Hayek, the Family, and Social Individualism

I very much like Lauren Hall’s argument in her lead essay, and I am also a big fan of her book on these topics. What I would like to do in my reply is to extend the broad perspective she lays out by connecting it up with F. A. Hayek and seeing what his work might tell us about the idea of “social individualism” and its relationship to the family. A more thorough treatment of the argument to follow can be found in my forthcoming book Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions.

Hayek falls squarely within the moderate tradition of social individualism that Hall identifies. I want to support that claim by looking at two aspects of Hayek’s work. First, Hayek, like the other thinkers Hall mentions, had a much more complex understanding of individualism than the caricature version of economic man often associated with classical liberals. Second, Hayek had a very sophisticated understanding of the difference between the intimate world of the family (and other small-scale social institutions) and the more anonymous world of the market, politics, and what he called “the Great Society” more generally. Although Hayek did not say much at all about the family, I will argue that the family plays a central role as a bridge between those two worlds and thereby becomes a force for the sort of moderation that defines Hall’s social individualist perspective on the family.

In his essay “Individualism: True and False,” Hayek argues that the “self-interest” or “self-love” that the classical liberals saw as motivating human behavior were not “egotism in the narrow sense of concern with only the immediate needs of one’s proper person.” Instead, the “self” clearly included one’s family and friends.[1] Hayek further argues that whatever might be true of people’s moral attitude about themselves or others around them, we cannot avoid the epistemological fact that we can only know “no more than a tiny part of the whole of society,” and that we can only act in light of our knowledge of the immediate effects of an action on those around us.[2] For Hayek, human actors do not consider only their literal selves, but also can not consider society as a whole, when they act, all protests to the contrary notwithstanding. Hayek occupies the space of social individualism here.

That is even clearer later in the essay when he notes that society is more than just the individual or the state. The “intermediate formations and associations” are a crucial part of “preserving the orderly working of human society.” Hayek then explicitly lists the family as an example of these intermediate institutions and notes how such institutions often can accomplish goals better than the coercive action of the state.[3] Following in the tradition of the earlier classical liberals that Hall mentions, Hayek sees the family as sitting between the individual and the state and encouraging the moderate social individualism that is Hall’s focus.

One key piece of Hayek’s later thought, made most clear in The Fatal Conceit, was what he called the problem of learning to live in “two sorts of worlds at once.”[4] Those two worlds referred to the difference between the intimate, small organizations of the family or the firm or the various intermediate institutions discussed earlier, and the anonymous, larger, and more complex world of the market, state, and the whole Great Society. In the intimate orders, we know the people with whom we are interacting and we can include them in our estimation of the effects of our actions in exactly the way Hayek described in his discussion of “self-interest.” The intimate orders allow for a broad scope of altruism as well as top-down direction because they have a unified end and a relatively simple structure.

By contrast, the market and the Great Society as a whole are of a degree of size and complexity that most of the people we interact with are not known personally to us. The market, for example, is particularly good at enabling us to achieve cooperation in anonymity. In that world, we cannot act based on our detailed knowledge of others. More important, markets and societies do not have unified ends and singular goals. Instead, they serve as processes for enabling different people with different goals to make use of markets and societies as means toward those ends. Intimate orders are ends-connected, while anonymous orders are means-connected. In reality, many social institutions have elements of both intimacy and anonymity in them, but this analytic distinction is an important one.

So why is this a problem? Hayek argues that our moral instincts were honed in millennia of living in small kin-based intimate orders, and thus notions of collective purpose, shared ends, altruism, and zero-sum thinking, as well as the importance of good intentions, are deeply encoded in our minds. Unfortunately, these moral instincts are not appropriate for life in the anonymous world of the Great Society. In fact, the theme of The Fatal Conceit concerns the ways in which those moral instincts lead us astray when we try to apply them to the Great Society. So, he argues, the challenge of modernity is that we have to learn to live in “two sorts of worlds at once.”

What Hayek does not discuss, but I have explored elsewhere, is the role the family might play as a bridge between those two sorts of worlds, and the primary institution through which we learn to live in them. At the core of Hayek’s view of human action and social order is the idea that humans are primarily rule-following animals. One central function of the family from a Hayekian perspective is the way that it enables people, and especially children, to learn the rules of both the intimate and anonymous orders. The family enables children to learn these rules and their applicability in an environment with people who care about them and know them well, which creates a more collaborative learning process. Such an environment also enables adults to design such learning processes, and any reward and punishment systems associated with them, in ways that are customized to individual children to the greatest degree possible.

Not all social rules are explicit. Parents frequently model the more tacit rules of the social order through their behavior in a variety of social contexts. An obvious example here is how children learn to behave appropriately in restaurants. There are some rules that parents can explicitly convey to children, but there are others that parents may not even be aware of themselves that their actual behavior communicates to children. Interacting with wait staff might be full of all kinds of subtle and tacit norms that parents cannot articulate but children can learn through repeated observation supplemented by parental praise and criticism. This sort of imitation is an important form of learning for humans, and the social institution of the family provides numerous and repeated opportunities for parents to consciously or unconsciously model for children the rules of the social order.

Of course, many of these rules can be learned in non-family social institutions. Schools, religious organizations, other intermediate institutions, and even just playing without adults present are all ways in which children can and do learn through imitation. However, it is parents who have the strongest incentives and relevant knowledge to both make the effort to undertake this task and figure out how to do it best for their children. Given that parents both care about their children and know them well, the family is an irreplaceable social institution for the effective transmission of the discipline of rule-following.

The discipline of rule-following is also very much a form of social individualism. Children who understand the social role of rules, and why the social cooperation of the Great Society depends on people following the emergent rules that define that order, will find their worst sort of self-interested behavior modified by a recognition of their role in the broader community. The family’s role in inculcating respect for rules, and for understanding the different rules and norms in play in the intimate and anonymous orders, is a way in which a Hayekian perspective on the family can be seen as contributing to Hall’s project of social individualism.



[1] F. A. Hayek, “Individualism: True and False,” in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1948, p. 13.    

[2] Ibid., p. 14.

[3] Ibid., p. 23.

[4] F. A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, W. W. Bartley III, ed., Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, p. 18.

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?