Blogs > Liberty and Power > L&S: How Far Down Does Libertarianism Go?

Jul 15, 2005 1:13 pm

L&S: How Far Down Does Libertarianism Go?

Our final formal lecture of the week is Tom Bell talking about"Living Lives that Respect Liberty." Tom's theme is whether"the political is the personal." That is, does the libertarian understanding of the ideal political order also apply to our personal and family lives? Can we apply the ideas that we've been exploring all week to solve inter-personal problems in what Hayek called the"micro-cosmos?"

This is a question that I find to be particularly fascinating. In a recent contribution to a symposium on"Ayn Rand Among the Austrians" in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, I tried to argue that Hayek's work suggests that the organizations of the micro-cosmos (like firms or families) not only are, but in some sense should be, organized along collectivist, altruistic lines. This differs from Rand's belief that the principles of individualism and self-interest should go"all the way down."

Another recent contribution along these lines is a fascinating article by the economist Donald Wittman, entitled"The Internal Organization of the Family: Economic Analysis and Psychological Advice" that was published in the journal Kyklos in February 2005. Here's the abstract:
This article shows that therapeutic advice for behavior within the family is to create a functioning property-rights system and to emulate voluntary transactions within a competitive economic market. The optimal organization of the family requires that relations are structured so that non-cooperative game playing is minimized and transaction costs are reduced. The article employs economic analysis to explain why 'setting limits' is preferred to punishment (Pigouvian taxes). It also explains why there is conflict between children and their parents even when the parent's utility is the present discounted value of the child's utility function.
That abstract undersells how good this article really is. I read this article and said"Yes!! This perfectly articulates my own tacit understanding of why I parent the way I do." Wittman's running example is the middle school kid who keeps forgetting his lunch every day. The"punishment" parenting strategy is to yell at the kid or take something away, but only after bringing that lunch to school for him. Wittman argues that a more efficient and effective solution is to simply say"you forget your lunch, you don't eat," which internalizes the cost back on the child and relieves the parent of having to bear the costs of bringing the lunch and enforcing the punishment, all of which are deadweight losses in comparison to the"Coasean" solution. It should be noted that more"libertarian" sorts of parenting strategies are more effective the older the child is. The"Coasean" solution requires children of an age to understand the costs and benefits of the choices in front of them.

Tying it to Tom's lecture, Wittman is arguing that the libertarian political also works in the personal. To be clear, Tom is not saying that it is always the case that the political works in the personal, but that we should at least think about the ways in which it might and might not.

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Kenneth R Gregg - 7/16/2005

Bob said: "It seems that libertarians might well adhere to a
default rule of toleration when it comes to life styles, child rearing, and other strictly personal matters, but beyond that, we shall probably prosper best by recognizing that people--even libertarians--have a multitude of views and preferences as to personal matters."

Quite true. The converse is also true: observing violence and abuse in these matters is an indication of something quite wrong.

I've worked in the field of mediation (domestic relations) for a decade and a half. I normally see couples after the conflicts have come to the point where it is no longer possible to continue in a personal relationship. As a mediator, my goal is to help facilitate a resolution between the parties (and here in Las Vegas, the variation can be quite wide) to resolve their own differences. This process of empowerment is an aid in helping them move on with their own separate lives.

A good portion of this is, very simply, property rights assignments: dividing up their property relations (as well as custody, visitation) so as to frame their future plans.

This is not an easy process, even when both parties want to move forward and leave their emotional baggage behind. Mediators use various techniques in aiding this process for the parties, the bulk of which you can probably google on, so I won't bore you with them.

A great many people form relationships without understanding basic concepts of cooperation. Dysfunctional backgrounds, state/family interconnectivity (such as foster care), even single parenting can leave little education in interpersonal cooperation. Whatever the reason, when I come into the picture, often part of my work is training in the basics of cooperation, at least to make it through to the point of moving on.

If successful, mediation can provide an agreement which the parties have formed by themselves. As a mediator, I don't tell them or, for that matter, care what their end-results are, only that they have come to a satisfactory agreement. This leaves the judge (or binding arbitrator, if you will) only to "sign on the dotted line," and not to force a decree upon the parties.

Principles of cooperation become less and less important when the state becomes more and more involved in family life. In today's political context, family life has become micromanaged by the state. What was once at most a local church's or local magistrate's decision to help make, is now the purview of state and federal law, courtesy of URESA, UIFSA, and a host of other federal legislation.

If you compare a divorce decree of a couple of decades ago which, as often as not, was hardly a page long, to that of today, pages and pages long, with references to state and federal laws, it becomes clear how much the state is now involved. The upshot of this is that personal choice is ensnared in a quagmire of laws.

Just as a commercial deal was once concluded with a handshake, a romantic relationship was sealed with a kiss. Now both are filed and concluded with a presidential decree.

Just a thought.
Just Ken

Steven Horwitz - 7/16/2005

I think you just have to be careful Bob. I'm certainly not saying that libertarians should be going around *coercing* people into behaving in certain ways in their personal lives. In addition, as a positive claim, one can use the ideas of libertarian thinkers to explain/understand social institutions that are more directly related to our personal lives, such as marriage and family. Surely one can have, for example, a Hayekian theory of the family as an institution, distinct from any "libertarian" theory of parenting.

Robert Higgs - 7/16/2005

Libertarianism applies to personal matters?
I have serious doubts about this suggestion, Steve. I think we are best
advised to make libertarianism apply to a body of thought and action focused on
maintaining the proper scope of government. Attempting to extend libertarian
principles to personal matters is a major cause of the unfortunate in-fighting
among libertarians. It seems that libertarians might well adhere to a
default rule of toleration when it comes to life styles, child rearing, and other
strictly personal matters, but beyond that, we shall probably prosper best by
recognizing that people--even libertarians--have a multitude of views and
preferences as to personal matters. Libertarians might well let a thousand
flowers bloom in this regard. We have plenty to do as we concentrate our efforts
on reining in the powers of the state.

David T. Beito - 7/15/2005

I hope Tom Bell has a strategy on how to promote these days of liberty and responsibility because they are under daily assault. For example, I just listened to "Marketplace," a misnamed NPR propaganda war. It had an endless and incredibly slanted report on childhood obesity and essentially called for the banning of ads for sugary foods that "targeted children." The entire report did not even consider the merits of parential strategies except to quote a democratic hack who said that parents could "not cope" with the power of the greedy food industry. Nobody who had a different view was quoted except for a brief and meaningless snipet by business executive.

This listening experience made me want to pull the plug on those NPR busy-bodies more than ever.