The Demands of Prudence and Moderation

At the risk of turning this conversation into a love fest, let me begin by agreeing broadly with how Hall states the differences between us. These differences ultimately concern two things. First, how stable are the stable things underlying marriage and the family? (And how unstable or extraneous are the unstable things?) Second, how can those who would protect or defend those stable things in the modern world do so moderately and prudently? Neither of us are anti-moderation or anti-prudence (I have written a review of her book elsewhere entitled “What does prudence demand?”), yet how we might apply those virtues differs. My conservatism may seem to be more of the “go back” variety on several questions, while hers, if that is what it is, is more of a “go slow” variety.

Hall’s “go slow” nature, I take it, is part of why Steven Horwitz, an advocate of spontaneous order and social evolution fulfilling the demands of “social individualism,” finds himself in so much agreement with her. What is stable in family life? What is unstable? For Hall, the stable things include “natural needs and desires,” including the need children have for individualized attention and “emotional, financial, and psychological stability” as they mature; and “the natural desire for conjugal bonding and reproduction” on which marriage is based. Hall also finds the marital form to have constants when it comes to the latter, which explains her advocacy of a “moderate monogamy,” as against those advocating for polygamy and the equivalence between single-parenting and other forms.

This is true so far as it goes, in my judgment (though I confess to thinking that a defense of same-sex marriage on the basis of the “conjugal bonding and reproduction” it affords is among the oddest of all defenses I have heard and it is not the one favored by same-sex marriage advocates). The idea of “moderate monogamy” as the centerpiece of a family culture does not rely on the connection between “sex and reproduction” that Hall imputes to me. It relies instead on the connection between having children and caring for them, between procreation and education. By my calculations, even in 2012, after decades of family decline, around 96% of American children under 18 live with at least one of their biological parents (though, admittedly, the numbers living with only one biological parent have increased dramatically over the past 50 years, and the number living with married biological parents has declined as well). Nevertheless, the connection between biology and parenting is so consistent across time and cultures as to make me think that they are not due to mere chance.  We do not randomly assign children, or raise them communally, or produce them through genetic cloning and then assign them to licensed users.  There seems to be a connection between giving birth to children and taking responsibility for them. Very, very few children in America are adopted or in foster homes (about 2% of all children).

We might be able to peel this back further and argue for a connection between sex and having children. Less than 5% of children are products of artificial birth technologies in America. This would suggest that sex, procreation, and education are all related somehow. The old view would be that sex and procreation are united under a larger institution called marriage or monogamy. Marriage—the learning to live together with another in hard and good times, the sacrificing of one’s own identity to a larger whole, the rolling with changes in character that result from a long time living with another—is then the school for parenthood. Precisely how parents arrange the job of parenting is, as Hall notes, subject to more than a little individual variation.

What this all suggests to me is that a moderate, prudent approach to marriage and family life in the modern world must not proceed simply from natural desires and needs. It must also respect that human beings and modern peoples specifically depend, for the most part, on connections between procreation and education and between marriage and parenthood for bringing about the best being of the child.

The task of parenthood requires a stable character, patience, the ability to ride out highs and lows, partisanship on behalf of one’s children, a sense of objectivity about one’s children, an investment of time, a covering love, a willingness to be hard, a willingness to be soft, a willingness to enforce rules, a willingness sometimes to ignore actions that break rules, providing a home, allowing children to spread their wings and no doubt countless other characteristics that I do not have. “Social individualism” as a concept is too abstract, in my view, to capture the complexity of what parenthood, at its best, is.

What does Hall miss by pitching her goal at too abstract a level and her defense of the family on the basis of natural needs and desires? Here I would pose a series of questions meant to tease out the problem. Would Hall be willing to limit, in law or in opinion, adoptions and artificial reproductive technologies to married couples? Does Hall favor Title IX, an effort to re-engineer women to make them less suited or interested in marriage and family life? Does Hall favor the next wave of feminist reform (a reconstituted, flexible workplace and subsidized high quality day care) to save women from the second shift at home while allowing them to pursue a meaningful career?

Any understanding of prudence must begin with a question of what the political good on these matters looks like and then make prudent accommodations to approximate that good. In my view, the political good connects various experiences such as procreation and education and marriage and parenting. Efforts to erode these connections are bound, in the long run, to harm children and undermine society. Such an erosion has been afoot in some measure for fifty years or so. Sometimes preventing erosion requires a strategic retreat to a more important line. Sometimes it involves making public arguments about the importance of a particular line.

The problem of single-parenthood is central to the contemporary problems in our inner cities and in income and economic mobility stagnation. Government has very few levers to deal with this issue. It is a matter of culture and mores. No one knows exactly what prudence demands, except to make public arguments or display public works of art about the importance of parenthood to a good life. Until this matter of culture changes, the drift toward ever greater state responsibility will be well nigh unstoppable. The future of free markets and self-government depends on the future of the family. Hall deeply recognizes this problem. Her framework also provides a way out. Two and a half cheers for Hall!

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?