The title of Steven Horwitz's new book is surprising: Hayek's Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). This is surprising because Friedrich Hayek and other classical liberal thinkers have said little about the family.
As Horwitz himself indicates, Hayek's published writing on the family consists of nothing more than a few sentences scattered across some of his articles and books, although some of those sentences do indicate that Hayek thought family life was important, even crucial, for a liberal social order.
Moreover, as Horwitz also indicates, theorists of classical liberalism have generally had great trouble in accounting for the moral status of children under parental care. When classical liberals affirm the equal liberty of all human beings, they assume that these human beings are all mature adults, which ignores the obvious fact of human nature that all adults must have started their lives as children under the care of parents or parental surrogates, and so as children under parental authority, they could not have enjoyed the liberty of adults in making decisions for themselves. For example, when John Stuart Mill in On Liberty
makes his famous argument for individual liberty, he has to add the qualification that, of course, such liberty cannot rightly be exercised by children until they reach mature adulthood.
The libertarian Murray Rothbard has argued that in a free society children should be treated as the property of their parents, because while adults have the freedom that comes from self-ownership, children do not. But, surely, Horwitz observes, children cannot be rightly treated as the property of their parents, because as human beings, children have the potential for growing into adults who will claim their natural freedom for self-rule. So we should see that children have some rights as human beings but not all the rights of human adults. In a liberal social order, we will hold parents responsible for rearing their children in such a way that the children will become mature adults capable of exercising their individual freedom. We might say that parents exercise stewardship over their children. Furthermore, the success of a liberal social order depends on the socialization of children in the family so that they learn the social norms and habits of a liberal society.
Here Horwitz implicitly follows the reasoning of John Locke, although he does not mention Locke. In his Two Treatises on Government,
Locke recognized that in a free society, children would be under the authority of their parents, and the parents would be obligated to rear and educate their children so that they could exercise their individual liberty as adults. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education
, Locke advised parents on how to educate their children in the moral and intellectual virtues required for a liberal social order.
This suggests that the relationship between family life and classical liberalism is one of mutual influence. The family must promote liberal ideas, just as those liberal ideas must shape the family. And, indeed, Horwitz's book is an account of the coevolutionary process through which classical liberalism has both shaped and been shaped by the modern family.
Horwitz's evolutionary history of the family employs three ideas from Hayek: (1) spontaneous order and deliberate organization, (2) the problems of knowledge and incentives, and (3) living in two worlds.
Against the common assumption that whatever is orderly must have been designed, classical liberals like Hayek argue that social order often arises best through undesigned evolution, just as Darwinian scientists explain the evolution of the natural and social world through an unintentional or unplanned process. This is what Hayek, following Michael Polanyi, called spontaneous order.
For classical liberals, free markets provide a model of spontaneous order. Through the buying and selling of goods and services, economic agents pursuing their diverse individual ends create a pricing system as the unintended outcome of their actions. This market model can explain other kinds of spontaneous order, such as language, for example. The languages that we speak have not been designed from the top down by any single mind or group of minds. Rather, all of those who speak a language as a means to their diverse ends contribute to the continuing evolution of the language as the product of their linguistic actions but without any central design.
Spontaneous order works best for very complex social institutions involving many individuals pursing a multiplicity of ends. But for simpler social institutions involving a small number of people acting for some shared end, order can arise better through deliberate organization by designing minds. The family, Hayek thought, is an example of such a deliberate organization, because in a small family, the parents can know enough about the family members to design the social life of the family to achieve the common good of the family.
All social institutions, Hayek thought, must solve the problems of knowledge and incentives. The knowledge of all the circumstances of a social group relevant to the problems of that group can be widely dispersed across the group. And whoever has that knowledge must have the personal incentives to use it for the good of the whole group. A large economy cannot be planned, because the planners cannot gather all of the necessary knowledge that is dispersed in the minds of thousands or even millions of people in the economy, and because even if the planners had such knowledge, their selfish interests would not give them the incentives to plan the economy for the common benefit of all. Central economic planners would have to be both perfectly omniscient and selflessly benevolent. A free market economy organizes the production and consumption of goods and services to satisfy consumer preferences without central planning.
In a small family, however, the parents can have sufficient knowledge of the needs and capacities of their children and sufficient incentives to care properly for their children, so that parents can deliberately plan the organization of their family to achieve the shared ends of the family. This explains why abolishing the family is impossible: without the family organized around parental care of children, it's unlikely that anyone would have the knowledge and incentives to do as well as parents do in caring for their children. So while Hayek believes that spontaneous order is the best way to manage an economy, he also believes that deliberate organization is the best way to manage a family.
This creates a conflict in modern life where we must live in two different worlds with different rules. On the one hand, we live in families and other organizations (like firms and community groups) based on intimate, face-to-face relationships of moral concern for one another. On the other hand, we live in the extended order of anonymous exchange in complex market economies based on impersonal rules.
Socialists have argued that our social world would be more just if it were organized like a large family, so that everyone treated one another as brothers and sisters. But Hayek insisted that this attempt to turn the spontaneous order of the market into the deliberate organization of a family must fail in ways that will destroy the extended order of impersonal exchange that makes modern economic life possible.
"If we were to apply the unmodified, uncurbed, rules of the micro-cosmos (i.e., of the small band or troop, or of, say, our families) to the macro-cosmos (or wider civilization), as our instincts and sentimental yearnings often make us wish to do, we would destroy it. Yet if we wee always to apply the rules of the extended order to our more intimate groupings, we would crush them. So we must learn to live in two sorts of worlds at once." (The Fatal Conceit, p. 18)
Hayek compared his argument here to Sigmund Freud's argument in Civilization and Its Discontents
Just as Freud thought that the moral order of civilization required the repression of the sexual instincts that had been freely expressed in primitive human societies, Hayek thought that the extended order of modern civilization made possible by capitalist markets required the repression of the collectivist instincts that had governed the families and foraging bands of our primitive human ancestors. The socialism that Hayek opposed was powerfully appealing to human beings because it conformed to their evolved moral instincts for life in families and small bands: Hayek believed that "an atavistic longing after the life of the noble savage is the main source of the collectivist tradition" (Fatal Conceit,
Although I mostly agree with Horwitz in how he uses this Hayekian theme of living in two worlds to tell the story of the evolution of the family, I disagree with his Hayekian claim that the extended spontaneous order of a liberal society requires repressing the moral instincts of evolved human nature.
If Adam Smith was right, as I think he was, in seeing the opulence that results from exchange and specialization in a commercial society as the necessary consequence of "a certain propensity in human nature," which is "the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another," then that natural propensity to trade must have evolved in our prehistoric ancestors, it must have been expressed across human history, and this must have been the natural propensity that could be cultivated by the ideas and institutions of bourgeois liberalism over the past two hundred years to create first the Industrial Revolution and then the Great Enrichment, which have shaped the evolution of the modern family. If this were not true, it would be hard to explain why human beings would want to render themselves desperately unhappy by repressing their deepest instincts for socialism in choosing capitalism.
If Horwitz and Hayek are right, then our prehistoric foraging ancestors did not live in two worlds at once. They lived in only one world--the world of face-to-face, intimate groupings in families and small bands or tribes, the world of deliberate organizations without any spontaneous orders. Marriage was a way of extending cooperation by forming alliances of groups bound together by marital ties. But there could be no anonymous social order based on mutually beneficial trading.
This ignores the archaeological evidence for extensive trading networks among prehistoric foragers. Occasionally, even Hayek acknowledges the evidence for long-distance trade in the Paleolithic age and later in ancient Mediterranean civilization (Fatal Conceit,
Horwitz cites the work of evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby as supporting the Hayekian idea of a "mismatch" between the natural human psychology of the "environment of evolutionary adaptation" in the Paleolithic and human responses to modern environments of global commerce. But he does not cite the observation of Cosmides and Tooby that the adaptive psychology for social exchange that evolved among our ancient forager ancestors shows adaptation for trading over vast distances (see, for example, Cosmides and Tooby, 1992, pp. 216-17).
According to Horwitz, it was not until the development of agriculture and sedentary life that human beings organized themselves into premodern families that lived in two worlds. Agriculture led to specialization and exchange, in which the married couple separated themselves from the community of the band or tribe, and the family became the basic economic and political unit of the social world. The agrarian family lived in two worlds, because the economic functions of the family were divided between producing for the household and producing for the market.
As an economic organization, the agrarian family saw children as units of production. Having children was a way to increase the labor force of the household and to provide old-age insurance for the parents. Although husbands and wives loved one another and loved their children, premodern families lived in a world of poverty that made the organization of the family primarily a matter of economic calculation in the struggle for survival, and only secondarily a matter of emotional satisfaction and personal happiness.
Horwitz has been greatly influenced by Stephanie Coontz's book Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage
(Viking, 2005). As the title indicates, Coontz sees the modern marriage and family based on love and intimacy as a recent break from a long history of marriage and family life understood as a purely economic arrangement. Until recently, Coontz observes, married couples were not "soul-mates" but "yoke-mates." Even so, they were not really "mates," if that implies equality, because premodern marriages were patriarchal in the husband's dominance over the wife.
Among the few people who were wealthy, premodern marriage had not only an economic function but also a political function, in that marriage was a way for powerful families to merge and thus consolidate their power.
As organized for economic and political functions, premodern marriage was, as Coontz says, "a matter of practical calculation rather than an arrangement entered into for individual fulfillment and the pursuit of happiness" (Marriage,
All of this has been changed over the past 250 years by the triumph of the economic, moral, and political ideas and institutions of classical liberalism. As wage labor became the primary source of income, agricultural and household labor became less important, and consequently the family largely lost its economic functions. This separation of work from the home and the general increase in wealth made it easier for individuals to live independently without dependence upon a family. As classical liberalism promoted individual liberty in economic, social, and political life, human relationships were understood as based on individual consent. And thus marriage was seen as founded on freely chosen consent. For the first time in history, marriage was understood as a love match for the personal satisfaction of the individuals marrying and the children they would rear.
Coontz summarizes the consequences:
"During the eighteenth century, the spread of the market economy and the advent of the Enlightenment wrought profound changes in record time. By the end of the 1700s, personal choice of partners had replaced arranged marriage as a social ideal, and individuals were encouraged to marry for love. For the first time in five thousand years, marriage came to be seen as a private relationship between two individuals rather than one link in a larger system of political and economic alliances. The measure of a successful marriage was no longer how big a financial settlement was involved, how many useful in-laws were acquired, or how many children were produced, but how well a family met the emotional needs of its individual members." (pp. 145-46)
As wages and wealth rose in the second half of the nineteenth century, men could support their families on their own, and so women and children could withdraw from the labor force. With less need for children to work, childhood could become a time for development through education and play. Individuals could afford to invest in education and training that would increase their value as workers. For the first time in history, most adults learned to read, and eventually children could become college-educated.
Thus, as Horwitz argues, classical liberalism and the capitalism it promoted shaped not only the impersonal world of markets but also the personal world of the family in ways that fostered human flourishing through the bourgeois virtues (as Deirdre McCloskey has called them). Previously, the premodern family had depended mostly on the calculative economic virtues of prudence. But the modern bourgeois family could foster all of the moral and intellectual virtues. Consequently, Horwitz observes, "capitalism thereby humanized the family" (98).
This moral improvement in the human family brought by classical liberalism and capitalism contradicts Hayek's famous argument that the free society cannot be a just or moral society, because the impersonal interactions of the market cannot reward merit, and therefore a free market society must suppress the moral instincts that evolved in the personal interactions of our ancient foraging ancestors living in families and bands. As Horwitz observes, Hayek thought that capitalism must resist "the atavistic callings of our moral instincts" (99). Horwitz must disagree with Hayek about this in showing how capitalism has improved not just the material conditions of life but also the moral and intellectual excellence of human life.
One way that Horwitz explains this moral progress in family life caused by capitalism is by arguing that bourgeois families have been able to climb from the bottom to the top of Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of basic human needs." Maslow arranged these basic human needs as a pyramid, moving from physiological needs and safety needs at the bottom to the higher needs of love/belonging and self-esteem and then finally to self-actualization at the top. Throughout human history, Horwitz argues, most human beings in their families had to be almost totally concerned with the lower needs of survival and safety. Only in the last two centuries, the ideas and institutions of classical liberalism have created a world of abundance and opportunity in which most human beings are free from worry about securing their lower needs and can pursue the satisfaction of their higher needs for love, self-esteem, and self-actualization.
One might wonder, however, whether a family devoted to the self-actualizing happiness of its individual members can do the job of socializing children that is required for a liberal social order to succeed. Horwitz raises this question in an article that asks the question "Is the Family a Spontaneous Order?" (Studies in Emergent Order
, 1 : 163-185).
The answer to the question of whether the family is a spontaneous order, Horwitz suggests, is twofold: "It depends" and "Maybe." It depends on whether we are asking about the general history of the family or about the operation of individual families. The general history of the family certainly is a spontaneous order, because it's an undesigned spontaneous evolution from prehistoric families to agrarian families to modern families.
But if we're asking about how individual families are organized, then the answer is "Maybe." Throughout most of human history, the family has been a deliberate organization based on hierarchy and command, just as Hayek saw. Parents--and particularly fathers--have exercised hierarchical command in planning the organization of the family for the collective ends of the whole family.
Recently, however, an increasing number of families in liberal societies have begun to look like spontaneous orders, in which parents and children pursuing their self-actualization act for their individually diverse ends, and thus there is little of the hierarchy and command that previously designed the family as a deliberate organization.
Horwitz observes that if a liberal social order needs children to be socialized in their families to learn the bourgeois norms and habits of a liberal society--such as tolerance, self-control, taking responsibility for one's actions, entrepreneurial risk-taking, and learning from one's mistakes--one might doubt that a fully spontaneously ordered family can provide the socialization of children that is required for the spontaneous order of a liberal society to survive. Oddly enough, the success of a liberal society as a spontaneous order might depend upon families that are not spontaneous orders but deliberate organizations designed by the central planning of parents for the proper socialization of children.
Some of these points are developed in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here,