The Family: A Foundation for Moderate Social Individualism

The political project at its core involves creating communities out of a multitude of individuals.[1] This project is ever evolving and never complete, largely because individual desires are rooted in the particulars of time and place. Values and desires shift in their importance over a single human lifetime, as well as over generations. What is consistent, however, is that due to the particular desires of individuals, the political project will always be characterized by conflict. Individuals must bend themselves to rules they do not agree to and that they do not understand, and communities must sacrifice communal goals and ideas to incompatible individual desires.

Another consistent feature of this project is that there exist institutions, often ignored by political thinkers, that make this balance between individual and community possible. Such institutions add to the complexity of the study of human social structures by blurring or even eradicating the traditional individual/community dichotomy. The family is merely one of many, but I believe it to be the most important of these “intermediate institutions” that form a kind of buffer between individuals and the communities to which they belong.

What makes families special is that they are natural and constantly re-forming. Everyone is born into one, whether they like it or not. Moreover, families are characterized by both biological and cultural bonds that provide them with an internal pull that political associations, fraternal orders, bowling leagues, and other associations lack. While it may be true that you can never go home again, it’s also true that it’s extremely difficult to leave. Our family relationships follow us out into the broader community, and our familial experiences impact how we move and operate in our broader social worlds.

It is strange, then, that the family has been largely ignored, or at least very easily dismissed, by political thinkers of all stripes. Perhaps part of the reason for the relative silence of political theorists on the family is that the family is taken as a given, a pre-rational and pre-political landscape, while the stuff of political theory is often seen as influenced or even controlled by human rationality. As Hayek would argue, such rationalistic hubris probably prevents us from seeing the interconnectedness between families and broader social and political structures. Empirically, of course, political systems may crumble for lack of attention to the myriad ways in which families influence politics: supply of people through reproduction, marriage as a link between powerful families, familial education in passing down norms and values, nepotism and patronage linked to powerful family lines, inheritance and the movement of property down generations, and the cost of unstable family forms in terms of welfare, criminal justice, and so on. For political theorists, the non-political family quickly rears its head, but in doing so, it muddies the theoretical waters.

This muddying occurs because despite efforts to wrangle it into position, the family challenges our most fundamental values and makes the creation of a consistent political theory essentially impossible. Those who emphasize the unlimited freedom of the individual come quickly up against the iron wall of genetics, early childhood development, and family experiences. We are not free to choose our families and our early familial experiences play a foundational role in the kind of person we eventually become. Individualists like Ayn Rand emphasize rationality and free choice only to be stymied by emotional and accidental bonds. The family is also one of the only places in the world where the creed “to each according to his need” not only works, but is indispensable. The family also challenges individualist arguments for personal responsibility and self-sufficiency since it relies in large part on the reality of human need and dependence. It is no accident that John Galt’s family was only barely mentioned in Atlas Shrugged.

On the other side of the spectrum, families are the root of inequality. This comes about both through the family’s role in education, habituation, and socialization, and through its intimate connection with property rights. The family’s multigenerational bonds challenge the demands of immediate collective decision-making and bind us to rules, habits, and ways of life that reject rationalist and egalitarian reforms. The family is the originator of unequal opportunity. The family also challenges egalitarianism due to its generally hierarchical form, which relies on the natural authority of parents over children for familial action. The reality of pregnancy, birth, and nursing places further stress on a strict egalitarian division of labor. Finally, families represent a divisive internal pull against collective identities. Families represent the private sphere in all its complexity of private and intimate bonds. The collective egalitarian cry that the private is really political is inevitably complicated by intimate groups that profoundly affect social structures but that also stubbornly refuse collectivization. The recognition that the family prevents radical egalitarian goals has led to (so far unsuccessful) calls to collectivize and control the family, from Marx and Engels to contemporary liberal feminists like Judith Moller Okin.

While the family may be irritating to those who prefer a consistency and uniformity to their political thought, the reality is that there is no single political value that trumps all others because there is no single human desire that trumps all others. We are a mixed bag of selfish and social, similar and different, and any decent and humane political system will be forced to recognize and respect such complexity. There are, thankfully, a few moderate thinkers who have appreciated the ways in which the family bridges the gap between individuals and their communities, and it seems to me no accident that such thinkers support a moderate balance of diverse theoretical commitments and a rejection of ideological state-building.

The Scottish Enlightenment thinkers in general were interested in discovering what made for stable successful societies comprised of free individuals. Adam Smith in particular, perhaps surprisingly to some, provides a moderate and balanced approach to social structures through his theory of society as a kind of spontaneous order based on individual self-interest and individual liberty. While this view is often described as less social than selfish, in reality the Smithian understanding of self-interest is expansive, including not only the interests of the individual, but also the interests of family, friends, and close community ties.[2] Smith’s theory, instead of pushing the individual and the community further apart, was instead meant to bridge the gap between individual and community, using expansive self-interest and the natural moral sentiments as building tools.[3]

Unsurprisingly, the foundation for both expansive self-interest and the moral sentiments can be found in the family and the affections we have for those closest to us.[4] Smith argues in both the Wealth of Nations and the Theory of Moral Sentiments that our care is not universal, that human nature does not support a universal benevolence or even a collective concern capable of moving much beyond the people and places that we know well.[5] This limited sphere of interest is a fundamental limit on human sympathy, but it is also the building block upon which the delicate balance between individual and community is constructed. Our concern for our families and friends produces affections that spill into the broader community, however imperfectly. This affection produces a kind of moderation and a restraint that limits revolutionary spirit and keeps individual rights and the stability of the community in harmony.[6]

Edmund Burke picks up on Smith’s anti-revolutionary concerns but makes the importance of the family a more explicit and central part of his anti-revolutionary argument. Concerned about Lockean individualism run amok during the French Revolution, Burke tried to forge a balance between individual rights and freedoms on the one hand, and the health and stability of communities on the other. He was particularly concerned, as was Smith, that the call for universal benevolence or the myth of all men as “brothers” would lead to a breakdown in the true familial affections that both bind individuals to their communities and moderate abstract rights claims.

Burke constructed this moderate bridge between individual rights and community harmony on the back of the family in the broadest possible sense. Using the analogy of inheritance, he wrote of an “intergenerational compact” whereby individuals, despite their abstract natural rights, are bound by inherited duties to the community.[7] These duties, rooted in our affections for and our inheritance from our families, and extended to community, social order, and eventually state, serve to expand individual self-interest into a recognition that the individual’s fate is always bound to that of a wider community. Burke rejected the idea that the collective can and should replace the family itself, an idea laid out most clearly later by Marx and Engels. Burke argued instead that our affections for our families are the foundation for our affection for our communities, not an enemy of them. In fact, the intergenerational compact protected and transmitted by families preserves the stability of the state just as it preserves the happiness and freedom of the individual.

Both these authors (and some other classical liberal thinkers like Montesquieu and Hayek) balance individuals and the communities to which they belong through a spontaneous ordering of society, fueled by individual desires, but rooted in the sociality born and bred in family life. They reject revolutionary destruction of the social order because social orders emerge from the spontaneous action of individuals interacting with other individuals both in the anonymous market and within intimate associations like the family, not from rational planning. A complex and balanced political theory, like the ones above, emphasizes the importance of communities while also recognizing the importance of individual rights. The family is situated at the intersection of socialization and individuality, and our affections help meld the two together.

The moderate thinkers mentioned above are only a few of the thinkers who recognize the crucial role the family plays in moderating both individualistic and collectivist desires, and thus in ensuring both individual freedom and social stability. There may, of course, be other authors with a more communitarian bent who emphasize the family in the way I’m describing. But the overall point, which needs to be taken more seriously by political theorists broadly, is that the family challenges ideological purity in almost every way. Humans are not monolithic animals, if such a thing even exists. The complexity of human desires and the social structures that emerge from those desires mean that any simplistic political theory will fail to meet a minimum standard of acceptance and that unitary political values will be worn down against the rock of human nature. The family, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain a source of connection and strife, sociality and selfishness. It is part of, and perhaps the most important reflection of, our social and self-interested humanity. It is also, therefore, the key to the development of a truly social individualism. 


Correction: This post originally described the character John Galt as an orphan. He is described, briefly, as having run away from home at age twelve.



[1] This essay is an extension of some of the ideas from my recent book, Family and the Politics of Moderation, Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014.

[2] The confusion over Smith’s definition of “self-interest” led some scholars to believe there was a fundamental conflict between the individualistic Wealth of Nations (WN) and the more communitarian Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). “The Adam Smith Problem,” as it became known, is actually no problem at all, but is based on a fundamental misreading of Smith’s conception of self-interest and how the invisible hand of market forces relies on the natural sentiments and affections of individuals caring for their own.

[3] The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie, vol. I of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982), pg. 317.

[4] Ibid., 237.

[5] Ibid., 230.

[6] Ibid., 231, 232–234.

[7] Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France. Francis Canvan, ed., (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1999), pg. 121-122.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Lauren K. Hall argues that the family tends to moderate otherwise radical political theories. Moderate theories, however, fare much better. So while Marxists dreamed of a day when society would collectivize the traditional responsibilities of the family, in practice that day never quite arrived. On the other side of the political compass, Ayn Rand’s Objectivism seems to stumble when faced with questions of the family: “it is no accident,” writes Hall, “that John Galt is an orphan.”

    Moderate social theorists fare much better, Hall argues. Thus Adam Smith situated the family within the comparatively narrow sphere of our natural capacity to care; for him, our ties to our families exerted a gradual sympathetic effect that could encompass larger and larger communities over time, while moderating our radical political projects and attitudes. Edmund Burke made the family the archetype of a trans-generational social compact, one that binds the living to the dead and also to those yet to be born. As a result, the family acts as a check upon radical impulses from many different quarters.

Response Essays

  • Steven Horwitz accepts Lauren Hall’s paradigm that the family inculcates moderate individualism. He goes on to argue that such individualism is highly congruent to F. A. Hayek’s social theory. Families are equipped with local knowledge and know-how that may not easily be articulated, but that is also not easily replaced. The aim of much of this knowledge is to produce new adult individuals - a daunting task, but one that somehow human societies have accomplished again and again. Although Hayek was not a theorist of the family, applying his insights about the role of knowledge in society can help to explain just how this work gets done.

  • Scott Yenor argues that the family is grounded on a natural fact, namely that men and women must unite to produce offspring. In turn, these offspring are helpless for a long time after birth, and without the family they will not be well cared for. Modernity errs when it treats these facts as problems to be overcome. Lauren Hall’s politics of moderation doesn’t offer enough resistance to the dangerous changes now taking place around us. The modern left’s assault on the family does not call for a moderate response; this assault represents all that is “ugly, immoderate, or blind” about modernity, and as a result, we must rethink even modernity’s most fundamental principles.

  • Jason Kuznicki argues that family has not always played a moderating role in political theory. At times, it has been invoked as a support for despotism and even for slavery. Modern individualism may have its dangers, but traditional collectivism, and particularly patriarchy, were certainly worse. As a result, he questions whether family should have a place in political theory at all. He also asks: If, in the modern era, family moderates our politics, then what moderated our families?