Parental Rights and Public Policy

Our discussion so far has been quite abstract. I’d like to explore how our broad vision of the moderate family cashes out in terms of parental rights and public policy.


My own work approaches the family from a Hayekian perspective. A key part of that framework is the idea that knowledge is dispersed, contextual, and often tacit. This argument is at the core of Hayek’s objections to socialism and his case for the market: by establishing well-defined and well-protected property rights, we allow people to develop and use their local knowledge in ways that make the best use of resources. In the same way, it is parents who have the right incentives and best relevant knowledge to know what is best for their children. Establishing well-defined and well-protected parental rights encourages parents to act on this local knowledge and thereby helps to ensure the best outcomes for children.


The intimacy of the family provides parents with deep, and often tacit, knowledge of their child that can be deployed in finding the most effective ways to transmit social rules and norms. A great deal of the parent-child socialization process works through imitation, as imitation is a way to pass on knowledge that otherwise cannot be articulated. The family provides an ideal setting for this sort of imitative learning.



Parents also have strong incentives to make sure that such behaviors are learned, as the family remains a major site of social interaction where appropriate behavior will make such interactions smoother, and because other family members may suffer negative external reputation effects due to the misbehavior of children. Children who do not learn the rules of social interaction will cause their parents to suffer both directly and indirectly, thus providing parents with an incentive to ensure that such rules are learned.



The family’s role in this Hayekian socialization process is complemented by schools, houses of worship, and the other elements of civil society. However, none of them can completely replace the family. Where responsibility for raising children is diffuse, and where those in charge lack the necessary knowledge and incentives, we would expect the same sorts of commons problems we are familiar with in other realms. Allowing “the village” to raise children is no more likely to succeed than allowing “the village” to run agriculture or industry.



How does this case for parental rights and responsibilities translate into public policy? The newspapers are full of stories of parents who have made choices that clearly do not have the best interests of their children in mind. Do these cases necessarily require some action on the part of the state or others to stop the parental behavior in question? For Hayekians, the question is always a comparative one: even if parents are imperfect, will the state or other institutions that intervene in the family necessarily improve upon the imperfect parenting?



No set of social institutions will perform perfectly across the whole range of knowledge and incentives facing human actors. Instead, we must look for those that work better, and Hayek’s standard of judgment was to prefer those institutions that have built-in powerful ways of informing actors of their mistakes and providing them the incentives to correct them. Mere imperfection in one set of institutions is not automatically a reason to adopt an alternative. We must ask whether the alternative can actually improve upon the mistakes of the first. We can apply that framework to the issue of imperfect parenting and the role of the state.



Imagine a case of child neglect, though not physical abuse. The parents are not sufficiently caring for the kids in terms of consistently providing warm clothes or regular, nutritious meals, or medical care. They also leave the children home alone and unsupervised quite a bit and none of them are older than ten. Assume that the children are in no immediate physical danger. It might be tempting to call this a case of “parenting failure” and ask Child Protective Services to intervene, perhaps even removing the children from the home. In the face of such a temptation, the first Hayekian question worth asking is the comparative question “and do what with them?” Is the alternative that the state will offer for the children really better, on net, than their current situation? Suppose that alternative is foster care. There is enough empirical evidence on the problems with foster care, especially short-term placements where the incentive to really behave as a steward for the child is weaker, to be skeptical that it would be an improvement. When we account for the psychological effects on younger children of being taken from their parents and placed with strangers, the comparative analysis suggests the case for intervention is even weaker.


In addition, we can ask in the case of parenting failure whether there are other non-state institutions of civil society that could be brought into play to help these parents perform better (e.g., a religious institution, a neighborhood group, extended family members, etc.). In the specific case of neglect, the problems are often financial, rather than bad parenting per se. In such cases, the sorts of civil society solutions noted above are far more likely to be appropriate than removing the kids from the home of what are otherwise well-intentioned parents. One of the problems facing state intervention from a Hayekian perspective is knowing all of the fine details of each particular case sufficiently to come up with a solution. In general, those closest to the family are in the best position to understand the problems at hand, imagine an effective solution, and have an incentive to act on that knowledge. Bureaucrats with dozens of cases or more are unlikely to come close to the knowledge and incentives possessed by those in the family’s local sphere.


Steven Pinker has said of our own time: “The historical increase in the valuation of children has entered its decadent phase.” In such a world, those of us who understand the importance of the family as a social institution will have to push back against public policies that are increasingly encroaching on parental rights in the belief that any risk to the safety of children is intolerable. Such corner solutions are neither wise public policy nor smart parenting. Hayek can help us understand why parents are in the best position to judge what is best for their kids, and why the way to help parents who are struggling is through the people and institutions closest to them. Restoring those beliefs will be a battle, but there are few fights more important for the future of the family and the liberal order.

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?