"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The steady erosion of freedom

I've received several mass e-mails over the past week soliciting my participation in this-or-that Fourth of July event. None seem designed to stimulate meditation on and appreciation for this country's true foundations. Apparently it takes work to find and attend that kind of event; for most people, the holiday to-do is family-style fun. Now I have nothing against family-style fun, even in the form of what the Romans called "bread and circuses," by which the urban masses were diverted and pacified. We all need doses of that from time to time. But there's precious little for adults who can and should be thinking about the fact that there is less and less freedom for Americans to celebrate.

For one thing, we labor under much more taxation and regulation than we once did. Whether their income is derived from work or not, more and more people depend on government money—i.e., taxes, money taken coercively from their fellow citizens—for their livelihood. Moreover, the presence of government is more and more obtrusive in more and more areas of life. Not many Americans like such facts, but most consider them inevitable if only because the alternatives are viewed as worse; for instance, many laws and regulations effectively limit private forms of oppression or exploitation. Short of a massive combination of natural and man-made disasters, this situation is unlikely to change and the trend is to still more of the same. Whether one is reconciled to that or not, it adds up to less and less personal freedom.

The problem with that in turn is most evident in the areas of marriage, family, and divorce. How much personal freedom does a man have, for example, if no matter how much or how little he earns by work, at least half of his income goes to taxes and child support—the penalty for non-compliance being seizure of assets and, in some cases, prison? Many millions of American men are in that position. Whether or not you believe they should be, it can hardly be argued that men in general today have as much personal freedom as men had, say, in the 1950s; for even men enjoying better fortune than those in the above-described form of peonage must comply with a host of laws and regulations that didn't exist when my generation was born. Of course there's more sexual freedom; but as I shall argue below, that's actually counterproductive.

I speak of "men" because it is inarguable that women in most developed countries today, especially ours, have much more personal freedom than in the past. As a simple fact of nature, women bear children and men do not; for most of humanity's past, that meant that most women were tied to their homes and families to a degree most men were not. That is the basis of most of the oppression of women that once existed and, in some places, still does exist. But in the West, the advent of universally available contraception, legal abortion, and no-fault divorce has changed that. Although many more women than men can effectively choose to be stay-at-home spouses and parents—which is itself a kind of freedom, as most working stiffs recognize—fewer and fewer women are fated to that role against their true preferences. Marriage, children, and divorce are now as socially optional for women as for men; and thanks to a once-healthy feminism, most women can now pursue whichever kind of career that their talent, energy, and preference equips them for. Even married women committed to the care of young children can often gain themselves a measure of freedom by divorcing their husbands, retaining the house if one is jointly owned, and getting child support; if they're young enough, such women can remarry while holding on to the latter two. "Family" law, both as written and as applied, positively encourages many to do so. That too is a kind of freedom.

But it's not a healthy kind. Indeed, its prevalence is ultimately counterproductive. The unfolding catastrophe of family law and the lucrative divorce industry it has spawned is the clearest and most important example of the erosion of true freedom in America. That's because it undermines the only moral and spiritual bases for exercising personal freedom responsibly.

Take no-fault divorce, which was introduced in the 1960s and 70s without popular consensus by lobbying from the legal profession, and billed as an obvious, humane expansion of personal freedom. Because of no-fault divorce, the marriage contract is hardly any contract at all. What other sort of contract can be broken at will by one party without legal penalty and sometimes even with legally enforced benefits? And this is the contract which supposedly forms the basis of society's most important unit: the family! The whole experiment has proven itself to be monumentally stupid. The family is now so easily broken up that, in millions of cases, children become in effect wards of the state because their fathers are gone—in an astonishing number of cases, by the will of the mother backed by force of law. It is no coincidence that, as many such fathers could tell you, the application of laws having to do with child custody, domestic violence, and child support takes place largely outside traditional constitutional norms. This is not the freedom so many American men have fought and died for.

It is in fact the freedom of Satan, who is its chief cause and celebrant. As has been shown over and over again by sociological studies, fatherlessness is the single biggest predictor of a host of social ills among young people. While that's a sign of the personal "freedom" exercised by parents, it actually undermines the social conditions necessary to form people for exercising personal freedom responsibly. As a result, more and more governmental effort and resources must be devoted to doing badly what the family can and ought to do well: nurturing and forming the young. Badly formed young people are not well-formed for freedom—or at least, not for any sort of freedom that matters.

Since the 1960s and 70s, the era of the so-called "sexual revolution," the rate of cohabitation without marriage has gone up along with the divorce rate. To more and more men especially, it seems that the risks of marriage have come to outweigh its benefits; if it isn't yet clear why, it ought to be. Some states, of course, have begun to address such "evasion of responsibility" on men's part by treating cohabitors as "domestic partners" with basically the same legal obligations as the married. If that trend takes hold, the result will be not an increase in marriage but a decrease in cohabitation. More men will find it more prudent to live apart from their girlfriends, enjoying complete sexual freedom to boot, than to set up their own guillotine and hope that nobody releases the catch. Still more casual sex and single-person households, which we've been seeing steadily for forty years already, is a formula for a society with no future. It should be plain that the acceleration of such a trend would not signify a kind of freedom that matters.

The staggering problems associated with the erosion of marriage and family are plain to a lot of Americans, even if they aren't to Western-European societies, who seem determined not to replace themselves anyhow. Organizations such as Focus on the Family get a lot of sympathy and money. But American politicians say rather little about said problems; there's a lot of talk against same-sex marriage, of course, but the talk is empty and self-serving given what marriage has become. And the little they do is mostly just more of the same. That's because family-law reform, the need for which is so painfully obvious to many, is the "third rail" of American politics. The issues involved are too emotional; taking them on would expose too many to charges of hypocrisy; even the brave and the squeaky-clean would have to take on the prevailing secular, ideological complex of hyper-individualism and relativism, which cannot be done without evoking charges of religious fundamentalism. But until something profound and far-reaching is done, the freedom for which American soldiers have been dying since 1776 will mean less and less, and eventually disappear altogether.
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