The cultural contradictions of libertarianism

17 09 2007

Kay S. Hymowitz in Opinion Journal

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.

A libertarian, according to Brian Doherty, “has to believe” that “the instincts and abilities for liberty . . . are innate,” that we possess “an ability to fend for ourselves in the Randian sense and to form spontaneous orders of fellowship and cooperation in the Hayekian sense.” But this view of the relationship between the individual and society is profoundly and demonstrably false, especially when applied to the family.

More here.

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One response

18 09 2007
Craig J. Bolton

People who want to criticise a particular view should really first learn at least the fundamentals of the view they are criticizing.

Since at least the time of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments libertarians [and, for that matter, about every other informed social theorist] has understood that there is a difference between the rules that are applicable to a small group – like a family – and a mass society of mutually anonymous individuals. In small groups intensive personal knowledge of the likes and dislikes, the personality characteristics, and the propensity to engage in reciprocity of other people is paramount. You don’t buy and sell because there is no reason to do so and because to do so weakens the possible and desirable social bonds.

In a mass society, none of those sorts of knowledge or modes of social interaction are POSSIBLE. The liklihood is that you will ever again see the guy who serves you a hamburger at McDonalds, let alone strike a friendship with him, discover his likes or dislikes, or count on him “giving” you that hamburger in the expectation that you will subsequently give him something in return.

Libertarians have no problem with applying the rules of families where they are appropriate. Libertarians certainly aren’t “anti-family” and one can’t imagine where you got any such idea to the contrary. [Could it be because libertarians aren’t for criminalizing homosexual activity or homosexual unions, where the possibility of a child bearing family doesn’t exit and, hence, isn’t an issue? Is what you’re doing covertly making an argument that any small group association that isn’t a family is criminal? ]

On the other hand, libertarians do adamently reject attempts to claim that “we are all one big family” or that the economy of the U.S. can be modelled on the family or the interactions in a small tribe. They can’t be. Live with it.

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