Dependency and the Liberal Polity: On Martha Fineman's the Autonomy Myth

37 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2005 Last revised: 20 Aug 2012

See all articles by Maxine Eichner

Maxine Eichner

University of North Carolina School of Law

Date Written: August 20, 2012


This review essay considers Martha Fineman's provocative new book, The Autonomy Myth (2004). In it, Fineman argues that popular ideology in the United States has become fixated on the myth that citizens are and should be autonomous. Yet the fact that dependency is unavoidable in any society and must be dealt with to sustain the polity, Fineman contends, gives the state the responsibility to support caretaking. Fineman surveys a range of public policies and argues that the autonomy myth has caused the United States to fail woefully in this task. She also criticizes proposals to shore up and subsidize marriage and the marital family as misguided attempts to cabin dependency issues within families.

This review essay discusses the contributions that The Autonomy Myth makes, as well as assesses Fineman's normative proposals. I argue that Fineman carries her point that dependency is a condition for which a good and just polity should assume responsibility. Fineman's conceptualizing this responsibility in terms of a debt that society owes to caregivers, however, raises particular conceptual difficulties that weaken her claim for state support. In place of Fineman's framing of this issue, I suggest that the state's responsibility should be conceived as grounded in its obligation to protect its most vulnerable citizens. This alternative conceptualization, I contend, not only provides a firmer ground for the state's duty to support caretaking, it also more clearly delineates the limits of that support in a liberal society that seeks to pursue multiple goods. The essay also situates Fineman's proposal in context with competing feminist proposals for dealing with the issue of caretaking, and argues that the state should seek to support caretaking in a manner that encourages citizens to integrate these responsibilities with work in the labor market. Finally, this essay asserts that while Fineman is correct that the fact of dependency should cause the state to redirect much of its support toward caretaker-dependent relationships, this does not require the state to abandon civil recognition of relationships between adults, as Fineman would have it. Instead I argue that according legal status to relationships between adults can be one of the ways through which the state takes account of dependency.

Keywords: autonomy, families, dependency, caretaking

Suggested Citation

Eichner, Maxine, Dependency and the Liberal Polity: On Martha Fineman's the Autonomy Myth (August 20, 2012). California Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 4, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Maxine Eichner (Contact Author)

University of North Carolina School of Law ( email )

Van Hecke-Wettach Hall, 160 Ridge Road
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380
United States

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