Over at the new blog The Conservative Philosopher, my fellow Hayek scholar and frequent sparring partner Ed Feser raises some interesting questions about conservatives, libertarians, and the family. Ed's a smart guy and has made some of the best cases I've seen for reading Hayek in a conservative way, although I think those cases ultimately fail. I want to respond to some of Ed's argument here. Ed writes:
Still, since conservatives also tend to hold that there are natural ties between human beings far deeper and more important than the sort of contractual ties definitive of market society, they do not make a fetish of the market. This often distinguishes them from libertarians, who frequently exhibit a tendency to want to reduce all human relations to the contractual or economic sort.
Well, "frequently" and "tendency" fudge things a bit, but I'm not convinced this is as true as Ed thinks.
Chief among these non-contractual ties are those definitive of the family, and the family is that institution that conservatives are most keen to conserve, for they not only regard it as a natural institution, but as the arena within which the fellowship human beings need for their well-being exists, or ought to exist, to the fullest extent. ... The family is the place where we learn, or ought to learn, that we have obligations that we did not choose and needs that cannot be satisfied if we insist on having things our own way. It is where we learn that there are greater things in the world than our own narrow interests and a greater good for us than the mere pursuit of those interests.
One can be a libertarian, including with respect to the family, and believe that people have bonds and obligations "deeper" than the sort that appear on the market. One can, from a libertarian perspective, and specifically a Hayekian perspective, argue that families are, and should be, hotbeds of altruistic commitment in just the way Feser describes. What Feser says here might be true of the sub-species libertarianus Randianus, but need not be of the species more broadly. In fact, in a paper forthcoming in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, I compare Hayek's and Rand's views of the family. An online excerpt can be found here.
I think the problematic place Ed goes with this argument below is the weight he puts on the family being a "natural' institution. For example:
This is why conservatives and libertarians are, I believe, increasingly going to part ways in coming years. If you believe that the family is an institution we did not create (either because it has a divine origin or, a la Hayek, a cultural evolutionary one) and have no right to tinker with; that our deepest obligations are those we do not choose to take on but are given to us by nature; and that a good and happy life requires a humble submitting of oneself to those obligations, then you are going to take a decidedly conservative attitude toward matters of public policy concerning the family.
Note several things here. First, saying that family is an institution we did not create does not mean that it is a static institution. The whole point of the Hayekian argument is that it's about cultural evolution. The family, as we know it today, did not appear from nothing; it evolved over time as well. We would surely never make parallel arguments about other institutions we did not "create," e.g., money, law, the market. Money as we know it today has evolved and changed in a variety of ways (and would have even if government had been absent). The mere fact that we didn't "create" something doesn't mean that it is or should be static. (What about the evolution of language? Don't we expect that language will continue to evolve, just as perhaps the family has and might?) And the use of the word "tinker" is interesting as well: is any change "tinkering"? After all, from a Hayekian perspective, these institutions are the result of human action but not human design. Is Ed arguing that human action is ruled out of court, lest it change the institution? Ed's static perspective here seems to equate even marginal evolutionary changes with social engineering.
Second to note is the invocation of the "natural." Is natural here meaning "part of any human society" or is it more literal, in the sense of our biology implies certain obligation and institutions? Is the "natural" the raising of children inside a family unit (certainly all human societies need an institution to do that), or is it something more? Is it that certain familial arrangements are "natural" because biology "made us that way?"
One way to frame this is that Ed is sliding here between function and form. There is no doubt that the functions families serve need to be tackled by some institution in any human society. In that sense, the family is a "natural" institution. However, the question of whether any particular form of the family is uniquely suited to perform those functions is a very different question. That question is even more interesting when linked to the historical fact that the family has evolved and changed over time. Might those changes (which certainly have been affected by government policy) be changes in form that have resulted from social and economic changes that have affected the functions families can, or have to, perform? That is, perhaps the changes in the form of the family we've seen are responses to changes in other institutions that "we did not create." If so, why is it okay for those other institutions to change and evolve (be tinkered with?) while not the case for the family, especially if such changes are responses driven by the changes elsewhere?
My take on the functions of the family, from a Hayekian perspective, are in a paper forthcoming in the Cambridge Journal of Economics that can be found here.
Ed ends with:
And while it is true that conservatives and libertarians have much in common where the defense of the market and the critique of big government are concerned, it is also true that for conservatives, issues touching on the family and its well-being must necessarily always trump issues of tax policy, government spending, and even war and peace. Tax rates, government programs, wars, and the like come and go, and however long-lasting and significant are their effects, they simply cannot equal in their significance radical changes to the structure of the family. The family is forever, and far more basic to human well-being. For the conservative, if we don’t get that right, nothing else matters.
And here, Ed gets to the heart of the matter by talking of "radical changes to the structure of the family." Two points to make in response. First, at least now we know what we're talking about. It's all about structure. Note that Ed doesn't say that he's concerned about changes in the functions that families perform, or, directly, how well or how poorly they work. Rather he is concerned about "radical" changes to the "structure," which seem to be equivalent in his mind to a loss of functionality. If we radically change the form of families, they will function less well. But why identify form with function? What's missing here is the argument that says that changes in the structure will reduce functionality. To me, that argument is non-obvious. It's a case to be made and Ed doesn't make it, at least not here. The implicit premise that the (current? recent? how recent?) structure of the family is the most/only functional one is unargued for.
Second, what radical change is he talking about here? Again, it's not named, but it seems clear it's same-sex marriage, though perhaps other things as well. The use of "natural," the notion that marriage/family is all about self-interest and contract, and the use of the word "radical" are all evidence of that view, especially given that the stereotype of the selfish, libertine homosexual is as old as the hills. I feel no need to rehash arguments on these questions that have been raised in other places by many others. However, I do find it interesting that, if same-sex marriage is the real driving issue here, Ed has hitched libertarianism to that star. The underlying suggestion is that libertarianism is ultimately a form of libertinism, and because same-sex couples are really only interested in their own pleasure not the obligations of a family, the common cause between libertarianism and the advocacy of same-sex marriage is, shall we say, "natural." In a cynical reading, it's an attempt to smear libertarians in the eyes of conservatives by painting us with the same caricature of self-interested libertines that has been used by conservatives use for gays and lesbians. I don't necessarily think that was Ed's intention, but it is not an implausible reading of the text.
Of course, why we should care about what conservatives think about libertarians in general, and especially if they are accepting of the insulting view of gays and lesbians that this argument rests on, is a whole other question.