alien & sedition.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
  All in the Family

In an Opinion Journal piece reprinted from Commentary, Kay Hymowitz offers a notable exercise in conservative critique of libertarianism. It's timely: as Hymowitz herself observes, with the growth of the internet as a political medium (and for a number of other reasons), the libertarian voice in conservative discourse is more prominent now than it has been in quite some time.

In her review of two new books by prominent libertarians (Radicals for Capitalism by Brian Doherty, and The Age of Abundance by Cato's Brink Lindsey), Hymowitz, unsurprisingly, does not take particular issue with the authors' economic analysis. I've added Lindsey's book to my long list and will discuss its economic aspects in more detail when I get to it (it may be a while), but the most interesting part of Hymowitz's review is her focus on "the cultural contradictions of libertarianism."

Hymowitz writes:
Despite Mr. Lindsey's protestations to the contrary, libertarianism has supported, always implicitly and often with an enthusiastic hurrah, the "Aquarian" excesses that he now decries. Many of the movement's devotees were deeply involved in the radicalism of the 1960s.

Nor should this come as a surprise. After all, the libertarian vision of personal morality--described by Mr. Doherty as "People 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. To be sure, part of the libertarian entanglement with the radicalism of the 1960s stemmed from the movement's opposition to both the Vietnam War and the draft, which Milton Friedman likened to slavery. But libertarians were also drawn to the left's revolutionary social posture.
But of course this simply isn't true. There's a universe of difference between "do what you will so long as you cause no harm to others," and "if it feels good, do it." It seems that the failure to understand this difference is what defines a social conservative, and this is why liberals (including, in this case, libertarians) have such mistrust for conservatives: those who cannot recognize such boundaries cannot be trusted either as moral agents on their own, nor as the guardians of others' morality.

Hymowitz makes much of libertarians' supposed disdain for the family, and in so doing she falls back on standard fusionist logic to argue that they ought to make preservation of the traditional family a priority:
On the one hand, libertarians make a fetish of freedom; it is their totalizing goal. On the other hand, libertarians depend on the family--an institution that, in crucial respects, is unfree--to produce the sort of people best suited to life in a free-market system (not to mention future members of their own movement). The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital--that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.

Family breakdown, by contrast, limits the accumulation of such human capital. Worse, divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing leave the door wide open for big government. Dysfunctional families create an increased demand for state-funded food, housing and medical subsidies, which libertarians reject on principle. And in courts all over the country, judges who preside over the manifold disputes occasioned by broken families are forced to be more intrusive than the worst mother-in-law: They decide who should have primary custody, who gets a child on Christmas or summer holidays, whether a child should take piano lessons, go to Hebrew school, move to California, or speak to her grandmother on the phone. It is a libertarian's worst nightmare.
Hymowitz disputes Lindsey's assertion that "the instincts and abilities for liberty . . . are innate," arguing that such attributes can only be instilled in children who are properly raised by proper families.

All of this concern for the family is interesting, if slightly nauseating, coming from a party whose leaders are currently engaged in stripping health care away from children. Conservatives worry about what libertarians would do to families not in a material sense, of course, but in a spiritual one. The American Scene's Peter Suderman offers a libertarian rebuttal:
Few libertarians, I suspect, would argue that strong traditional family structures are a bad thing. In fact, I’d bet that the vast majority of them would be perfectly pleased to find families doing well. But I think a number of them would resist the idea that, somehow, there’s a social obligation to perpetuate the traditional family structure, and most would also argue that other forms of social arrangements are worth allowing, and might even prove fruitful. This stance might be less supportive of deploying government muscle in order to advance one's personal preferences than some would like, but it's hardly anti-family.
Suderman helpfully points out that the old fusionist equation -- "when families fail, government steps in" -- does not express the only government threat to the family; another is presented by the overbearing efforts of conservatives to ensure that everyone's family is socially correct.

Daniel Larison's response to both pieces constitutes a far more interesting social conservative engagement with libertarian theory than Hymowitz's article. Larison suggests that the real threat libertarianism presents to the family is in its tolerance of the displacements caused by capitalism and unbridled immigration; at the same time, he takes issue with the way that "families" are privileged within the internal conservative debate:
In fairness to the libertarians, labels such as pro-family and anti-family are absurd in a way. There are significant social and political consequences that result from legal and property arrangements that bind large, extended families together or from those that encourage the break-up of a household into many separate households. A public authority worried about the dangers of corruption, nepotism and civil strife created by extended family networks would implement laws to discourage that kind of family life, which might earn it the "anti-family" designation from those adversely affected by the change, while a booster of state authority might define it as a pro-family measure if he redefines what family is. Public authority has a vested interest in governing what kinds of families exist, because the different forms of families have consequences for social and political life that extend beyond the walls of the family home.

The point is that every act of legal recognition, permission or reinforcement of this or that social arrangement is equally "artificial" in one sense, and the decision to not privilege one form over another is a decision by default to support the emergence of alternative forms.
Larison recognizes one of the fundamental flaws of libertarian theory in general: there is no such thing as public neutrality on most issues. For Larison, the important question is "whether there are certain kinds of family life that are most conducive to human flourishing" -- as a genuine social conservative, he believes that the argument is unavoidable and worth having, and if we've come to an agreement, then the question is how to get government to encourage the best kind of family life.

Liberals, of course, apply the same critique to libertarian economic theory: the idea that government can avoid substantive engagement in the economy is simply nonsense. Even when it refuses to choose, it thereby tacitly makes a choice in someone's favor. And in a certain sense, we agree with Larison on the fact that government is inevitably involved in social matters as well. But "do as you will but cause no harm to others," properly understood, has very different consequences in economics than in the purely social sphere.

I still believe that, despite the optimism of the current crop of libertarians, they'll never really challenge the social conservatives for dominance on the right -- though I should note that by "social conservatives" I don't mean Christian fundamentalists per se; the latter are just a subset of the former, and their political import is likely to change significantly over the coming years. But at any rate, if the libertarians force social conservatives to more critically examine their assumptions about ideal social order, they will have done us all a favor.

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Comments:
Some interesting thoughts there. I'll just be happy if some of the current Libertarian momentum helps us turn back from the current Nanny State trend (as if we aren't already there).
 
hap - depending on what you mean by nanny state, I agree with you.

But there's the rub, probably :-)
 
I was probably casting a wider nanny-state net than you were. :)
 
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