Hayek's Modern Family

Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions

[Amazon Link]

If you're like me, your instant reaction to the title might be: best sitcom spinoff ever! Alas, probably not to be, but it's fun imagining possible characters and amusing plotlines.

The author, Steven Horwitz, is an econ prof at St. Lawrence University; as you might guess from a more sober look at the title, he's of a classical liberal bent, and his task here is to look at the past and likely evolution of family, marriage, and childrearing from that perspective.

It's a task well worth undertaking, given the proclivity of both left and right to proclaim the correctness of their views on those matters, and willingness to enlist the power of the state to enforce those views.

On the other hand, libertarians (which I tend to use interchangeably with "classical liberals", sue me) tend to either ignore such issues (especially those involving kids), or are clearly fumble-brained about the best way to approach analysis of non-state social institutions. Horwitz's effort is a welcome remedy.

The book emphasizes, for the unconvinced, that the "ideal" family of one male breadwinner, life-married to one female housekeeper, raising N well-scrubbed children in a detached single-family dwelling was only "typical" for a brief period of American postwar history. And even then 'twasn't that typical, as irrevocable trends were transforming it. Attitudes about sex, love, equality of the sexes, divorce, longevity, the nature of parenthood, etc., all push and pull on the surfaces of the institutions. Add in economic incentives, the availability of government-backed programs, tax policy, … Well, probably too many to list here.

As appropriate for an introductory inquiry, Horwitz probably raises more questions than he answers, but he knows the right people to quote: Hayek, of course, but also Deirdre McCloskey, Randy Barnett, and others who'll be familiar to libertarian dilettantes. (There's also a detailed advocacy of raising "Free Range Kids", based on Lenore Skenazy's book of the same name.)

Horwitz's basic recommendation: dynamic social forces have always changed social institutions like the family, and those changes will continue for the foreseeable future. Predicting the exact nature of the transformations is impossible; attempts to prevent those changes via government coercion, regulation or subsidy will be at best counter-productive. It's best to wherever possible trust in individuals to make their own choices, and the "emerging order" will certainly be better than whatever the social engineers of left and right attempt to force into reality.

Now: all is not perfect. Horwitz quotes McCloskey, but unfortunately doesn't write like McCloskey. His prose is academic-clunky; sentences and paragraphs go on forever, in small type and narrow margins. So it was kind of a slog. Still recommended though, because it might make you smarter.