A PDF version of this essay: InDefenseOfThePatriarchalFamily
It should be obvious that nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important to a society than the structure and authority of the family. Around half of people are young or old dependents at any given time, and all people are dependents for some part of their lives. In every society that has yet existed, the family is the institution by which the half that is able to work cares for the other half (after and before being cared for in turn). This transfer of wealth and service far exceeds the redistributive actions of even communist governments. In the family we encounter human dependency at its most naked, and from these dependencies arise our most solemn duties and our largest (indeed, unpayable) debts. What could be more important to men’s self-understanding? So it is for good reason that no institution is more important to a conservative than the authoritative domestic society, the patriarchal family. Also, no institution faces such merciless attack from clear-headed leftists.
When it comes to the family, the facts are well known. Humans reproduce sexually. Unlike many other animals, our young are born completely helpless and take more than a decade to reach maturity. They require an enormous investment of time and effort from their parents if they are to survive long enough to reproduce themselves. Because it is only the woman who can be pregnant, give birth, and nurse, she is naturally more involved in child care, at least during the early years. For his progeny to survive, the man has had to assume those tasks which the woman can’t do while caring for a child—acquiring food and repelling attacks. Men and women have acquired (by natural selection) special physical, mental, and psychological features to assist them in their specific tasks.
Patriarchy is the idea which assigns moral significance to these facts. The good toward which the patriarchal family is ordered is procreation. Its basic principle is the embrace of dependency. The child depends on his parents, and the parents depend on each other. These experiences of dependency, both of having others depend on us (and the responsibilities this creates) and of depending on others (and the humility this engenders), are regarded as positive goods. The more deeply each member relies on the other, the more the family can be said to thrive. Thus the family is not merely an illiberal institution; it is positively anti-liberal. Nothing is more opposed to its ethos than independence, in either the sense of autonomy or of self-sufficiency.