Libertarianism vs. the Family

Can civilization survive freedom?

(Page 2 of 2)

On a macro level, the U.S. economy continues to be productive with high employment and high college graduation rates. It seems, as Brink Lindsey argues, that Americans have reached a manageable balance of social libertarianism with an intelligent self-discipline—because such self-control helps enrich them. As Lindsey has written, “The strength of this desire, and not the fading hold of old cultural forms, provided the basis for ongoing commitment to middle-class self-restraint—self-restraint as a means to exuberant self-expression.”

Hymowitz says that libertarianism’s creed:

described by Doherty as “[P]eople ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else”—is not far removed from “if it feels good, do it,” the cri de coeur of the Aquarians.

Actually, one can believe “if it feels good do it” is a bad way to run your life while still believing in the political principle of people being free (from outside coercion) as long as they aren’t hurting others. So those two ideas are as far removed as “I don’t think it’s good for you to do this” is from “I should use violence to prevent you from doing this.”

If you don’t understand that distinction, it’s not just that you haven’t kept up with supposedly wacky radical modern libertarians such as Karl Hess and Murray Rothbard. You haven’t even kept up with John Stuart Mill. And you are accepting a political principle that constricts human liberty to a very narrow range indeed, one in which no disapproved urge or action is safe from state interference. It’s the kind of narrow range of freedom in which even most families—the bulwark of human social development and, yes, also human individuality—would find it hard to thrive.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    If you don't understand that distinction,

    ...then you're in the majority of Americans! Good job!

    Seriously, anyone who's ever tried to run a meeting knows that even amongst the functionally competent, there is often an inability to see rather basic distinctions.

    < /end grouchy work-related pouting >

  • ||

    "People ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else"

    It doesn't seem to come up often, but isn't the real point of contention here what it means to harm someone else?

    Consider public health, for example. It's probably true that one person getting sick doesn't harm me. But if enough people got sick, one could argue it would, since we all depend on other people for society to work.

    Also there's the question of preventing one person from harming another. Should the government allow people to drive drunk as long as they don't crash into anybody?

    So I think nearly all Americans agree more or less that people should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn't harm others. And for the most part, we are. There is just a lot of disagreement as to what "harm others" means.

  • The Extispicator||

    Same old distinction people I talk to all the time fail to see: advocating that we should be allowed to do anything (that doesn't harm others) is mixed up with advocating that we should do all those things that we would then be free to do.

    When I bring up legalizing drugs and prostitution, most people argue back about how bad those things are for you. I don't do drugs or hire hookers, and wouldn't if they were legal. The person arguing with me wouldn't either. So, I ask: who would. Usually the answer is all those people who already are doing those things, plus maybe a few more who would now but are scared by the threat of jail.

  • fyodor||

    The title of Hymowitz's article: Freedom Fetishists.

    Heh-heh, she said "fetish"!

    Actually, you can always cherry-pick which libertarians to represent libertarianism and come up with meaningless conclusions regardless. Hymowitz complains about libertarians' supposed "entanglement" with 60's radicalism. Well boo fuckin hoo. How many times will libertarians have to repeat that a belief in freedom and attitudes about what to do with that freedom are separate issues? Her most concrete criticism, stated mostly implicitly, is against "loose divorce laws," though actually I'd say a libertarian regime would be all for strictly enforcing whatever contracts people enter into freely. That divorce laws have become looser over the years probably reflects society's desire for less restrictive marriage contracts than the influence of libertarian philosophy! But I guess the traditionalist elite know best what guard rails to place on the rest of us. Hymowitz finishes by implying that libertarians are a bunch of science-fiction addled utopians. Oh well, as the old saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity, and it's kinda cool that she gives libertarians a lot more credit for influencing things, to whatever end, than we likely deserve!

  • ||

    Reminds me of a debate Nick Gillespie was in a year or two back. Making the point that making a certain activity legal, doesn't mean people will suddenly start doing it, he said something like: "Me and my sister are just waiting for the incest laws to be repealed so we can get together."

    HA! Well spake sir.

  • fyodor||

    Dan T.

    You're actually to a large extent correct. The POV that Hymowitz writes from is that people must be forced, through the likes of restrictive divorce laws, to make good decisions that benefit the rest of us. The dubious efficacy of trying to force people to make good decisions aside, the inherent value in individual freedom doesn't count for much in such a view.

    So much gets blamed on the "do it if it feels good" ideas expressed in the sixties, but, as I've longed maintained, seems to me that most of the loosening of social mores at that time was at least as much due to changing technology, i.e., improvements in birth control, mostly in the form of the Pill.

  • dhex||

    "traditional families" reminds me of "job security" and other quasi-myths of a bygone age.

  • jimmy||

    family...society...class...race...church...there's always some entity that collectivists of right or left find more important than the individual.

    actually i just wanted to be the first to comment on the use of the album cover pic from led zeppelin's presence, a very underrated lp. don't know what the pic has to do with the story, but it was cool to see it!

  • Fluffy||

    Ultimately the argument against libertarianism that's being offered here boils down to: If people are free to choose, they won't choose suffering, and that negatively impacts traditional institutions that are built on suffering.

    Strangely, I find that argument less than compelling.

    The person who framed this discussion the most honestly [that I know of] was Alan Bloom, who pointed out that the traditional family unit was maintained by the fact that men who married assumed a lot of responsibility, but in exchange received a lot of power. He went on to wonder if it was reasonable to expect men to continue to assume the same set of responsibilities, now that social arrangements have changed in a way that denies them the power half of the equation. And you know something? He was probably right. But even if he was right, so what? If the traditional family can't maintain itself without power, and without trapping people with no exit and no choice but to submit to that power, then fuck it. Let the traditional family die.

  • fyodor||

    dhex,

    I don't know if the existence of the "traditional family" was a myth, but the harmoniousness and absolute value attributed to it were.

    Which, by the way, jimmy, is what is likely being satirized in the Zep album cover.

  • mith||

    Nice use of the Obolesk on the front page picture.

  • carrick||

    Consider individual freedom, for example. It's probably true that one person being paranoid doesn't harm me. But if enough people are paranoid, one could argue it would, since we all depend on other people to respect our liberties for society to work.

  • ||

    But, but, but.... liberty isn't license....

    I always enjoy that carnard from most conservatives. Makes them mad when I politely tell them that liberty isn't license for Christians, but for sinners, well, that's another story.... LOL

    Then they really get mad when I point out that their support of vice prohibitions actually undermines the Christian tenent that everyone is a free moral agent. I point out that vice laws essentially punish people for not living up to the Christian ideal of choosing to abstain from sin.

    Essentially, from a political standpoint, most Christian folks are saying the following: We can't make you believe in Jesus, but we can make you live your life as if you do.

  • Mike Laursen||

    Dan T., I have met libertarians who are so purist in their views that they indeed would say that someone should be allowed to drive drunk as long as they don't hit anyone. You can probably find a few folks here that would say that; but, of course, you would realize that they are not representative of all libertarians, and that there is a broad spectrum of libertarian thought, wouldn't you?

  • fyodor||

    carrick,

    You're right, I never thought about that!

    Better make paranoia illegal -- that'll cure people of it!!

    :-)

  • dhex||

    I don't know if the existence of the "traditional family" was a myth, but the harmoniousness and absolute value attributed to it were.

    yeah basically. i would call "same diff" on that particular distinction. at least how it's used rhetorically.

  • ||

    Hymowitz notes that "Today, a record 37 percent of American children are born to single mothers, and the number appears to be on the rise.

    Maybe that's because so many potential husbands are in jail for nonviolent crimes. Ending the war on drugs, prostitution, ect. could lead to more marriages.

  • ||

    This thread is probably dead, and I'm not an expert on any of these issues. Moreover, I don't have the time to read Hymowitz' article at the moment, and I'm reasonably sure Doherty's characterization is appropriate. Nonetheless, I think there's some things about Doherty's article worth noting.

    Doherty wrote:

    Most libertarians have understood that their preferred political arrangement works best with certain extra-political virtues

    So the serious issue which is raised by some of the traditionalist folk is where that virture comes from.

    Doherty wrote:

    Indeed, the paleolibertarian [Lew Rockwell, Murray Rothbard, ed.] argues that a fuller libertarianism would turn out to be the traditional family's best friend; that without a welfare state or Social Security, traditional family arrangements will be more vitally needed, and thus more likely to stay strong.

    I thought the traditionalist line on this was that it isn't just the state that puts pressure on families, but capitalism itself. The need to get ahead at work, get the kids into a good school, etc., results in things like two working parent families and a higher divorce rate (through poor family/work balance). I'm not endorsing the argument, but I can see how it could be made.

    Doherty wrote:

    A great source of such encouraging data is an article I've had in my files since its Spring 2004 appearance in City Journal, by Ms. Hymowitz herself. She notes (over the course of the 1990s mostly) juvenile murder rates falling 70 percent, arrest rates for violent juveniles down 44 percent, juvenile burglary arrests down 66 percent, vandalism at low levels, schools getting safer, drinking and drug use trends among youth falling in the early 21st century, and teen sex (though that trend has stagnated since 2001), abortion, and pregnancy rates falling as well.

    On a macro level, the U.S. economy continues to be productive with high employment and high college graduation rates. It seems, as Brink Lindsey argues, that Americans have reached a manageable balance of social libertarianism with an intelligent self-discipline-because such self-control helps enrich them. As Lindsey has written, "The strength of this desire, and not the fading hold of old cultural forms, provided the basis for ongoing commitment to middle-class self-restraint-self-restraint as a means to exuberant self-expression."


    I thought the traditionalist line would be indifferent to the macro-level trends -- they don't fetishize higher education, and I don't know how they feel about the employment rates (i.e. how high they want the rates to be). The micro-level trends interest me more, however, since I do think traditionalists would care about them. Is anyone more familiar with Kirk or Rothbard or Rockwell (or Bill Kauffman?) able to point out how traditionalists address these positive trends? Are they really ignoring the statistics?

    Also, I think Nick's line, while fun, is not really a response to serious traditionalists. I thought the traditionalist argument was that capitalism necessary encourages consumerism, the development of markets to satisfy the smallest of wants -- the long tail, basically. And those consumerist pressures have negative consequences (or so they claim). That's different from the simplistic argument that "advertising makes you do things."

    At least, this is my understanding of the traditionalist line. I also recognize that many (most?) who claim to be traditionalists are simply moral scolds. But I don't think that they are all moral scolds, and I'd welcome an informed opinion on the matter.

    Anon

  • ||

    Libertarianism is not at all in conflict with traditional values, as it forces to to experience the consequences of bad choices, without State intervention. Brink Lindsay is right, we balance our hedonism with self-discipline as it gives us a more comfortable life. It is this innate striving for a good balance which preserves civilization, not some absraction called "traditional values."

    My biggest beef with traditional conservatives is the war on drugs. I used recreational drugs infrequently and judiciously in college, and had no problems, just like the vast majority of normal people.

    Crusading traditional conservatives remind me of the thought police in 1984.

  • ||

    I am one of those who sees no fundamental conflict between traditionalism and libertarianism, so long as both terms are rightly understood.

    As Brian says, without the apparatus of the Social Welfare State -- an apparatus that includes, inter alia, government schools -- the citizen would have more, not less, reason to cling to the security provided by the traditional social institutions of faith, family and community. The rise of David Brooks' "bourgeois bohemians" is directly related to the ways in which the Social Welfare State frees individuals from traditional obligations, subsidizing their pursuit of epicurean pleasure. (A household full of children, once the best assurance against destitution in one's dotage, is incompatible with the Bobo lifestyle.)

    The Ryan Sagers of the world, forever railing against the deviations of the Religious Right, utterly misidentify the problem. The biggest advocates of ever-expanding federal budgets and bureaucracies are most certainly not the Bible-thumpers and holy rollers.

    Look at Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- both a hard-shell evangelical and a sworn enemy of congressional pork. If it's limited government you want, Coburn's your man. But if, on the other hand, what you want is to be flattered by politicians who refer to your pet vices as "human rights," you'll have to look somewhere else.

    I don't think this is any sort of contradiction. A government big enough to protect people from having their feelings hurt -- "How dare you question my rights?" -- is a government big enough to do anything it pleases. There is a certain view of "rights" which inevitably and naturally finds its home in the Big Government Coalition. And if that's where your views lead you, then fare thee well -- but don't try to tell me that's "libertarianism."

  • LarryA||

    described by Doherty as "[P]eople ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else"-is not far removed from "if it feels good, do it," the cri de coeur of the Aquarians.

    So?

    "If it feels good, do it" is actually a pretty good guide to behavior, once you learn to take the long view. Growing old together is ultimately a lot more satisfying than a weekend fling with a hot neighbor.

    So I think nearly all Americans agree more or less that people should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn't harm others. And for the most part, we are. There is just a lot of disagreement as to what "harm others" means.

    I have a feeling that when "Hymowitz concludes that the moral state of America is parlous" her list is several times longer than average, including prohibitions against all sorts of private behaviors like homosexuality, pornography, etc.

    I'm presently gritting my teeth through a "The Bible Reveals the Truth" course of the "don't let the little woman get on top" variety. These "conservatives" are the new Pharisees.

  • Martin||

    Hymowitz says:
    'they are likely to make libertarianism the natural home of assorted cranks and crazies, and thus to continue to provide fodder for its at least partly deserved caricature.'

    Quite rich coming from a neoconservative organ. EVERY neocon I've ever read/heard about is a crank and a crazy.

  • ||

    Also there's the question of preventing one person from harming another. Should the government allow people to drive drunk as long as they don't crash into anybody?

    Yes. But as soon as you crash into someone there should be stiffer penalties than if you were sober.

  • JBinMO||

    "Seriously, anyone who's ever tried to run a meeting knows that even amongst the functionally competent, there is often an inability to see rather basic distinctions."

    Like the difference between no government and small government.

  • Nasikabatrachus||

    described by Doherty as "[P]eople ought to be free to do whatever the hell they want, mostly, as long as they aren't hurting anyone else"-is not far removed from "if it feels good, do it," the cri de coeur of the Aquarians.

    As opposed to "If it feels bad, shoot them," the very real implication of Hymowitz's philosophy. It always confuses me when people call libertarians selfish. Buddy, I'm not the one who wants to force other people to participate in his plans.

    Anyway, conservatives aren't very different from any other brand of Statist. They all want to control other people's decisions by force. They all think that the individual is suboordinated to "society". They all have a pathological fear of uncertainty, as evidenced by their demand for their whims to be enforced by the government.

  • Nasikabatrachus||

    Consider public health, for example. It's probably true that one person getting sick doesn't harm me. But if enough people got sick, one could argue it would, since we all depend on other people for society to work.

    Only using the warrant that everyone owns everyone else, or that everyone has a property right in what everyone else produces and will produce.

    That's quite a dangerous slope, there, too. If withdrawing a positive constitutes harm just as the infliction of a negative constitutes harm, then what isn't harm?

    Also there's the question of preventing one person from harming another. Should the government allow people to drive drunk as long as they don't crash into anybody?

    Why should the government be building and policing roads in the first place? Why should we even have a State?

    So I think nearly all Americans agree more or less that people should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn't harm others. And for the most part, we are. There is just a lot of disagreement as to what "harm others" means.


    I agree, and I would go further to say that what constitutes harm, or at least unjust harm, is at the center of just about every political philosophy. No one wants the welfare state because they think it's unjust harm; no one wanted the Khmer Rouge because they thought they would be evil murderers. (Well, maybe someone did, but it's probable they thought that the evil would cause some greater good).

  • ||

    Hymowitz notes that "Today, a record 37 percent of American children are born to single mothers, and the number appears to be on the rise.

    Maybe that's because so many potential husbands are in jail for nonviolent crimes. Ending the war on drugs, prostitution, ect. could lead to more marriages.


    Maybe the fact that the war on poverty has mitigated the consequences of single motherhood has something to do with out-of-wedlock births as well. The left and right (who've had power), ought to be looking at their own policies, rather than blame novel thinkers with no real influence on policy.

  • Jaap Weel||

    "The traditional family" is one of those things you may worry about if you believe in gradual, spontaneous social evolution is for the past, but government-imposed stasis for the future.

    "Stand athwart history and yell stop!"
    "But wait? What's so special about today? Why stop here, and not yesterday, or tomorrow?"
    "Just start yelling already!"

  • Fluffy||

    "The rise of David Brooks' "bourgeois bohemians" is directly related to the ways in which the Social Welfare State frees individuals from traditional obligations, subsidizing their pursuit of epicurean pleasure. (A household full of children, once the best assurance against destitution in one's dotage, is incompatible with the Bobo lifestyle.)"

    I think this misses the mark slightly. The immense rise in wealth in western societies in the last century and a half means that even in the absence of a welfare state, most lower-upper middle class and above people would be immune from suffering any life consequence due to pursuing "pleasure" or a "bobo lifestyle". Even at current rates of confiscatory taxation, no one I know will really need EITHER children OR the state to support them in their old age.

    The welfare state frees some individuals from traditional obligations. But most individuals who were freed from those obligations were freed by wealth. The welfare state just extended that liberation a bit farther down the income graph.

  • ||

    Perhaps Hymowitz is reacting to this sort of libertarian:

    "As Sciabarra (1995, 349-50) explains: [Ayn]Rand maintained that the conservative obsession with the "Family" was at root, a vestige of tribalism: "The worship of the 'Family' is mini-racism, like a crudely primitive first installment on the worship of the tribe. It places the accident of birth above a man's values, the unchosen physical ties of kinship above a man's choices, and duty to the tribe above aman's right to his own life." Though Rand recognized the crucial importance of the parent-child relationship, she argued that the Family was a cultural institution that frequently undercuts the individual's independence and autonomy, breaking "a man's or a woman's spirit by means of unchosen obligations and unearned guilt." Devotion to the Family was a con game in Rand's view, in which the weaker and irresponsible family members are dependent on those who are stronger. Frequently, the relations within the family mirror those of master and slave. Just as the stronger members are exploited, they are also obeyed. For Rand, these family figures become "mini-dictator[s]" . . .13" Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. 1995. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press. Cited in Steve Horwitz's paper: "Two Worlds at Once: Rand , Hayek, and the Ethics of the Micro and Macro-cosmos," Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 6, 2, Spring 2005, pp. 375-403

  • ||

    "13. In this discussion, the Rand quotes that Sciabarra (1995, 435 nn. 90-91) cites are taken from Rand 1981; interview 2 in Rand 1983; and lecture 9 in Peikoff 1976. See also Branden 1962."

    That Horwitz essay is online at: http://it.stlawu.edu/shor/Papers/pubs.htm

    You can check the bibliography for the exact sources.

  • fyodor||

    Perhaps Hymowitz is reacting to this sort of libertarian

    Quite possibly.

    But so what?

    The point that I very specifically made and others have touched on is that there are no lack of other "sorts" of libertarian (quite a diverse crowd it is in fact, in some respects at least) and if you focus on personality(ies) rather than on the tenets of the philosophy itself, and if you wantonly cherry-pick your subjects as Hymowitz does (and perhaps Doherty, as well), you can pretty much make libertarians out to be any damn sort of beast that you set out to make them. And in the end, so what? What have you proven? Nothing. Except that it takes all kinds, and especially all kinds (or sorts) of libertarians.

  • ||

    Well, fyodor, I agree that Ayn Rand's views aren't obligatory for all libertarians.

    But I thought I'd throw out there at least one libertarian who takes a rather dim view of the family.

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