Getting married and raising a family is seen as a “child penalty” by some economists, but it is where security is found. OSV News photo/Kevin J. Parks, Catholic Review

The metaphysical comfort of conservative homelife

  • November 16, 2023

Does liberalism get the big questions right? The question was the subject of a Munk Debate on the evening of Nov. 3 in Toronto.

My short answer is yes. Better put, it gets more things right than competing philosophies. Capitalism, it has been said, is the worst economic system except for all the others. Liberalism is a better solution for our common lives than socialism or communism. Yet at the end of the night, the winning side of the debate were those who were opposed. How have we arrived at a point where so many appear to be questioning liberalism?

Liberalism is a philosophy where the individual is sacred and has rights in contrast with the ruling power, state or monarchy. The foundations lie in Magna Carta, when it was enshrined that the king, too, was under God, like the commoners. Liberalism relies on free markets to maximize talents and exchanges of goods. In liberalism, human beings are endowed with unalienable rights.

There are a myriad different answers on why our culture increasingly rejects liberalism. One is that the education system fails to teach the abject failures of communism ranks high, but I won’t get into that. Neither will I muse about the idea that we live in a country that is no longer classically liberal. Government size and power have grown extensively over the past decades. We have paired socialist approaches with the market in significant areas such as health care. And even where government over-regulation is the cause of a problem, we still reach for government solutions. This weaves the decay of socialism into our lives and it becomes difficult to see which philosophy — socialism or liberalism — introduced it.

There is a more significant factor behind attempts to upend liberalism. Liberalism is intended to help the small person in the face of big government or large corporations. It was never intended to guide our thinking within families. But we have misapplied it to the family domain and created families where competition reigns: husbands assert individuality against wives, wives against husbands, parents against children.

When the sexual revolution picked up steam the very purpose was to maximize sexual freedom, which came with major consequences for families. After the advent of the birth control pill for widespread use in 1960, there were vastly more unconnected sexual encounters, which resulted in more children born without stability (alongside an increased rate of abortion). This increased atomisation and disconnection in families.

The data show lower marriage rates and increased rates of lone parenting over this time. Family is a place of joy, warmth and attachment for a declining number of people. For too many growing up in the sexual revolution, family means exclusion, not belonging. This creates a metaphysical malaise. How can we have our own families in these conditions? And, indeed, young Canadians are not. Our fertility rate is the lowest it has been since we began collecting birth statistics.

Having so few children perpetuates aggression and meanness in the world — a problem all too often wrongly attributed to capitalism. No system of economic exchange, no philosophy of living can overcome the profound insecurity so many of us face in our private lives. Absent family, work becomes everything. Attempts to find work-life balance are a fraud if there is only work, and no life. And family was once, for so many, the source of life outside work, providing meaning when work was dirty, dangerous or unfulfilling. 

Yes, the individual is sacred. But so too once was the bond of marriage, which was both a duty and an obligation that countered individualization. Getting married, raising children — these things were not put in the ledger as burdens — a “child penalty” as economists now refer to it. 

If security cannot be found in our intimate relationships, we know it certainly will not be found in communism, socialism or even liberalism. Young people unmoored from a secure family life will attempt to fit in, often in radical ideologies or extreme politics.

Of course, there are Marxist elements to the sexual revolution and atomization is a factor in both liberalism and Marxism. Ultimately, we need liberal economies and conservative homes. Virtue is first taught by the hearth in families. Liberalism should be taught by that hearth, but practised in the world outside.

(Mrozek is Senior Fellow at Cardus Family.)

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