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.