Innovation and the Families of the Future

Steven Horwitz’s Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions uses the Austrian economist’s mode of analysis: marriage and the family are seen as the products of undirected environmental changes, products that arose to meet functions important to human survival and flourishing.

By “modern family,” Horwitz means marriages that are the result of choice and affection, where each in the couple is equal and independent, where children are valued sentimentally, and where the family enjoys privacy from community and politics. For him, the “modern family” is an adaptation to changes in our environment brought about through efficient free-market economics that should be celebrated as a great boon to human happiness.

Horwitz straddles two liberal philosophical perspectives in his treatment of the emergence of the modern family. One derives from F.A. Hayek, David Hume, and Adam Smith, and acknowledges the essential trade-offs and alternatives when considering any social arrangement. The other perspective celebrates an infinite series of improvements in “the best of all possible worlds,” as Voltaire’s Candide would have it. Like that fictional character, Horwitz is prone to wearing rose-colored glasses. At the same time, he is far too careful a social observer to ignore the pitfalls of “modern family” experience. The progressive/celebratory side ultimately wins out, it seems, and this obscures what is sober and demanding about Horwitz’s presentation.

Hayek was inclined to see “tradition” as a reservoir of stored wisdom and adaptations that should be abandoned only with good reason, but he knew traditions were changeable and adaptable. He did not defer to tradition in the way that conservatism, as he understood it, would. Even so, he thought the conservative disposition “a legitimate, probably necessary . . . opposition to drastic change.” Hayek’s position was, unlike the conservative one, open to some change.

Horwitz is less inclined to see tradition as a storehouse of wisdom and spends much time arguing that tradition is not even really a thing. Against conservatives who seem to think that significant innovations only came to roost in traditional marriage and family life with the arrival of the 1960s, Horwitz rightly sees that the evolution “over the long run of human history” had produced changes in every age preceding that one. Early in human history, economics were more important as one chose a “yoke-mate” and extended families were more involved in marital decisions. Later, couples lived in separate spheres and chose their marriage partner. Most things with respect to marriage seem up for grabs now, but “Families have changed all throughout human history. . . in size, duration, composition, and function,” he insists.

The controversial conclusion Horwitz draws from these observations is that equating the pre-1960s family or any family form with the traditional family is “ahistorical.” Yet Horwitz is too careful not to perceive a commonality in this ever-changing structure: that “for most of human history,” families were concerned with supplying the bodily needs and the safety of spouses and children; that “traditional views about the roles of women” focused more on the household than the marketplace; that “for most of history,” assets were in control of the male head of household; and that “almost invariably,” marriages had been enduring, heterosexual unions, implying a strong “contractual obligation between a man and a woman.”

It is true enough, he allows, that only after the 1960s did women “put their professional identities ahead of any desire for marriage and children.” He writes that, “historically, the connection of sex, marriage, and family in some form or another has been a near-constant,” but changes of the “1960s and 1970s” introduced radical changes and destroyed these links for good.

Even when denying that the family of the immediate postwar in the 1950s United States provides an appropriate “standard of normality” against which to evaluate today’s family, Horwitz is too honest to deny that “the twentieth century’s emphasis on the emotional and sexual compatibility of the marital dyad, along with the long-decline in family size, were beginning to put pressure on the long-standing centrality of procreation and child raising to the functions of marriage and family” (Emphasis added.) “There is no question that single-parenthood and step-parenthood resulting from divorce are features of the modern family that were not part of the longer run of human history,” he writes.

The Family Research Council would not put it differently!

Contemporary innovations around family life disrupt practices of “long-standing centrality” that are “near-constant” customs “almost invariably” practiced “for most of human history.” How could marriage and family life shed these “traditional” attributes, and what are the consequences of this shedding for our common life?

Horwitz downplays the drastic nature of the changes in marriage and family life by seeing them as spontaneous adaptations to economic change. Productive economies have freed the household from the need to produce and later from the need to perform manual labor where male strength gives them the upper hand. The unprecedented prosperity brought about through the spread of free markets has removed household production and even economic necessity from marriage, so it can now rely principally on love, companionship, and emotional intimacy.

Love has conquered marriage thanks to capitalism—and so, Horwitz seems to hope, maybe statist liberals who welcome changes in marriage can cut free markets some slack.  I don’t see this line of argument working with today’s campus radicals or with Rawlsians. Tocqueville explains why. Changes in the family and economy are manifestations of a deeper modern spirit of equality, where the dependence of one person on another seems antithetical to building a healthy individual identity. However this may be, if I am right in thinking Tocqueville’s account deeper, Horwitz’s argument understates forces for change in marriage and family life and misreads the family revolution.

We may wish that increasing prosperity, the modern or even postmodern family, and growing governments were not a package deal, but consistent evidence across time and place suggests they are. The growth of the state as promoter of “equality of conditions” is a phenomenon inseparable from the equalitarian tendency of marriage.

The analysis in Hayek’s Modern Family is conducted with an odd combination of understated sobriety and unguarded hopefulness. Horwitz’s sober side derives in part from Hayek’s profound insight that modern human beings inhabit “two sorts of worlds at once.” Human beings need face-to-face contact, personal attention, and intimacy. This side of our nature is the tortoise, as it were, that we receive from evolution. The hare is represented by our ever more impersonal lives in the marketplace and as citizens, two realms in which objective rules and standards apply to us regardless of our personal characteristics.

The family satisfies the tortoise and prepares the hare for life in an impersonal and fast-moving civil society. Thus Horwitz seems to see the family as central to the human future. In the hope that many forms can arise to perform that function, he embraces innovations in marriage and family life (for example easy divorce, single-parenthood, day care, same-sex marriage) and some innovations that are yet to come (plural marriage).

Legal passage of at-will divorce in the 1970s was a response to the expansion of opportunities for women in the marketplace. This change is linked to a weakened ability to “invest in the sorts of relationship-specific forms of human capital that are necessary to sustain the marriage and the larger family,” reducing the benefits of marriage, lowering birth rates, and fostering a decline in the quality of lives of children, with the compensating benefits that there is a new kind of womanly independence, a “more humane institution” of marriage, and, it seems, greater adult experience of love and emotional satisfaction. This part of the discussion ends, however, with the author’s warning that “the current trend toward smaller families of shorter duration may not be a stable evolutionary strategy.”

But not long after this point in the book, Horwitz switches to hopefulness that things will all work out. Don’t bet against humanity’s being able to come up with ways of making life better! Bad evolutionary strategies will be checked spontaneously through the ascension of new strategies. Families break down, but ways for dealing with this will emerge. Take “swapping” in “poor, urban, black” communities, where other folks (neighbors, or grandparents, or fictive kin) arise to take responsibility for children in the absence of a parent or parents. Surely atypical, often non-biological, and outside the law, when people swap responsibility for each other’s children they still “manage to function to one degree or another” and “most of their children do get material and emotional support” necessary to grow to productive adulthood.

At the very least, where he gets his “most” from is not clear, given the educational and other statistics on American children not being raised by their two biological parents. A quick read of Charles Murray—no Family Research Council member he!—would speak to Horwitz’s point. (Interestingly, his chapter on “why parenting matters” focuses almost exclusively on hyper-parenting, not neglectful or absent parenting.)

The author’s suggestion for how civil government should recognize the family starts with a framework of rights within which duties can be assumed. The Supreme Court cases of Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) ground the idea of parental rights over their children, though civil government can limit those rights in extreme cases. Horwitz accepts parental rights in part on principle, and in part because the alternatives to such rights (state asylums for children, for instance) are not efficacious, in the main. Likewise, or nearly so, with his view of marital rights: He embraces the trend whereby individuals who assert a desire to marry have such a right; civil government should include asserted contracts until and unless it becomes possible to separate the state and marriage completely.

Horwitz is agnostic on how marital rights are exercised and seems unconcerned to shape how parental rights are exercised. Meyer secured for parents the “the right, coupled with the high duty” to nurture and direct their children’s destiny, but Horwitz is mostly silent on the question of duty. Here again he would rely on culture to spontaneously order parental and marital attitudes toward the duties necessary to achieve effective childcare and sufficient commitment. Securing rights (the comparatively easy part, in this day and age) seems a necessary but insufficient preparatory ground for performing duties (today, the hard part). Horwitz dwells on the rights and spends little time on the duties.

This is no small problem.

The sober Horwitz may see our collective, declining capacity for marital, familial, and parental duties as part of a tragedy, while recognizing the limits of law in such an environment, emphasizing perhaps the capacities within human nature, supported through culture, which might point toward an eventual correction. The tortoise still exists; how can its needs be met in a time of destabilized families? The unguardedly optimistic Horwitz thinks new, exciting institutions will arise to replace the old, decaying ones because they must if liberty is to survive. This optimism seems to exceed available evidence.

I would say that returning to “traditional” norms connecting sex, procreation, marriage, and parenthood forms the basis for taking on responsibilities in family life. Horwitz’s understanding of love is centered on individual independence and choice, however. On this understanding, we gain in autonomy what we lose in responsibility and stability and we are winners on that exchange. Again, this seems too optimistic to me.

Hayek’s Modern Family mostly celebrates the love side of the great trade-off that its author, in the spirit of political philosophy, acknowledges. As a publicist, he recognizes and promotes the good of love so understood. But a philosopher seeks to grasp the whole through seeing what is missing and what is harmed.