This article was published in the Spring 1997 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
Families Become Clans in a Free Society
by Mary Ruwart

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What would a family be like in a totally free society? To answer this question, we should first examine our current concepts of family to understand how governments currently impact on its definition.

"Family" is a term we loosely apply to blood relations, adopted children, spouses, and in-laws. Our "extended" family may include individuals or groups outside of the "family" to whom we give honorary status. Strictly speaking, the individual determines who is family and who is not. The law does not provide a limiting definition.

Our current legal system, however, does define particular relationships in the family, primarily those of one's spouse and children. Marriage, adoption, child-bearing, and sometimes cohabitation have legal consequences in most parts of the world.

For most people, marriage is simply a promise to live together indefinitely. However, marriage is also a legal contract with terms dictated by local and national legal precedent that redistributes property and sets future financial obligations. The marriage is not just between the partners; the government takes a major role in defining the rights of each spouse and determining who is eligible for marriage. Most governments ban same-sex marriages, as well as those between individuals closely related genetically.

Elderly couples often cohabit to avoid losing their Social Security benefits or incurring liability for each others' medical expenses. Marriage also brings with it a tax penalty when both spouses work. Divorces that would be readily resolved by separating couples are complicated by government interference.

I experienced the potential impact of government meddling during my divorce hearings in the mid-1970s. My husband and I, both of us childless, had divided our property along lines that we could agree on. However, during our hearing, the judge repeatedly reminded my husband that he could, and presumably should, sue for alimony since I was making slightly more money than he at that time.

We had attempted to compensate for such things in our settlement agreement; however, the judge seemed determined to withhold legal sanction for it. If my husband had had less integrity, he could have seized this opportunity to obtain alimony, which the judge would have been sure to grant. Instead of a peaceful separation, we would have been fighting each other. The amount in question was so small that any gain that my husband might have made would have been swallowed up in legal fees.

Thankfully, my husband was a man of his word, and insisted that he was satisfied. Clearly, however, the judge was ready to impose the legal definition of spousal duties upon us, even if we had never accepted them ourselves.

Today in the U.S., we depend on the government to provide definitions of relationships between spouses, as well as those between parents and children. Government frequently interferes with the adoption of children by eager parents because of racial differences. Discrimination based on color would be a thing of the past if white parents were permitted to adopt black children, and vice-versa. Instead, our middle class routinely goes overseas to China, Korea, or Vietnam to adopt. Because of the poor conditions in these countries, many of the babies have as many health problems as children here born of drug addicts.

Thus, the government greatly influences family structure, even indirectly. Welfare recipients, for example, are especially affected negatively. In Michigan, where I rented to low income families, welfare was unavailable to mothers if the father of their children shared their residence. The government's logic was that the father was obligated to take care of his family; aid would only be offered to women who were abandoned. From the mothers' point of view, fathers were not only expendable, they prevented the family from receiving gifts of food, shelter, and medical care of greater dollar value than the tak- home pay of two minimum wage earners! As a result, fathers were used by teen-age girls to sire children, but not invited to cohabit or become involved with their offspring. Having children and receiving enough welfare to establish their own residence was often considered the rite of adult passage, especially among minorities. Thus, current government policy can greatly impact family structure indirectly as well as directly.

In a free society, government would exist only to enforce the contractual agreements voluntarily entered into by family members. Government would have no role in defining the content of these contracts. Without government definition, formal marriage and adoption contracts would become expedient. Some marriages would be lifetime contracts. A spouse that wanted to leave might be expected to pay alimony for the privilege. Some marriages would be simply an agreement to live together, without co-mingling of finances. These contracts might terminate without penalty if either individual wanted to leave. Couples who wanted their initial idea of marriage to be upheld by the courts would be motivated to put their intentions in writing.

Same-sex couples could easily enter into marriage contracts if they wished. An individual could enter into marriage contracts that permitted more than one spouse. Group marriage could also be established by contract.

Adoption into a "family" need not be restricted to children either. Even as adults, brothers and sisters could be adopted into the family, formally or informally. Such adoptions might carry specific responsibilities; others might be nothing more (from a legal standpoint) than a name change. With all the permutations available to create marriages, adoptions, and families, what would the word "family" really mean?

I envision that the multitude of possibilities available to people wanting family affiliation would result in a social structure which we might more accurately call a "clan" or extended family. The clan might even include divorced spouses who have remarried alternative partners, a possibility made more likely when contracts are clearly defined and honored. A great deal of estrangement that occurs during modern divorce arises from the fight over finances. If this fight can be avoided by clearly defined marriage contracts, the bitter feelings that so often accompany separation could be lessened considerably.

Clans could be very structured, such as those entered into by contracts that specified the duties of each member. Clans could be informal without any legal obligations associated with membership, similar to the "extended family" of today. Eventually a preferred structure might evolve, but variety would likely be maintained to accommodate alternative lifestyles.

Some clans might actually operate similarly to "voluntary" governing bodies if their contracts called for contributions to clan activities (e.g., college funds, maintenance of clan meeting place, operation of an arbitration board, etc.). Other clans might simply expect members to support the "family" as they thought appropriate in times of crisis, much as happens in families today who need to finance care for elderly parents, for example.

Without government "safety nets," family ties are likely to be stronger and more meaningful than they are today. Individuals would create mutually beneficial contracts with their "families" instead. Liberty will bring about the close family ties that our government officials rave about, but cannot deliver. D

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