F.A. Hayek

Libertarian Family Values

Progressives and conservatives both get families wrong.

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Palgrave Macmillan

Hayek's Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions, by Steven Horwitz, Palgrave Macmillan, 313 pages, $120

For the economist Friedrich Hayek, there are two sorts of institutions: designed ones, which have a blueprint in place from the moment of creation, and organic ones, which do not. Change in the first sort of institution (sometimes described as "top-down") is typically managed by a designer and happens in big chunks; change in organic ("bottom-up") institutions tends to be unplanned and gradual. The National Football League is top-down: If the rules committee decides it would be a good idea to allow a 2-point conversion after a touchdown, the game changes accordingly. The English language is bottom-up: No planner decreed that "verily" would disappear and "I can't even" would emerge.

The family is the second sort of institution. It arose organically and has evolved over time, but not according to any central plan.

In Hayek's Modern Family, Steven Horwitz of St. Lawrence University tries to understand the family's evolving structures in terms of the functions the institution serves. While Horwitz's primary training is as an economist, his work draws also from history, social philosophy, and constitutional law. His conclusions may confound both progressives and conservatives.

Conservatives, he writes, typically "believe that the family is an institution under attack by the culture and by public policy." As a result, they position themselves as defenders of the "traditional family" and lionize "family values." Yet the institution these conservatives see themselves as defending—"a married, heterosexual family with children where dad is the primary earner and mom the primary caretaker of the household"—isn't as traditional as they suggest. That model, Horwitz shows, was historically contingent, predominant for only about 20 years after World War II, and culturally nonuniversal. Marriage itself, far from having been "always" the union of one man and one woman, has changed in a variety of ways. As the joke goes, my daughter said she wanted to be treated like a princess, so I made her marry someone she doesn't love in order to strengthen our alliance with Prussia.

The joke works because we're so used to thinking of marriage in terms of romantic love between moral equals that we lose sight of the fact that many other "traditional" arrangements have been dominant at different times and places. So too with families in general: For most of human history children were economic investments, either in the sense implied by the joke or in the sense of creating labor power. Wives once were essentially property, traded from the father to the husband.

The phrase "modern family" in Horwitz's title may prompt some people to think of the sitcom of that name, in which an extended family includes such conservative nightmares as a remarried divorcée, a gay couple with an adopted daughter, and a heterosexual couple in which both spouses work outside the home. But "modern family" also refers to structures conservatives generally appreciate, such as a small number of cherished children who are not expected to enter the full-time work force until age 18 or older, and a marriage based on committed companionship.

In short, conservatives aren't defending the traditional family so much as they're romanticizing a very narrow slice of time. In the process they're ignoring Hayek's insight about the evolutionary nature of social institutions. As Horwitz puts it, conservatives are failing "to distinguish between the form families take and their ability to function." It is the function that is key, and this evolves over time as well.

If Horwitz's defense of the family's changing form challenges conservatives, progressives may be taken aback by his discussion of those changing functions. The cultural shifts that progressives generally regard as good—marriage as a voluntary union of autonomous equals, children as persons, the right to exit an abusive relationship—are the result, Horwitz argues, of the market revolution and the explosion of productivity it made possible. Markets and wealth, he writes, "have freed the family from a concern with material survival and have opened the space for it as the site of our deepest nonmaterial aspirations."

In a premodern economic landscape of agricultural communities, the family's primary function is to facilitate productivity. If you have more kids, you can be more productive. This requires a wife (or even, in some places, multiple wives) who can produce children and manage the household. By changing families' functions, industrialization and markets allowed changes in families' forms. If the point of getting married is no longer the economic necessity of producing farmhands, but rather to provide emotional satisfaction and happiness, this opens up the possibility of the spouse being of the same sex.

The very ideas of "childhood" and especially "adolescence" are products of the modern world. As Horwitz notes, our current tendency to think of 19-year-olds as children is new, not "traditional." And the rapid increase in economic abundance in the 20th century is, he demonstrates, a key factor in women's participation in the out-of-home work force.

Further left, some figures, such as Valerie Lehr and Shulamith Firestone, have argued that the family is intrinsically oppressive and ought to be abolished. Horwitz replies that this is not just undesirable but impossible. Among other things, Horwitz argues, the family is indispensable for child-rearing, something that "cannot be replicated by schools, 'the village,' or the state."

"Where conservatives will have to reconcile their supposed love of capitalism to the reality of the dynamic cultural change it produces that they dislike," he concludes, "progressives may have to recognize that the diversity of family forms that they rightly celebrate is significantly due to capitalism and the wealth it has created." Horwitz thus is neither conservative nor progressive, but classically liberal. He sees the family as a vital social institution that evolves over time, with the market economy (among other forces) driving changes in its structure.

The evolution of organic institutions can, of course, be affected by policy makers' top-down interference. Horwitz shows how this historical scholarship informs several significant policy debates, including the liberalization of divorce laws, the scope of parental rights, the legal status of same-sex marriage, and the welfare state's effects on family life. Here too, his conclusions will provoke both left and right.

Take same-sex marriage. This has opponents on the left, who see marriage as an oppressive and heteronormative institution that gays should not want to join, as well as the right, where some people agree that marriage is heteronormative and take this to be a virtue rather than a vice. Horwitz's counter to both is to trace the development of marriage from utilitarian to companionate and to show why society would do better to preserve the institution of marriage while at the same time expanding its scope.

The takeaway lesson Horwitz offers for conservatives is that there is no cause for alarm if same-sex couples get married or if unhappy partners divorce. These changes have followed naturally from other aspects of modernity that conservatives embrace. At the same time, progressives who appreciate recent changes in family form need to be more aware of the political and economic changes that have brought us where we are.

Above all, we should try neither to freeze the family's evolution in place nor to engineer new changes from above. When public policy addresses the family, it should aim to allow the institution to keep evolving with our needs, changing both form and function in ways that help us lead better lives.

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  1. Aeon J. Skoble? Is Tulpa trolling us by writing articles now?

  2. A couple of comments, firstly I don’t think I’ll be buying the book, it’s $120! Might wait for the kindle edition.

    One major change to family life that’s missed here is the huge reduction in childhood deaths starting with the arrival of clean water and sanitation. It’s hard to be too invested in a child when their chance or reaching adolescence is 50:50.

    ‘This has opponents on the left, who see marriage as an oppressive and heteronormative institution…’
    I’m pretty sure that’s a concern of a tiny minority, though they mat be rather vocal; Horwitz is an academic and I guess those opinions are more widely held there.

    1. Abebooks is my spot for books, especially out of print. A decade ago the cheapest price I could find for Restoring the American Dream (Robert J Ringer) was over $100. I found it on Abebooks shipped for $6.
      That said, 90% of my book purchases are on kindle these days. Its often overpriced in my opinion, but damn its convenient.

    2. “Your hetero cisgender marriage is making me feel awkward about my 24/7 scissoring relationship. Stop oppressing me.”

  3. ‘Conservatives, he writes, typically “believe that the family is an institution under attack by the culture and by public policy.”‘
    I’d say the massive increase in the cost of raising a child both seen and unseen are an attack on the family institution.

    ‘As Horwitz notes, our current tendency to think of 19-year-olds as children is new, not “traditional.” ‘
    And I’d add, it’s not good either, also who is this ‘our’ that he speaks of?

    As government gets bigger and bigger it dominates all other institutions, the family is but one.

  4. tl;dr: statists can’t control society and life in general, but they can sure make a helluva mess in their attempts.

  5. “The English language is bottom-up: No planner decreed that “verily” would disappear and “I can’t even” would emerge.”

    Is this really the example you want to use to prove bottom up is better? I literally can’t even with you right now.

    1. Forsooth and verily!

    2. You forgot the verb. There is nothing wrong with an expression such as ” I can’t even begin to explain where you went wrong.”

  6. I really don’t like the “libertarian morality” pieces. Morals are something both instinctive and taught, and are highly personal. Little L libertarianism isn’t about telling people how to live or be moral, its simply about telling people not to use force to interfere with other’s choices. Its no one’s business to tell me not to be morally outraged at something or even to voice that outrage, only not to use force against those with whom a I am outraged.

    1. As was the message of the book. A “top-down” hierarchy required some form of coercion, or at least, manipulation. When conservatives attempt to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, that is an attempt at the use of force through statute. The author does not appear to suggest that one not have their own moral proclivities when it comes to these issues, only that an attempts at social or political engineering personal relationship will at best, fail, and at worst, be damaging.

      1. When conservatives attempt to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples, that is an attempt at the use of force through statute.

        In the “not giving is taking” sense. Turning civil marriage into a series of public benefits is a relatively recent, progressive, and entirely top-down development, and civil marriage itself is only a couple hundred years old. It was arguably a “use of force through statute” to bring marriage under the exclusive purview of the state in the first place, and doing so has certainly changed the social understanding of what marriage entails. There’s no such thing as moral neutrality in a total state.

      2. The author does not appear to suggest that one not have their own moral proclivities when it comes to these issues, only that an attempts at social or political engineering personal relationship will at best, fail, and at worst, be damaging.

        IDK, the quote; “Where conservatives will have to reconcile their supposed love of capitalism to the reality of the dynamic cultural change it produces that they dislike,” he concludes, “progressives may have to recognize that the diversity of family forms that they rightly celebrate is significantly due to capitalism and the wealth it has created.”

        Sounds absurdly lopsided to me.

        We can’t take conservatives at their word on the love of capitalism and we give progressives the benefit of the doubt on it? And the mush-mouth/iron jaw dichotomy is rather telling; the conservatives *will* have to change while the progressives *may* have to admit that they aren’t some fraction incorrect.

        The side that wants to put the cart before the horse *and* dictate where it goes is morally wrong, but the side that wants to celebrate horse-horse, cart-cart, and cart-horse unions might have to plumb the depths of their moral rectitude and acknowledge realities other than their own? Sounds like a preacher preaching about the moral value of cart-cart couplings to me.

  7. We can and perhaps should separate the creation and raising of children as different from the relationships that produce them. After all you don’t need to get married (however you define that) to create a child, just a willing (or unlucky) man *and* woman.

    How people live in “legal” relationships should be more about civil contracts, which are far more certain than marriage. Anybody who has lived through a divorce should appreciate the difference.

  8. The desperate attempts at false equivalence – “conservatives and progressives are equally wrong”, in every Reason piece grows ever more transparent and tiresome.

    “Yet the institution these conservatives see themselves as defending?”a married, heterosexual family with children where dad is the primary earner and mom the primary caretaker of the household”?isn’t as traditional as they suggest. That model, Horwitz shows, was historically contingent, predominant for only about 20 years after World War II, and culturally nonuniversal. ”

    Sooooooo, marriage between heterosexuals where the man was the breadwinner only existed from 1945-1965? Are we being serious right meow?

    Fiji and the Amazonian tribes and the Harems of Sultans nonetheless, I call bullshit

    1. I agree. I’d be interested to see some counterexamples if you’re going to tell me that the nuclear family is a recent invention. The history of nearly every civilization on Earth would beg to differ.

      1. Recent research indicates that hunter-gatherer groups had a low level of relatedness:

        http://science.sciencemag.org/…../6236/796?

        “Evolutionary theory stresses the importance of living with kin, not least because they share some of our genes. Nevertheless, a large-scale assessment of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies has established a consistent pattern of unrelated individuals living together.”

        http://ipem.anth.wsu.edu/sites…..orksV3.pdf

        “Early anthropologists believed that hunter-gatherers lived in patrilocal bands
        composed mainly of close kin (15). Here we present the first statistical analysis of huntergatherer
        band composition based on actual residence rather than cultural rules and show
        that bisexual philopatry and dispersal are typical, and result in high rates of adult brothersister
        coresidence. This social pattern is not reported for any other primate or vertebrate
        as far as we know. Monogamous pair bonding, paternal recognition within cooperatively
        breeding social units (8), and bisexual dispersal facilitates friendly rather than hostile
        inter-group relations allowing for frequent between-group visiting and migration, and low
        group genetic relatedness of band coresidents.”

        1. What part of “civilizations” didn’t you understand?

          1. Oh, you are gonna play that game? Definitional retreat is ever the refuge of the indignation sputering moralist. So I take it by civilization you mean Christian societies since the fall of Rome until the birth of Enlightenment? Please do enlighten us with your definition.

            1. I think we could restrict ourselves to civilizations that were able to leave a written record of what life was actually like.

              Or we could just say 500BC – present

              If I stipulate to your bizarre definition, would you even acknowledge that 500AD – 1700AD is a little longer than 20 years?

            2. Oh, you are gonna play that game?

              I think Skobie and Horwitz are deliberately playing that game. The ‘Nuclear Family’ is hardly the broad conservative ideal and, more tellingly, the distinctly bad side effects of ‘Traditional Family’ policies (whether formal and institutional or not) hold constant and are ascribed as conservatism whereas the analogous economic notions are just some things progressives might need to learn.

              It’s the same classic liberal/progressive idiocy; better we all die equally in gulags than men go to work and women cook. Except, Horwitz’s team had good intentions (so we don’t talk about the forced labor camps) and his opposition’s team(s) didn’t distribute free rainbow flags to their neighbors, housewives, and indentured servants.

              1. So it’s gulags or women stay at home and cook? Mmmmmmkay then.

                1. Who does the cooking in the gulags?

    2. Sooooooo, marriage between heterosexuals where the man was the breadwinner only existed from 1945-1965??

      The idea of the husband/father being the only breadwinner does seem like a modern idea.

      One of the purposes of the minimum wage was to force out married women and children from work (Sidney Webb, 1912):

      What would be the result of a Legal Minimum Wage on the employer’s persistent desire to use boy labor, girl labor, married women’s labor, the labor of old men, of the feeble-minded, of the decrepit and broken-down invalids and all the other alternatives to the engagement of competent male adult workers at a full Standard Rate? ? To put it shortly, all such labor is parasitic on other classes of the community, and is at present employed in this way only because it is parasitic.

      Before the FLSA, minimum wage laws, and other labor laws of the 1900-1930s, families would send their children to work in textiles mills to earn money to make ends meet. Often factories would employ one or both parents and their children. Even mines employed families ? women often worked as hurriers, pulling the coal cart, while her children would work as thrusters, pushing it from behind. Even women that didn’t work out of the home were breadwinners ? they would often do piecework for tailors, milliners, and other clothing makers.

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  11. False equivalency.

    The “marriage is bad” belief is a fringe one. It’s never been a mainstream “progressive” belief.
    The “same-sex marriage is bad” belief is a mainstream conservative/Republican belief. They’re starting to come around, but it was part of the 2012 GOP platform and I give it a 50-50 shot of it being in the 2016 GOP platform.

    Pretending that the beliefs are equally popular, and so that the book is equally reproachful to progressives and conservatives, is delusion.

    1. The left have engaged in policies that treat marriage as a negative or at least unnecessary since Great Society.

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  16. There is a basic misunderstanding here.

    Conservatives aren’t defending a specific family structure necessarily, they’re defending the organic family structure that grew up around human breeding patterns and rejecting the imposition–by force–of dictates into what the family must look like now.

    The basic structure of the family is not the artificial ‘nuclear’ family that emerged after WW@–and, indeed, that by-product of the postwar economic boom has been giving way to the standard structure ever since it’s brief heyday.

    The family is an extended structure that focuses on a breeding pair and their offspring. As it grows, the full spectrum of elders, cousins, aunts, uncles gives each family a quasi-tribal structure that is what persists to this day. This is the family.

    Oddities like marrying for influence or love are irrelevant to the issue–the structure is pretty constant over most of the animal kingdom.

    Conservatives fight against the random top-down alterations imposed through government.

    Failure to understand this means the entire premise of the book is deeply flawed.

    1. You must have missed my comment above about hunter-gatherer living arrangements. Limiting living arrangements to kin is counterproductive to cultural evolution and results in loss of knowledge and a drop in genetic resilience.

      1. Hunter gathering hasn’t been common in the West in thousands of years.

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