Hayek and the Family: The Case for Rose-Colored Glasses

I very much appreciate Scott Yenor’s thoughtful and even-handed review of my book, Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. The highest compliment I can give him is that if someone asked me what the best criticism of my book is, it would very much be the main line of argument Yenor pursues.

So let me start by confessing to looking at the recent evolution of the family through glasses that are somewhat rose-colored. I genuinely believe that the family is in better shape than many critics, particularly conservative ones, suggest, but it’s also probably true that I downplayed some of the problems families are facing. In this brief reply, I want to talk a bit about my rhetorical strategy then take issue with a couple of small points Yenor raises.

He notes that my chapter on parenting focuses almost exclusively on hyper-parenting and ignores absent or neglectful parenting. He is correct, although I do say some things about neglect in the chapter on parental rights. I surely do not deny that these problems exist, but one reason for not talking about them is that much has been written about those problems by others much more capable than I am. What I was hoping to do was to not merely repeat arguments about the family on which I have not much new to say, but to instead see if a Hayekian perspective could shed light on parenting and family phenomena that have been examined less often.

Put more economistically: what is the marginal value of using Hayek to think about the family?

In addition to being concerned with what a Hayekian perspective lets us see that other approaches don’t, I was making a conscious effort to focus on the positive. The standard narrative these days is that the family is a disaster. I’m not convinced that’s correct. As I noted, there are surely problems, but even as family forms change and evolve, the majority of families remain functional. Most kids get raised into generally productive and public-minded citizens even as they face complexities prior generations did not. While marriage rates are down, so are divorce rates among marital cohorts. Things could be better, but the narrative of steep decline that comes from so many seems to me to be at odds with the evidence. I was willing to err on the side of over-optimism to get my reader to think differently about a number of issues.

The two specific points I want to address are: that I underplay tradition, and that I and mostly ignore the duties of parenthood.

Tradition plays a tricky role in the work of F.A. Hayek. Yes, Hayek thinks evolved traditions are important, but his tone is one of respect, not reverence. He argued that social scientists should critically examine every single human value and institution to see how well each fits with the whole. What we could not do, he said, was critically examine them all at once. Every attempt to assess a tradition must do so while relying on other traditions.

One of the things I tried to convey in the book is that the tradition of “the family” is one we could not do without, but that does not mean the particular form it takes, or the functions it performs, haven’t evolved or can’t be critically assessed. Tradition is not a trump card for Hayek. In defending the family even as I was very open to a variety of families, I was being, or so I thought, faithful to Hayek’s respect but not reverence for tradition.

Yenor’s robust defense of tradition could have been made hundreds of years ago, and was, as a case against the love-based marriage or, more recently, ending coverture laws. We are always inclined to see the changes that move beyond the status quo as damaging violations of revered traditions, even as later generations might wonder why there was so much angst.

On that score, I should quickly note that my brief discussion of plural marriage would not best be called an “embrace.” I am, in fact, skeptical that it is a desirable social change, at least right now. I tried to carve out an argument that indicated what would need to be true for plural marriage to be an acceptable next step in marriage’s evolution, including sufficient evidence of a lack of harm to third parties including the children such families would raise. It was this sort of evidence that was important in making same-sex marriage socially acceptable and we do not have those conditions yet for plural marriage. My position is hardly an “embrace,” but more like a willingness to be persuaded.

The claim that I paid insufficient attention to parental duties is particularly amusing to me, as one of my major goals in the chapter on parental rights was to criticize libertarians such as Murray Rothbard and his followers who really have denied the existence of parental responsibilities and duties! In arguing that parental rights and responsibilities cannot be separated, and that claiming parenthood over a child brings with it clear responsibilities for the care and nurturing of children, and that those obligations are not just to the child but to the community, I was offering a criticism of some libertarians that I assumed conservatives would share. Perhaps I was not clear enough in stressing that parents do have those responsibilities and obligations, or in being specific about what they are.

More generally, I strongly believe, as Yenor does, that we cannot do without the family as a social institution. As I point out in the book, “the village” is likely to be as successful at raising kids as it has been at running factories or providing food, which is to say “not very.” Where my optimism comes in is that I think humans and our institutions are more adaptable to evolutionary change than the family pessimists do. How much change we can adapt to and in what time frame are questions worth asking and debating. I hope that my rose-colored glasses don’t obscure that my sight is very much fixed on the importance of functional families and finding ways to make sure that the variety of family forms, which I simply do not see re-converging on any single type, are doing their jobs sufficiently well. On that I think Scott Yenor and I agree.

I again thank him for the kind of review every author wants to have: one that engages deeply with the book and brings out important concerns in a fair-minded way. I hope that my views on the issues he has raised are now more clear.