to meet the challenges of future times. If you're interested in stimulating your imagination on this point, just find a book on "kinship traditions" in the anthropology section of a good library. You'll see that, as I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the list of possibilities is huge.

The point of a free nation, however, is exactly that — to make the whole list of what has been voluntarily chosen in the past as well as any voluntary arrangement conceived of in the future, available to each individual.

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