Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Taking the Family Seriously

The family is an amazing, complex institution. And here I want to offer a few reflections on the immense challenges the family raises for theories of distributive justice.

So first a few thoughts about the kind of institution the family is. The family is a unique institution in many respects. It is an institution composed of *intimates*; for example, individuals who share blood connections (e.g. siblings, parent and child) or those who have been married and/or have chosen to live together. And so the family is a semi- or partially voluntary institution. That is, it is voluntary for those adults who have chosen to create a new family- like when my wife and I decided to get married and later to have children- but it is not voluntary for the new people who are brought into existence out of this union. So none of my children consented to being created, or having me as their father or their brothers as a sibling (and the same applies to me as a child and sibling).

Now it is very easy to idealize the family as an institution. Hegel’s account of the institutions of modern life does this for example. According to Hegel, the family is important for sentiment and affection. No doubt this is true. However, if one accepts the conservative conclusions of Hegel’s “Ethical Life” thesis (that norms consist in nothing other than the duties and virtues embedded in the central institutions of modern social life) then we would be oblivious to the historical injustices of the family as an institution. Namely, the rampant mistreatment and abuse of women and children.

So when I say we must “take the family seriously” I mean we, as normative theorists, must consider both the virtues and *vices* of the family seriously.

Feminist critics of liberalism have of course done this for a long time. And liberals should take these concerns seriously. Susan Okin, for example, does a great job of showing why we must take the family seriously in this book.

In the section entitled “Justice and the Idealized Family” Okin examines how a range of political theorists (from David Hume and Rousseau to Michael Sandel) have assumed the circumstances of family life are such that justice is not an appropriate standard to apply to them. And the assumption is that in a more or less ideal family situation, spontaneous affection and generosity will prevail. And thus justice is not seen as a primary virtue of the family.

But this view of the family is simply mistaken. It would be a big oversight for a social theorist not to realize and acknowledge that risk of harm is inherent in the family given the very nature of the institution that it is. The reason I say this risk is inherent is that, given the nature of the family, we could never completely eliminate the risk of harm. The family is a very private institution, with members living in very close proximity to each other (and hence vulnerable to abuse). The family, unlike legislatures or courts, is not the kind of institution that could be constantly or easily subjected to inspection and oversight. To try to do this would be to compromise the institution itself.

Of course this is not to say that we shouldn’t impose constraints on the family, to try to reduce the risk of harm when it is reasonable to do so. Of course we should. We should try to find a reasonable balance between intruding on the family and protecting the legitimate interests of those who are made vulnerable by the family (e.g. young children).

So the reality of the family is that it is an institution that can foster affection and generosity, but it can also lead to patriarchy and abuse. How can we capitalize on the benefits and minimize the harms of the family? A theory of justice that takes the family seriously will seek tackle this complex question (rather than function with an idealized account of the family).

OK, the family not only plays an important role with respect to gender inequality, but also economic inequality. And I don’t think egalitarians have considered this fact seriously enough.

My main target here is Jerry Cohen’s critique of liberalism which focuses on inequality-generative incentives (here and here). To make a long story short- for Cohen, the key issue is the role economic incentives play in Rawls’s apparently egalitarian defence of inequality (what’s called the Pareto argument for inequality). Why would the talented members of an equal society need more goods in order to be more productive? Cohen argues that their attitudes violate an egalitarian ethos.

I believe Cohen grossly underestimates how the legitimate demands of personal life conflict with equality. By ignoring the realities of the family, Cohen’s focus on an egalitarian ethos threatens to contravene the personal element on justice. David Estlund made a similar critique of Cohen in this paper a while back. But let me expand a bit more on this to show how it unravels the egalitarian edge of Cohen’s public ethic.

In my mind, there is only one possible way in which Cohen’s egalitarian critique could even be considered as somewhat plausible: if his critique only applies to the most wealthy, talented, single people in society. Then, maybe, it would have some force. But that would be such a small portion of the population and I don’t think it would be very interesting.

However, if his call for an egalitarian ethos is to apply to people in what we can call the “middle-classes” (indeed, even to those in lowest social class), then serious problems will arise.

OK, so what’s my beef with Cohen? Firstly, it is worth noting that no person exists as a static, isolated individual. The income you make today is probably very different from what you made 20 years ago, and what you might make in 20 years time will be different from today. And the people who are economically dependent on you in the past, present and future will differ (as well as their level of dependency). The Family is not static, nor are an individual’s skill set or salary. And all this complicates things for Cohen.

Secondly, why focus on the role of incentives as a cause of inequality?

Yes, incentives play an important role in Rawls’s account of justice, but how much of a role do they actually play in widening the income gap of real capitalist societies that exist in an era of rapid globalization? I don’t think this question is ever seriously considered by Cohen. Primarily because his argument is constrained within a debate between himself and Rawlsians [where the assumption is that society is closed]. But there is good reason to believe it is a very small part of the story.

I am by no means an expert on the causes of income inequality, but let me address a few important things my research has uncovered. And the family plays an important role in the story of inequality. When we consider economic inequalities we must look at household incomes (not just individual incomes). And if we ask- Who are the most vulnerable in Canada? (that is, which groups persist to be among the lowest earners?)- we see five groups of people:

(1) lone parents
(2) single people aged 45-64
(3) recent immigrants (in the country for less than 10 years)
(4) persons with work-limiting disabilities
(5) off-reserve Aboriginal people

How do these complex factors fit into the story of luck egalitarianism? Is being single a choice (and thus those in (2) are unequal by choice)? What about the decision to be a single parent? Is being an immigrant a choice? Do Aboriginals who choose to live off reserves do so by choice? Abstract discussions of equality are severely limited and do not help us diagnosis the challenges facing real societies.

In the real big picture of things incentives play only a small role in the story of inequality. We must also consider marriage patterns, immigration, etc. Taking institutions seriously should help in rescuing equality from abstract idealization.

So the decision to have children in the first place, and how many, will impact inequality in our society. Rather than criticizing those at the top of the income scale- who allegedly demand incentives- why doesn’t Cohen criticize those at the bottom end who have children? I don’t think a luck egalitarian can really give us a good answer as to why they wouldn’t criticize such persons.

One could imagine a conservative invoking luck egalitarianism and writing a book entitled: If You're are an Egalitarian, How Come You Have Children Out of Wedlock?

Rather than pursing equality by leveling down (through taxing higher earners), why not try to level up by reducing the number of single parent households?

Now a more interesting factor I came across (which I posted about before) which I think poses an even more serious problem for Cohen is the major decline in intermarriage between those with university degrees and those with less education (fell by 38% since 1970s).

If we take Cohen’s egalitarian ethos seriously, then we can ask- are the educated violating equality when they marry other educational elites? Now one might argue that choice of partner is part of the “personal domain” and thus exempt from the difference principle’s reach. But given that Cohen makes it apply to occupational choice, it's hard to see why choice of partner is different. It’s certainly possible to find a soul mate among people with less formal education.

So not only does our attitudes about work impact inequality, so does choice of partner and how many children we have.

The existence of the family as an institution might mean egalitarians have to abandon a lot of their egalitarian convictions. Of course one might retort that it is the family that needs to be transformed. I would agree with that when the concern is the feminist one I raised above, but I don’t think it has any traction at all when the concern is economic inequality itself.

So to wrap this long post up... When we take the family seriously we realize that certain political ideals (like equality) are constrained by the very fact that we exist in families. To phrase this as a catchy slogan: "Families Upset Patterns!" And acknowledging this is an important service for it increases the likelihood that we will be able to better grasp what the demands of justice are, “many-things-considered”.