Blogs > Liberty and Power > Hayek and the "Traditional Family"

Mar 31, 2008 11:57 am


Hayek and the "Traditional Family"



Now that grades are in, time to catch up on my reading and blogging.  

I just received the new Cambridge Companion to Hayek edited by Ed Feser, and including contributions from a number of luminaries in the Hayek literature.  So far, the collection is a generally excellent introduction to Hayek’s thought.  I am, however, in the mood to pick on one point in Ed’s introduction to the volume.  

In the context of discussing how Hayek insists we must learn to live in “two worlds at once,” and that this means we can never completely overcome the lack of common purpose and deeper community that characterizes the anonymous Great Society, Ed rightly points out that there are still ways in Hayek’s framework to capture elements of that intimacy.  He writes:

Hayek’s promotion of a mild Burkean moralism and religiosity would seem to be his way of taking the bite out of this unhappy situation, as far as that is possible;  a stolid bourgeois allegiance to what is left in the modern world of the traditional family and the church or synagogue would seem in his view to be all we have left to keep us warm in the chilly atmosphere of liberal individualism and market dynamism (emphasis mine).

My question is what work the adjective in the italicized phrase is doing.

Why does Ed feel the need to modify his, in my view, correct discussion of the importance of the family with the word "traditional?" As I encourage my students to do, my first question is "which traditional family?" Does he mean the family form that was the most common throughout human history, namely sets of male-female dyads joined in roving bands of what we would now call "extended family?" Does he mean arranged marriages, especially those arranged for economic gain, political power, or social status, which were the "traditional" family up until the last two centuries or so? (And, of course, all of this is in the West. If we're talking "traditional family" world-wide, that's a whole other issue.) Or does he mean the family based around a marital dyad that has come together based on romantic love? If so, that's only 200 years of "tradition" out of thousands of years of human history. Or does he mean the conjugal nuclear family of the 1950s variety, romanticized in song and story. If so, that's hardly "traditional" as it represented a unique conjunction of social forces that lasted for about 15 years at best.

Bottom line, "traditional" seems to be a classic Hayekian "weasel word" here, whose meaning is unclear but whose purpose is to juxtapose whatever is meant against some unnamed "non-traditional" family.

There is one element that all of those "traditional" families did have in common, however. That, of course, was that the marital dyads that comprised them were dyads of one man and one woman. So it's possible that "traditional" is a code word here for "male-female" and that the real contrast is with same-sex or single-parent families (although even the latter were more common historically than normally recognized, mostly due to the death of women in childbirth or men at work). If so, why doesn't Ed just come out and say it?

The problem, I would argue, is that if the family is, from a Hayekian perspective, rightly seen as a refuge of love, intimacy, and communal feeling against the anonymity and abstract rules of the Great Society, then one would have to argue that these "non-traditional" family forms lack that love etc.. There are better and worse arguments against same-sex and single-parent families, and this would go in the "worse" category. I'm not saying Ed is making this argument, only that if I'm right about what he means by "traditional," his argument implies it.

What bothers me here is the confusion of family form and family function. Ed quite rightly points out that the family has a set of important and possibly irreplaceable functions to perform in Hayek's picture of the social order. But he then slides over into suggesting that only certain family forms can do so. There's a missing step in that argument, namely that only certain family forms can perform those functions adequately. That missing step is, for me, quite the open question, and the use of "traditional family" in the context of discussing the functions families perform is way of not confronting the question of whether or not a multiplicity of family forms are capable of doing so. The language of "traditional family" obscures much more than it illuminates.

I would argue that for Hayekians this conflation of function and form is highly problematic. Hayek's entire social theory is built upon the idea that social institutions have certain functions to perform and that those institutional forms evolve in response to changes in the kinds of functions they need to perform and to changes in other social, economic, and political institutions. To reify one form above all of the others without asking the empirical questions about functionality is to both deny the power of Hayekian evolutionary processes and their ability to discover new institutional forms and to close our eyes to history and empirical social science. That, I would argue, goes against the very core of Hayek's work.


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Mark Brady - 12/26/2006

Steve, I think you're correct, although I guess we should let Chris have the final word.

This Christian imperialism that makes Hayek a Christian reminds me of the attempt to deny the deism of many of the Founding Fathers.


Steven Horwitz - 12/26/2006

I read it as Gus did Mark. Here's what Chris wrote:

"I'd say Hayek (and Feser), who was (and is) a Christian, meant it in a Judeo-Christian sense--"

There's NO doubt there that he means to say that Hayek was a Christian. Take out the parenthetical references to Ed and the sentence makes clear sense. If he meant only Ed, why put him in brackets (nod to British usage) and why use "was", which clearly refers to the late Professor Hayek?

No ambiguity there.


Mark Brady - 12/26/2006

Gus, did you perhaps misread Chris Westley's original (and ambiguously worded) post? I understood him to mean that Ed Feser is a Christian, not that Hayek was. If Chris is claiming that Hayek was a Christian, then he is mistaken. Perhaps Chris would clarify his point.


Steven Horwitz - 12/26/2006

I agree Chris that some kinds of families are more effective than others. But in making that determination we need to get *beyond* form and talk about function. To assume that only one form is to be preferred without asking real questions about comparative functionality is the problem I'm raising, and its the view often implied by the use of "traditional."

We know plenty of families that look just fine in terms of their "form" but are totally dysfunctional, and we also know families that don't look typical at all, but are nonetheless highly, or at least *sufficiently*, functional.

And let me be clear that I think bad gov't policy has done much to undermine the functionality of families in general. However, that doesn't mean we should be using the power of the state to enshrine any particular form(s) of the family as being the only ones capable of performing the functions families ideally perform in the Hayekian Great Society.


Andrew D. Todd - 12/26/2006

Well, the most striking thing about premodern kinship systems is that they are usually extended. Within an extended system, it is normal to have at least a hundred people whom you reckon as kindred. A marriage does not simply link two people-- it also links the families to which they belong. Anthropologists speak of "classificatory kinship systems," that is, how do people lump together the various different grades of cousins and in-laws. Major categories, generally named for the first tribe in which the system was documented are: Crow, Eskimo, Hawaiian, Iroquois, and Omaha. There are some oddities, of course. Among the Pacific Northwest Coast tribes, one man could marry another man's arm, thereby assuming the status of a son-in-law, even if there was no daughter for him to marry. In East Africa, there was "woman marriage," in which one woman, engaged in a traditionally masculine occupation, becomes the "husband" of another woman. Then of course there are the levirate and sororate systems. The really strange thing about modern American marriage is its almost complete lack of economic dimensions.

If you want to go into the subject in depth, the starting point is George Peter Murdock, _Social Structure_, 1949.


Chris Westley - 12/26/2006

I wish I had time to respond in more detail to the points made thus far. For now, a quick comment.

Steve, I find your point about *which family* to be the relevant point here (and would makie for an interesting panel topic). My point is that is isn't just family *qua* family that is effective. There are kinds of families that are more effective in terms of promoting the kind of society that concerned Hayek. (Charles Murray's empirical work supports the same point.) If that was Feser's point, then I would agree with him. Form is important. (But I realize that your objection was more to his use of the term traditional.)


Gus diZerega - 12/25/2006

In my opinion Steve is completely correct.

I am not sure in what sense Hayek was a Christian, but I am sure if he was, it was in a way most people who make a big deal today of their "Christianity" would deny.

I have read almost everything Hayek published that is available in English. To the best of my knowledge Hayek NEVER made a theological argument. Never. Nothing could be more un-Hayekian given his emphasis on our ignorance as fundamental to our situation in the world. Christians claim to KNOW.

What Hayek did argue was that customs often contributed to social order in ways not immediately comprehensibe, so that rationalist critiques were often mistaken. But he emphasized that ANY custom could be critiqued internally. He never argued the law should be used to try and protect some custom or other from peaceful challenge. That many or most such challenges would ultimately fail was of little concern to him. Some would not, and in that fashion social life could continue to adapt to new and perhaps unforseen circumstances. It's called evolution.

Hayek taught us a profoundly deep way of understanding the world, and it is undermined when claims to be his proper interpreter are made by those with conmcrete ideological or theological agendas.

If Hayek had an agenda beyond understanding the world, it was, as he put it, promoting a society where one would want one's children to live or, in another comment, where anyone picked randomly would be most likely to do well in.

That's good enough for me.


Jonathan Dresner - 12/25/2006

Judeo-Christian sense--in the sense that the Church has defined the family since the times of early Christianity

This is one of those times when the term "Judeo-Christian" is most meaningless: Jewish and Christian ideas about marriage (also sexuality and community) have been divergent almost since the beginning. "The Church" can't define anything Jewish, and if the Church takes it on itself to define something, it's because the Jewish definition doesn't fit their needs.

Churches have defined marriage differently in the last 2000 years (maybe over the last 400 you can talk about a consensus?), and Christianity has never been the majority tradition in the world. Even in places where polygamy was practiced, monogamy was the norm (only the very wealthy could afford multiple wives, etc.), so that's not a terribly helpful distinction.


Steven Horwitz - 12/25/2006

You still haven't told me *which* family you mean. Seriously. "The" family has changed in form and function over those 2000 years. To imagine there is *one thing* called "the" family that has been the same over those 2000 years is simply ignorant of history. Is it just "monogamy"? If so, then say "the monogamous family" (of course, that would include same-sex couples, if monogamous, no?).

And I completely agree that the family is perhaps the most important of private institutions. But that is because of *what it does* rather than *what form it takes*. The word "traditional" is a weasel word in this context. All I ask is that those who use the word specify what they mean by it - is it about the functions families perform or is it about a specific family form? The accuracy of the argument you and Ed are making depends, crucially, on that distinction.

My point is simply that there is no "traditional" family form that has been constant over recent (yes, including the last 2000) human history. Like other social institutions, it has evolved as the environment has changed. All I ask is that people who use that phrase specify what they mean.


Chris Westley - 12/25/2006

I can't believe you'd made such a big deal about this.

I'd say Hayek (and Feser), who was (and is) a Christian, meant it in a Judeo-Christian sense--in the sense that the Church has defined the family since the times of early Christianity, back to a time when the Romans thought these Christians were odd because they practiced monogamy. But as this practice spread, civilization followed.

Steve, the family is the most important private institution that stands athwart the state, and as it splinters, the state grows. This is not something about which I should need to show you the empirics. You are right that this is not a standard that is often been the norm in history, but it is a standard that the Church brought when it helped in the spread and definition of Western civilization. Is 2000 years long enough for you to accept the term "traditional"?