Family policy is constantly in the news lately. But the family has a long and varied history in political theory as well. What can it tell us?

Is the family a good model for the polity? What limits, if any, does the institution of the family set on our political forms? What about the family can be changed, and what cannot? And do we really have any business using politics to make these sorts of changes? What would libertarian family policy look like? And what tools does the classical liberal tradition have for thinking about the role of the family in a free (or less than free) society?

The lead essay this month is by Lauren K. Hall, author of Family and the Politics of Moderation (Baylor University Press, 2014), who argues that families have a way of disrupting all-encompassing and rationalistic ideological forms: People don’t change all that much, and one thing that people generally want is to form families, even when ideologies are trying to dissuade them from it. In short, families moderate our politics. 

In response to her we’ll hear from modern Austrian economist Steven Horwitz, political philosopher Scott Yenor, and Cato Unbound’s own editor, Jason Kuznicki, whose research interests have long included family policy and political theory.

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?

Coming Up

New issue to appear September 14

Related at Cato

Policy Analysis:Marriage against the State: Toward a New View of Civil Marriage” by Jason Kuznicki

Cato Policy Report: Second-Best Solutions,” by David Boaz

Cato Unbound: Religion in the Public Sphere

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