Social reproduction: liberals forever!

I came across a fairly peculiar article in the journal Foreign Affairs on ‘The return of patriarchy’ ( The gist of the story is that patriarchy and conservatives values are going to return because of evolutionary realities. Liberals have fewer children than conservatives, therefore liberals are going to become extinct and conservative, patriarchal, religious values will triumph. It’s not the first time I’ve seen this argument made, but there’s a rather nasty lip-smacking relish by the male (surprise, surprise) author, as the following quote shows:

Without implying any endorsement for the strategy, one must observe that a society that presents women with essentially three options—be a nun, be a prostitute, or marry a man and bear children—has stumbled upon a highly effective way to reduce the risk of demographic decline.

The article is marked by some fairly dubious historical claims about the Roman and Greek upper classes dying out because of reluctance to have children, to be replaced by new Christian patriarchal families. But aside from its historical inaccuracies and misogynistic tone, does the central argument actually hold water? The answer is no, because the author completely ignores cultural reproduction (or, if you want to put it in Christian terms, spiritual fatherhood/motherhood).

To explain this, consider the case of medieval Western Europe. Clergy were theoretically forbidden to marry and have children, and though this wasn’t always held to, their reproduction rates would have been substantially below that of laymen. Therefore, by this author’s argument, the clergy as a class would soon have become extinct. What this ignores is that the clergy as a class ‘reproduced’ by inspiring others to become clerics themselves (or to have their children enter the church). They had ‘spiritual children’ in the sense that they inspired non-related/more distantly related people to follow their example. In extreme cases such cultural reproduction can have far more impact than any possible biological reproduction. St Augustine had one (illegitimate) child and so his genes have probably long since vanished. His books and his ideas however, still survive and have influence.

Therefore liberals are safe from extinction provided that enough new liberals are created either by children being raised as liberals and staying with this ideology or by converting the children of conservatives to liberalism. This is where it gets interesting. Liberal women are likely to be disproportionately represented both in the education system and in other positions of influence, to act as role models. This is because firstly, conservative women/women who support the patriarchy are less likely to want to have a career other than raising children. Secondly, if they are having more children it’s going to be harder for them to achieve more outside the home, even if they wanted to, due to time pressures, additional costs etc. Girls who are raised in patriarchal households are thus still going to see an alternative lifestyle in the outside world and a lot of them are likely to choose that. The relative collapse of patriarchy in the West is predominantly due to women wanting more opportunities, not to men being reluctant to shoulder the burdens of family life, as the author suggests.

There is probably much less of a contrast between men: patriarchal men possibly have a slight social advantage in having a domesticated wife to rely on as opposed to liberal men. On the other hand, there may be some preponderance of liberal men in higher education because the authoritarian views of patriarchal men are less compatible with the mental flexibility and questioning of assumptions required for scholarship.

The educational system, therefore is likely to convert more conservatives to liberalism than vice versa. The only way that conservatives could avoid this would probably be to withdraw largely from mainstream education (as happens to a certain extent in the US already). However, any alternative ‘patriarchal’ educational system would probably be less effective than the current one (for example, because of restricting opportunities for girls and probably also excluding many good educators because of their ‘unsound’ views). The end result in that case might be a conservative class that was larger, but more poorly educated than what would then truly be a liberal elite. Given that better education very partially correlates with higher status/greater power (if it correlated better, I wouldn’t be a PhD willing to take menial jobs), then conservatives would probably still not have the power that they demand or see as their right. I don’t think that you could now realistically go back to wholesale patriarchy in the West unless you’re prepared to use force to subjugate women. Even in the US, which is seeing some loss of women’s rights, reconstructing the patriarchy is only really a rightwing daydream.


2 thoughts on “Social reproduction: liberals forever!

  1. The logic behind this patriarchal argument in inherently flawed. Basically, they are saying that because a certain belief system belongs to a group which produces more offspring, then that belief system will increase in number. The flaws in this argument become apparent when one considers the following:

    400 years ago, everyone believed the earth was flat and the sun revolved around the earth. These people f*cked like bunnies.

    100 years ago, most people believed slavery was just peachy. These people f*cked like bunnies.

    70 years ago, most everyone believed women did not need the right to vote. These people f*cked like bunnies.

    The only thing the patriarchy proves is that they aren’t very logical. ‘Nuff said.

    Speaking of voting rights, I’m sure you’re aware of the old saw, “no athiests in foxholes”? Well, by the same token, there aren’t any christian wives in the voting booth. They really should stay home and let the patriarchy deal with world affairs; otherwise they’re just hypocrites.


    • I’m a Christian and a wife and I regularly vote. Explain to me in the Bible where it says I can’t/shouldn’t and then you can call me (and a lot of other female Christians) a hypocrite. Funnily enough, the Bible doesn’t say a lot about voting rights for anybody.


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