Supporting Families, Recognizing Dependency

I’m reading (please note the present tense–I am not anywhere near finished) a book that is making me think.  It is called The Supportive State and it’s by a law professor named Maxine Eichner.   She has a great deal to say (and is writing in a field where others do as well) but here I want to consider a small (but foundational) observation she offers.  

A lot of our world  is structured around the idea of the autonomous adult.    So, for example, many people would assert that the role of government should be limited and that people should be allowed to make their own choices.    This isn’t particularly conservative or liberal, actually.   Some conservatives see improper government action in Michelle Obama’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity, for instance, while liberals see the same in restrictions on a woman’s right to control her reproductive destiny.   In either case, there’s an underlying assumption that people ought to be generally free to do what they like.  (I understand that almost everyone imposes limiting principles on this general right, but I’m not going there right now.) 

The thing is, our world is full of people who are not autonomous individuals, at least not at any given moment.   Additionally, no one is an autonomous individual for all of her/his life.   What I mean here is that many people are dependant on other people and all of us are dependant on others for important stretches of our lives.   (I suppose it bears saying that being dependant on another means not being autonomous.)    At a minimum, all of us begin life as children, during which time we are initially completely dependent on others.   We remain dependant in major ways for many years.   And even once we are adults, some of us are ill or injured some of the time.  Then many of us end our lives with a period of dependency. 

Professor Eichner begins with this observation because the general liberal framework presumes a world of autonomous individuals and that’s just not the way it is.  If you think about it, the way we make this problem go away, so we can continue to think about a world of autonomous individuals, is by placing dependency inside families.   So, for example, the raising of children (all those non-autonomous little creatures) is a private matter for the family.  The family is organized and operated by autonomous individuals and we rely on them to manage the dependent ones.     

The end result is that we can continue to think primarily about the state’s obligations vis-a-vis autonomous individuals.   We don’t think much about the state’s obligations vis-a-vis those who are dependant.   (Indeed, in these days of brutal budget decisions, there seems to be an alarming acceptance of the idea that the state has no obligations vis-a-vis those who cannot be autonomous individuals.  Apart from anything else, this seems to me extremely short-sighted.  Children are, after all, tomorrow’s citizens and it would seem to be in our self-interest to assure that they are well-educated, healthy, and have the capacity to face the complex challenges the future will no doubt pose.)  Anyway, all of this is a prelude to Professor Eichner’s project, which is to think about how you might structure things of you took account of dependency.  

Her point that we don’t take sufficient account of dependency struck a chord with me as I thought about the discussions here and I’ve been thinking about why.   I have a guess at why:  I think the insistence on the primacy of the genetic linkage is similarly blind to the importance of dependence while I think the functional/de facto approach tends to put in in the center.    

I’m not sure I’ve worked this through enough to be really clear about it.   But it seems to me that the most important thing about an infant is its dependence on others and thus, the most important people are those meeting its needs and those committed to continuing to ensure that its needs are met during the many years that will follow.  While it is possible that these are the people who provided the DNA, I do not believe it is necessarily the case.    To value genetic connection above actual caretaking is to deny the centrality of dependence.  

As I say, I don’t think I’ve quite worked this out yet.  Consider it a work in progress.


One response to “Supporting Families, Recognizing Dependency

  1. The defacto parent, by definition, only becomes a parent de-facto- once the requisite caretaking activities have already occured, and not before. I’m all for de-facto parent recognition, assuming there was nothing shady about the way he/she got to be defacto parent in the first place.
    We all understand that unfortunately some bioparents will not fulfill their role. That doesn’t mean their role becomes universally irrelevant.

    On another note, I find it very unfortunate that the state has to kick in and fill the roles that families once did not their own. The state is a poor substitute for family.

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