Sixty-five years ago Richard Weaver wrote about the destruction caused by the triumph of nominalism, the denial of the reality of transcendentals such as the good, beautiful, and true. He wanted to reverse it, and insisted on the importance of the right to private property, calling it “the last metaphysical right.” The point was to emphasize that the right of property exists independently of social utility and public policy, and thereby serves to limit the supremacy of the collective, for example by providing a material basis for individual and local independence.
It’s said that capitalism has won the battle with socialism. That may be so, but it’s capitalism as a system of organizing industrial production that has won, not any metaphysical right of private property. (Weaver himself distinguished the two.) And it’s won not because it’s metaphysical and limits the supremacy of politics, but because it provides a better mix of efficiency and manageability in realizing collective economic and political objectives.
So the type of private property that’s won has little to do with the freedom and independence of ordinary people. The difference can be seen three blocks from where I live. Capital, in the person of a real estate developer, wanted to take the kind of private property Weaver wanted to protect, homes and small businesses, for one of his construction projects. The legal system, in the form of various politicians, judges, and public authorities, decided he could do so. The move would increase the value of the land on which the homes and businesses stood, and that would increase the general prosperity (as well as the personal prosperity of politicians who played the game). So the developer was given the right to tear down homes and businesses for the sake of his project.
That’s the system that’s won, and it’s not so different from what was feared by humane opponents of socialism. Individuals, families, and local communities don’t matter, just large institutions and established powers, and what advances the latter’s interests becomes the law in the name of the general welfare. There’s been a grand compromise: we’ve socialized property, since it’s all fully at the disposal of public policy, but the manner in which it’s been socialized involves assignment to particular individuals and institutions, so a degree of economic efficiency is preserved and rich people don’t get annoyed. We’re capitalist as well as socialist now, and with that point settled progress can turn its attention to bigger and better projects, like reconstructing human nature.
In retrospect, Weaver overstated the unique centrality of private property. Fundamental though it is, it’s less property than the family that has stood as the major institution outside the state that has authority of its own because it is part of the nature of things and not simply a vehicle for someone’s purposes. As a metaphysical reality, the family could give us a position in the world. It meant we were not lost in a cosmos that modern natural science presents as meaningless and therefore incomprehensible. Nor were we naked and helpless before the faceless and abstract social cosmos defined by the modern state and economy. All of us, except a few unfortunates, were part of a family, of an institution to which we were connected body and soul, related by degrees to the rest of the society of which we are members, and possessing a reality that precedes that of the larger society. As such the family provided a firm position from which the work could begin of reconstructing a humane world from the wreckage created by radical modernity.
Progressives had long recognized that the family was profoundly at odds with their project. The problem was what to do about something that was at once so recalcitrant and so deeply embedded in human nature. Communist regimes initially tried to do away with it, but failed because of their hurry and the crudity of their methods, and they soon gave up the effort. Liberal modernity has made much more progress, as it has in other aspects of life. Its strategy of radicalism by degrees has transformed religion more profoundly than communism ever did, cut our connection to the past more effectively, and is discovering how to control our thoughts and redefine our social relations under cover of what is thought to be freedom.
Its mills grind slow but they grind exceeding fine. The attack on the family, less a conscious campaign than a natural consequence of liberal practices and understandings that have become ever more demanding, has proceeded in depth and on a broad front. Step by step it has chipped away at the functions, solidity, and legitimacy of the family. Divorce has been made easy, childcare professionalized, schooling extended, family meals replaced by fast food, and a combination of professional expertise and all-pervasive electronic entertainment become the universal guide and teacher. A feminism that denies all legitimate distinctions between the sexes, except those intended to counter assumed masculine privileges, has become official in government and all respectable institutions.
What “gay marriage” does is bring the attack on the family to a new level by destroying the basis of marriage in human nature. It means that marriage is a creature not of nature or natural law or metaphysics but of what particular people want and law provides for them. It thereby puts the belief that marriage is a pure human construction at the heart of social life.
Such a radical change makes coexistence with those who disagree extremely difficult. How will Catholics be able to live a common life with their fellow citizens when the fundamental assumptions on which that life is based reject natural law at the very point at which public and private connect? How can we accept common schooling, when the public schools teach that sexual distinctions are irrelevant to human connections, that they are whatever people decide they are, and that two men or two women can constitute a marriage that must be treated and spoken of as such on pain of severe, immediate, and inescapable consequences?
However bad things are, they can always get worse. If marriage is a pure construction, then the family is simply a group of people who agree to associate with each other and have whatever status the law defines. If that’s so, it’s not obvious what’s special about the bond between parents and children. That too has been considered a matter of natural or metaphysical right, a view that is radically opposed to the ideal of individual choice on which liberalism is based. So why not view it instead as a creation of the state for public purposes, a sort of foster-parenting arrangement, to be administered as such in the interests of the child and the larger society? That kind of view is gaining traction, often under the banner of “children’s rights,” and it is not clear what contrary arguments are available to Catholics, traditionalists, and proponents of natural law that will fare better than the arguments they have presented in other settings.