By Lauren Hall
Defenders of individual liberty need the family, perhaps more than they know. Individualists need to acknowledge the importance of the family for the sake of theoretical completeness and for the sake of public acceptance. But the family isn’t an area in which individualists must make tactical compromises.
Acknowledgment of the family actually supports individualist resistance to the overreaching of the state.
Here’s just one example of why libertarian neglect of the family actually harms libertarian thought.
A Limited Individualism
Murray Rothbard’s work is a good starting point because he’s considered one of the great libertarian thinkers and he explicitly deals with the family in his work. Rothbard defines crime as “…an act of aggression against a man’s property right, either in his own person or his materially owned objects.” Such a definition is pretty standard in the libertarian literature. Rothbard chooses a minimal definition of crime to underscore the minimalist duties of the state in preventing private coercion.
The problem with Rothbard’s definition becomes evident when we think of individuals not as individuals only, but also as members of important groups-groups with enduring human bonds. By Rothbard’s definition, kidnapping a child is not a crime against the parent; it is a coercive act against the child. Any parent, however, would argue that kidnapping constitutes a violent act against the parents of a child as well. Because children are neither the person of the parents nor their “materially owned” objects, the harm to the parents falls outside the Rothbardian definition of coercion. Yet children, in our intuitive understandings, are both extensions of the persons of the parents and are at least analogous to property, in the sense that is meant when we say a child “belongs” to a parent or that a child is “mine”. It is precisely the extension of persons into other persons and the blurring of property rights into persons that makes libertarians unsure of the status of the family and how to fit it into the traditional polarity between individual and state.
Rothbard’s essay Kid Lib aims to clarify some of the libertarian position toward parents and children, but it leaves the fundamental relationship unclear. Because parents have no ownership over their children, only guardianship rights, there’s still no reason one person couldn’t take a parent’s child and raise it better than that parent without technically violating the parent’s rights at all. Rothbard emphasizes the rights of the child and the obligations of parents, but never actually answers the crucial question of why and if parents truly have a “right” to their children in the first place. Rothbard determines that the law cannot “force the parents to raise their children properly,” but if parents don’t have an ownership right over their children and their children have not yet consented to parental guardianship, why can’t the state step in? On Rothbard’s grounds, there’s no principle that gives the parental relationship priority over the state’s relationship to those same children.
The libertarian argument fails to solve the problem of why parents have the initial right to raise their children in the first place. Oddly enough, it is the treatment of the child as an individual without reference to the bonds he has to his family, or the rights parents have over (or to) their children, that leaves parents with insufficient grounds for resisting state intervention. Such intervention happens, and not infrequently. The case of kidnapping is not merely a theoretical hole, easily plugged.
Niveen Ismael’s odyssey through the California child welfare system chronicled in a recent New Yorker article is but one heartbreaking example. Ismael finally lost her son to another family thanks to the arbitrary standards used by social service and law enforcement to remove children from homes and even terminate parental rights. The state stole her child, but not on Rothbard’s account. On Rothbard’s definition, the theft of Ismael’s car would have been a more clear-cut crime than the theft of her child, despite the fact that she will never recover from the latter. Ismael’s story is rage-inducing, but Rothbard and many libertarians couldn’t argue that she is the victim of a crime as she would have been had the state stolen her car, for example. Yet she will never recover from the loss of her child the way she would from a stolen car. If we view children merely as individuals without meaningful connections to parents and if we view parents as discrete individuals without rights over and to their children we lose much of the grounds for the moral outrage we feel at the treatment of individuals like Ismael. She was the victim of coercion by the state. That her son may be better off in material or emotional terms in a stable, two-parent, middle-class family does not undo the irreparable violence that has been done to his relationship with his mother, a relationship entitled to our respect in part because it is so tightly linked to our understanding of who we are as free individuals. Kidnapping, by an individual or the state, is not a crime that Rothbard’s framework can fully address. We intuitively feel outrage, but according to the traditional libertarian definition of coercion, we can’t make that outrage stick.
A New Kind of Individualism
Leaving aside the narrow case of kidnapping, libertarians need the family for other reasons as well. The family does more than simply challenge libertarian definitions of crime, coercion, and violence.
Most obviously, the family is the ultimate reflection of human dependence and need, something individualists need to pay more attention to. No matter how much we emphasize personal responsibility and the importance of hard work, there will always be children and the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill, the lonely and the grieving. Human life being what it is, all of us will experience dependence at various points in our lives. When that happens we need connections to other people, who can provide charity, succor, and love. The state can only partially provide these. The family (and the civil society it supports) can and should provide most of them.
Another benefit of the family for libertarian thought is that the family supports individual human freedom, even as it challenges it. The family is where the individual is best known and best valued. Family life is where we learn to be both individuals and group members, citizens and dissenters. It is also where we do our most profound and creative work: the bearing, raising, and educating of other human beings. Parenting is an expression of our freedom in the most foundational way. Ignoring this most central and universal activity, around which much of human life is centered, will leave any political philosophy visibly incomplete.
The family is also useful as a buffer against the power of the state. Because kin connections are largely independent of the state, family ties serve as some degree of protection against government abuse of individuals. One of the more disturbing and often overlooked consequences of China’s One Child Policy is an entire generation growing up without siblings, cousins, aunts or uncles. This isolation and separation of individuals from traditional family networks, combined with a state that readily violates individual rights, is hardly coincidental. Strong family ties might not have prevented the human rights abuses seen in modern China, but the One Child policy makes such abuses easier for the state to commit.
Finally, and the subject of another post, the family teaches us that the traditional libertarian neutrality to family forms creates its own set of dangers to individual freedom. Some types of families support liberty, while others do not. Polygamy, for example, comes with heavy costs to freedom. While state intervention may actually make such costs greater, ignoring the costs that some family types impose on women, children, and the community prevents a comprehensive understanding of how best to support individual liberty in the private sphere. We should not forget that there is an important middle ground between outlawing something and embracing it, and that middle ground – discussion, social pressure, and persuasion — is the heart of liberal societies.
Libertarians need the family because without it their theory is incomplete, a sliver of the human condition and a caricature of the real value of liberty as a principle. I’ve argued elsewhere for what I call a “social individualism,” or the recognition that humans are fundamentally social creatures and that individualism only makes sense within a social context. This kind of individualism is not a capitulation to those who believe that all rights are social rights. It is, instead, a recognition of the richness of human life and of the incredibly diverse interests and desires that comprise all human lives. Individualism is valuable because it highlights the importance of each individual, independent of the social milieu. But for individuals to remain important, they must also be understood within the social network of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and all of the other people for whom that individual has value, meaning, and worth. The failure of libertarians (despite some notable exceptions) to acknowledge and wrestle with the difficult questions the family poses weakens the theory and makes it less persuasive to the mothers, fathers, daughters and sons who grapple each day with how to be individuals in a profoundly social world.
Lauren Hall is a professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology and the author of Family and the Politics of Moderation. She has written extensively on the classical liberal tradition, including articles on Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and Montesquieu. Currently, she’s working on issues related to the politics of women and the family in classical liberalism, as well as related areas in evolutionary theory and bioethics.