Recently I have been thinking about the doctrine of “family values”, heavily promoted in parts of the U.S., that elevates the family unit above individual choice. I had always assumed that this doctrine was mainly a way of expressing disapproval of people with certain sexual orientations, or of poor women who get abortions (rich women will always be able to get abortions. The “Right To Life” legislation proposed by those who promote “family values” would, practically speaking, only affect women who have few resources).
But recently my views have been changing as to this doctrine’s real significance, ever since I had a debate over lunch with a conservative friend on the subject of compulsory voting. In some other countries, including Brazil and Iceland, you aren’t given the option not to vote. If you don’t vote, you have to pay a fine.
I argued that this would be good policy for our country. He dismissed the idea out of hand. After all, he argued, aren’t you just adding noise to the system by having people show up at the pollls who don’t give a damn?
After I’d had some time to mull over his answer, I got to thinking about the laws in Illinois and some other parts of this country that bend over backwards to make it more difficult for poor people to vote. And then I realized that (although he didn’t say it, and I’m guessing he never would), he was talking about poor people.
There is a big gap in our nation between the theory and practice of universal suffrage – in theory everybody could vote, but in practice we often make it rather difficult for poor people to vote: They need to take time off from work, without a culture that encourages employers to give time off, and then they need to take the bus to an often far-away voting place. On top of that, there are often onerous requirements for ID, which then can’t be challenged without taking another day off from work, and thereby running the risk of getting fired.
And that’s what made me realized that I when I was talking to my friend about compulsory voting, I had really been thinking mostly about the effect it might have on poor children. Let’s say you’re a poor kid, and your parents have given up – they don’t bother to vote, since they don’t believe that there is any point in their participating in a system that is so slanted against them.
In my view of what this country should and could be, we would reach out to that child, and tell her that every generation provides a new opportunity to get it right, to be a better democracy. Compulsory voting would help with this. In order to get elected, politicians would be forced to pay more attention to the opinions of young people who have grown up poor.
That’s when I started rethinking the effects of “family values”. The very phrase suggests that the natural unit in our society is not the individual but the family. And that distinction ties in with this other issue, the one of universal suffrage.
In some societies, citizens look at children from poor families and are appalled that those children might not get the same health and education advantages as children from better off families. If only for reasons of pure self-interest, one would think it would be logical for a society to do its best to nurture all potential new talent, to find its next Einsteins, Edisons, Marie Curies, wherever they may be. Once you let a child grow up with inadequate education and health care, there’s a really good chance you’ve doomed that child to mediocrity as an adult.
But of course if you are among the better off in society, there is a downside to nurturing the potential of poor children: those children might grow up to compete in the marketplace with your own child. And here is where the doctrine of “family values” seems to take on another aspect: It allows its proponents to pay lip service to upward mobility, while making sure the playing field remains unlevel.
After all, if we define the societal unit as the family, not the individual, and if we’ve given up on the parents, then substandard education and health care for a child in that family is, by definition, not society’s problem. It’s God’s will, the “sins” of the fathers, in the purest Calvinist sense: Children of poor parents are supposed to be poor. After all, since the family is sacred, placing individual potential over the sanctity of the family unit would be, uh, immoral.