Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions
Steven Horwitz joins us for a discussion on family and how it has changed over the years. Where does classical liberalism fit into the conception of a family?
Families seem structured almost entirely opposite to how we think about market economies. Do theories about human behavior in markets hold up when looking at family interactions?
Steven Horwitz joins us to talk about his new book, Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions.
What did F. A. Hayek have to say about evolving social institutions? What is the definition of a family? How has it changed over time?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Here is Horwitz’s new book, Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions (2015).
Horwitz mentions this humorous scene depicting a feudal marriage in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Steve Horwitz, Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics and Department Chair at St. Lawrence University and author of the new book Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Steve.
Steve Horwitz: Hi guys. My pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Trevor Burrus: So you’re an economist and you’ve written a book about family. So did you just get bored with economics apparently and decided you wanted to write about child-rearing or something like that?
Steve Horwitz: It’s a great question. There’s an interesting answer to how I came into this. It actually came out of my teaching. One of the great things about teaching at a liberal arts college is you get the opportunity to do interdisciplinary stuff and work with colleagues. As part of our first year seminar program a number of years ago, 20 years ago now, I ended up teaching at the time with a couple of colleagues who were interested in family issues. So I thought, yeah, I’m an economist. Gary Becker talked about family. We can do this.
I taught with one of those folks for a couple of years and then she left and then since then, I’ve taught now that course six times with a colleague in the psychology department who turned out to be a wonderful co-teacher, teaching partner and friend. She introduced me to a lot of the sort of family stuff that’s in here and the legal stuff too. She also has a law degree. So our work together got me thinking about the families, the social institution and trying to teach that to first year students and why sort of libertarians haven’t talked about it, right? I mean you think, “Why haven’t libertarians said very much at all about the family?” What could they say about the family and in particular, what could someone who sort of was trained in economics and in Austrian economics and Mises and Hayek, what could – what insights could they bring to that?
Aaron Ross Powell: So this seems initially kind of an odd project especially coming from an Austrian or Hayekian direction because the thing that we all know about – the main thing we know about Hayekian, the Austrian school is the knowledge problem and the price system, solving the socialist calculation debate and these seem to be things that are very different from the way that we think about families. Families seem structured almost entirely opposite to the way we think about a market economy and that you do have distribution along central planning lines and what not. So is this – isn’t as odd a fit as it initially seems?
Steve Horwitz: I don’t think so. I think one of the things that you find really in Hayek – but it’s in Mises too actually but I will focus on sort of Hayek’s version of it. It’s the idea that markets aren’t the appropriate solution to every human social problem.
Trevor Burrus: It’s funny. I just want to say that there are so many people who don’t even know that. They think that Hayek thinks that he – the market is a solution to every social problem.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah, right. If you’ve read the introduction, right? I have one of those in the introduction more or less, right? Where I have to combat that right off the bat. But yeah, I think that’s really important. How it’s very clear, right? You know, we throw the smaller tasks that we do, intentional, kind of cooperative communities or whatever, right? It can be very effective and we have lots of those. The firms, right? The firm has elements of that sort of – they’re in that – we use the word carefully. But they’re socialists. They’re altruistic or whatever – you know, collective. Whatever word you want to use and the reason we need the market is that once we get beyond a relatively small number of people and we get beyond the ability to sort of engage with each other face to face and to sort of know what each other wants.
In essence, when we’re dealing with anonymous human beings, we need the market to coordinate our activities. We need prices and all the things that we were just talking about to do the job because now we’re outside the bounds of the world of the intimate or known and into the world of the unknown and anonymous. So markets enable us to coordinate in that world.
One way to think about it is what markets do is coordinate between or among families and firms and all these other little sort of islands of cooperation and collaboration. That’s what markets are. So even when people say, “Well, hi. It’s all about the market,” what the market is, is a collection of little – I’m exaggerating a bit. But little versions of socialist collectives, right? Scattered all over the place.
Trevor Burrus: So in a more I guess sort of abstractions – because you kind of touched on it. But what is the Hayekian view of social institutions in general, how they’re created and what they’re supposed to do?
Steve Horwitz: Yeah. They’re problem-solvers, right? I mean I think the best way to think about social institutions is that it’s – in terms of their function, right? What do they do? What they do is they solve some problem that human beings have and most – not all but most social institutions came about through some social evolutionary spontaneous order as Hayekians would call it. Processes where nobody invented them, sort of whole cloth, but rather human beings who had problems that needed to be solved. If we think about the family, right? We have to raise these helpless infants into reasonably functioning adults among other things that families do. But that’s certainly an important one. So the way in which social institutions come about and organize themselves will be responses to the particular problems that any particular situation at any particular time throw up and that social institutions will solve.
An important part about that too, right? The social institutions aren’t static. They evolve and change and that’s part of that spontaneous order story too. One of the, I think, things that I try to get out of the table early in the book is this sort of relationship between function and form and recognizing that the form that social institutions – the structure that social institutions have is tightly linked to the particular functions they perform. What they look like will depend not solely but largely on what they do.
Trevor Burrus: And that’s important because you say that very early on that – if you talk to conservatives and they say the family is dying or something like this, they’re seeming to not clarify the difference between the form of the family whether it’s Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet and the function about what a family is supposed to do.
Steve Horwitz: Right. I think that also comes in a lot with the phrase and with students over the years. This is the one that comes up a lot is, “What do we mean by a normal family, right?” I mean normal can have this understanding in terms of the form, the type of family, right? What’s the most typical family? Is it a two-parent family? Is it not, right?
So descriptively or the form families take is one notion of normal or typical. But then we have this other notion of normal which is more like functional or dysfunctional, right? A family can look a particular way but the – whether it’s normal or not might depend upon does it actually do the things we think families should do. You know, for example single parent families, most of them do raise kids successfully to adulthood. So their form is different but they function OK. So I think understanding that difference between what families look like and what they do and how well they do it often gets confused. Conservatives frequently do that. I think others do too but certainly conservatives do when we – the client of the family and what’s a normal family and all this kind of …
Trevor Burrus: So it sounds like you would be someone who would say that – because conservatives always say family is the bedrock institution of society and all these things. But someone might be listening to you and thinking that you’re disagreeing with that. Are families bedrock institutions of society?
Steve Horwitz: They are and I think one way – I’ve always thought about this project in my research on the family is that what I want to do is construct a non-conservative defense of the family as a social institution. So if we tie this to the form and function thing, right? I mean what I would argue is, is that the functions that families perform are irreplaceable. You need the family as a social institution. But that doesn’t mean the family needs to be the identical form of the family throughout history. It hasn’t been. Just because we see one form at one time doesn’t mean it’s universal.
So I think for me it’s recognizing that multiple family forms are capable of performing the functions that we expect families to perform.
Aaron Ross Powell: I guess how strict is the definition of family here. So is anything that fulfills the functions that we’ve outlined for a family a family?
Steve Horwitz: Yeah. Well, it’s tricky, right? Because obviously if you start defining family in terms of blood relationships, right? You’ve got a couple of problems right away because number one – the obvious one is we have adoption and things like that. But more importantly, the very foundational relationship that creates families is not a blood relationship. You don’t marry people you’re blood related to, right?
So the family – from this – forms families in most cases if we think marriage, right? It’s not blood – but then once you say it’s not about blood relations, where do you – what stops something – how do we know what a family is? Where is that line? I’m not sure there is a – a kind of bright line that we can say this is and this isn’t. Maybe like pornography, we know it when we see it. But we certainly know that families are institutions in which people care for each other and in which children are raised, in which people engage in – you know, those sort of hustle production activities in which people engage in sexual activities. These are all part of what we think of as being a family.
Certainly legal definitions, we can – people who aren’t legally married but raise children together. I think we have no problem calling them families in a sort of sociological, social, scientific sense. So maybe I’m dancing around your question but I think the best way to understand – I think the best way to understand what families are is generally by what does this – what is this group of people doing, right? Is what they’re doing looking like the things we expect families to do? We know we need the marriage, right? We talk about single parent families all the time and we’re thinking about kids.
What about a couple who never had kids but who has their elderly parents living in with them? Is that what – yeah, that’s a family. So I mean how do we categorize all those things? It’s an interesting question.
Trevor Burrus: So let’s get into the history of the family because as we sort of scoped out here, a lot of people who think that the family is – I mean I guess the bedrock institution of society, they often think that they’re talking about the same thing and sometimes it seems like – especially conservatives seem like they’re talking about the nuclear family or a Leave It to Beaver type family that was around in ancient Jerusalem and was also around in the 50s and should be around today because crucial – what’s wrong with that view? You give the history of the family in sort of a few chapters and you start with the family under poverty.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah. So I think the problem with it is, is that it just – it’s not true, right? I mean the family has evolved and changed in a whole bunch of different ways and certainly for most of human history, the primary challenge facing human beings and therefore facing families was grinding poverty, right? Producing food and surviving and ensuring that your children survive was the overwhelming task for human beings and that was done within – the family as a social institution was the primary way we did that. One way to think about that is that the family historically for most of human history has been the unit of production, right? Farming and agriculture is the most obvious example.
We think about married couples running a farm and again perhaps having a lot of kids and other relatives pitching in to help do this. This mattered for marriage, right? Who did you marry? Who you married for most of human history was someone you can work effectively with. The notion of marrying for love is a relatively recent phenomenon. We can come back to that in a little bit. But for most of human history, it was – in economist terms, you wanted complementary human capital combinations, right? But that was about production.
It wasn’t, you know, look how beautiful it is. It’s look at those shoulders. She can plow! When we think about …
Trevor Burrus: That’s poetry right there.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah, I’m telling …
Trevor Burrus: Eighth century romantic poetry.
Steve Horwitz: Well, right and which – all the romance that we think of back even, you know, say 500, 600 years ago. Romance normally wasn’t husband to wife. It was mistress.
Trevor Burrus: Abelard and Heloise or Romeo and Juliet.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
Steve Horwitz: Right. Who you married – again, unless you were the very rich, right? Who you married was very much a narrow sort of economic – and very calculated in some sense decision and both wives and kids were in some sense analogous to employees and the household was a firm and you were producing enough to survive and the result of that again was marriage for love was a luxury people couldn’t afford.
The sort of limitations on women’s rights that we think about all the time. Family size was big, right? You wanted to have a lot of kids to help work the farm and kids were an economic asset, including when you got old. Certainly much cheaper and more fun to make your own labor than it is to hire it. So large families were part of this too and childhood wasn’t what we think of today. You were right. I mean kids were viewed as – off to work early on and education was fairly rare. Again, you have to have the wealth to do it. So in that sort of chapter on the family in poverty, really emphasizing and again, this is all pretty common knowledge among historians, right? There’s nothing new here.
But what begins to happen over time is that we see that the transitions take place with the advent of capitalism and markets and industrialization in the late 18th and 19th century. So there, right? I mean the key – two key developments there are people are able to work outside the home in a major consistent way for really the first time in human history. I mean only some of that but now, more people are able to work in factories or make their little trading. This is sort of a Deirdre McCloskey type story here too, right?
So, once word goes out of the household that people can earn a living outside the household, the sort of space that economics filled up in the household is now available to other kinds of things. At the same time, that same industrial revolution and capitalist revolution was making people wealthier and though early on we know, you know, mom, dad and the kids all had to work in the factories. It didn’t take long for the kids to come home and mom to come home and dad to be able to support them all on his own income.
It’s at that point that we begin to see the transitions to what we think of as the modern family where now people can afford to marry for love. You don’t have to worry so much about how strong her shoulders are and this of course creates a much more equal relationship between men and women. It’s not coincidental. We see late – middle, late 19th century that for the first women’s rights movement and the end of coverture or the end of – the limits on what married women can do with their property.
All of these things begin to liberate women in these ways and we begin to see marriage itself become more equal. Domestic violence for the first time takes on a negative tinge in a way it hadn’t before. At the same time, family size begins to shrink. You don’t need so many kids. Parents start to regulate their fertility a little bit more carefully. Then the kids get invested in more. We begin to see by the end of the 19th century the sentimentalization of childhood and what’s sometimes called the sheltered childhood, a kind of precursor of some of the trends we’re seeing today in the extreme..
By the time we get into the 20th century, among the middle class anyway, we have what more or less looks like the modern family. We don’t quite have that 50s family yet. We still have – people still took boarders in and elderly parents and family size hadn’t come down all the way and women’s roles were shifting too. So by the 20th century, it looks more or less like what we have.
Trevor Burrus: That was pretty good. You gave pretty much an overview of most of the book and about – that was good. Good job.
Steve Horwitz: You can tell I’ve done this before.
Aaron Ross Powell: So there’s a rather strikingly common fable that we hear. It shows up – Hollywood movies often are based around this narrative or like the fairy tales that I read to my kids that seems to come up a lot, which is basically the opposite of the story you just told. So the story you just told is that wealth and the growth of wealth enriched the family in meaningful ways, that a lot of the things that we consider to be the most important parts of family life were themselves a result of having access to more wealth and some more freedom.
But there’s this really common story of the real family exists among the poor where the rich guy has to learn how to appreciate family and can only do it by becoming poor or spending time among the poor. So this is Annie …
There was that Nicolas Cage movie a while back …
Trevor Burrus: You mean the one where he trades places with the poor people …
Aaron Ross Powell: But it shows up in fairy tales all the time too. Like, the rich son wanders across the poor family and learns the meaning of relationships. If the story of wealth is so clear that it’s wealth that enhanced these important family connections, why do so many of us either believe this counter narrative or at least just feel kind of drawn to it?
Steve Horwitz: So really, I’ve never thought about that question, Aaron. It’s really interesting. Off the top of my head, I think part of the answer is within wealthy societies, right? That fairytale has more resonance in the sense that poorer families within relatively wealthy societies might probably spend more time together because they don’t have other things to do. They don’t have money to spend on other things, right?
So if it’s about that – those – cultivating those relationships and oftentimes, let’s be honest. Cultivating those relationships are a consequence of poverty, right? That the reason you have to cultivate those family relationships and you have to be close especially with extended family is you’re in relative poverty. But still, that’s perhaps within the midst of plenty.
But if you go back – when I started doing sort of research on this book, I started when I spent 10 weeks at a – on a – like visiting gig at Bowling Green State when they had this Social Philosophy Center there and I spent like a week reading these histories of the family. Those were histories of the 1600, 1700, 1800s. It’s worse than any horror movie. I mean it was horrific. It was the most depressing week of my life to sort of – they couldn’t care for their own kids because they had to care for their farm. So they would give out their children to wet nurses to care for their infants. The wet nurses are overburdened. They would swaddle them up and leave them in their own filth. Sometimes they would hang them on hooks. OK? Just because they had nowhere else – literally nowhere else to put them.
The other story that was quite common is they would leave them to stay warm by the fire. You can imagine what happens next, right? A couple of good sparks and you’ve got a big problem. We can’t even imagine this world at least in the West today, right? So when we hear this – that kind of fairytale story of well, the nobility of the poor family, right? Again, it’s kind of possible.
The same way we sort of romanticize farm families within the larger society too, right? I have a line in an old column of mine about how we’re rich enough to play at being poor, right?
Trevor Burrus: By churning butter for fun.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah, right. Yeah. It’s slow food, right? We have this sort of things, right? But the reality of that poverty, when you’re not in the midst of plenty is a whole different thing and I just would want to say – people should read Edward Shorter’s book or a couple of the other references in my book and just spend a couple of hours with those families and see whether you think there’s much to romanticize.
Trevor Burrus: I think Aaron’s question is interesting because it also goes back to some of the things you were talking about a few minutes ago about the Hayekian point, about the great society, which is anonymous and wealthy or tends to wealth because the trading possibilities are higher. Then the little institutions within the society, their communities and tribes and families and other things that are how – we evolved in those systems and this is a point that Hayek makes that you cannot take the morality and interaction of the tribe and extrapolate it to the entire society.
Steve Horwitz: Right.
Trevor Burrus: It’s interesting because that’s a lot – you can say that the right ones, the – you know, state to be are mommy and daddy and the left ones are to be a village. It can’t be either of those. So they’re both extrapolating from the family and then we complain about the anonymity of modern times and how soulless it is and all this kind of things like that whereas like the person to person interaction is what we can get from this capitalist system that made the family a richer and better place.
Steve Horwitz: Right. One way to think about this is that the very outsourcing, to use that word, the outsourcing of the economic functions of the family to the marketplace that capitalism and industrialization brought opened up the scope for the family to be this site of emotion – emotional and psychological and – on a sort of affection and all these other kinds of things that we think is so important about the family today, right?
I mean that’s the interesting part. We created loving families. The story on the left sometimes is well, capitalism turned the family into this sort of calculating rationale – no! It’s just the opposite, right? The family – to use McCloskey’s sort of virtues language, right? What capitalism and industrialization did was to kick prudence out of the family and open up the space for love, right? Love is there in ways it never was before.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, the question of marrying someone by prudence which of course is going to involve a lot of different economic situations. I wanted to get more into – so if we’re still at the family at poverty, there’s another element of the family at poverty which is related to the sort of great society concept. It’s the political aspect of the family, which is somewhat at a rich level a kind of Game of Thrones kind of marriage system. But it’s also the sense of expanding your trading possibilities beyond – in a world where you only have status and you don’t have contract. Even in that poverty world, being able to trade with more people is a good thing and marrying in that way is a good thing too.
Steve Horwitz: Right. And I think that you can look at the political thing in like you’re saying, in two levels. Even for poor families, one of the great things about marriage is that – in creating families, is that it brings this whole other group of people into your world with a shared interest in grandchildren, right?
So now, you have this whole other network of family who is a resource that you can draw on. So marriage, even among the poor, marriage expands kind of the political community and the trading community, sure. But even the political communities, sort of defense and things and res—and things like that, in a way that is desirable. And among the rich, right? I mean we have Shakespeare plays and all kinds of things that remind us of the politics of marriage among the wealthy and powerful. It was a way to form alliances. You said very much Game of Thrones. I don’t know if guys noticed it but one of my favorite footnotes in the book is the one about Monty Python and the Holy Grail one, right?
If you recall, the wedding scene in that movie, is in fact a great example of the sort of upper class marriage, right?
Trevor Burrus: I don’t recall it actually.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah. So it’s the king of Swamp Castle is trying to marry off his somewhat daughter and son in order to – to Princess Lucky, right? And the idea is that – the reason he wants to marry her is because her father – you know, his father-in-law to be has these great tracks of land, right? They’re going to marry. It’s clearly all about the economics. At one point, the character, the king character refers to – instead of the marriage, refers to the merger of our children.
Then even later on when Sir Lancelot I think it is comes in and carves up all the wedding guests and there’s blood and dead people everywhere, the father insists we can’t stop the wedding. The wedding has to go on. What’s a little blood? And again, the idea that this was so important politically and that’s sort of the emotional aspect of it and the fact that the son didn’t even want to marry this person, right? It didn’t matter.
So the sort of politics – again, as I say, in a world where status, where power is much more important than contract, marriage has a political element and family has huge political elements too. I should have mentioned earlier one of the ways we know about the economic function of families and marriage – of course is last names, right? We have all these last names that describe the work people did. Baker, Brewer, Fletcher, Miller. Cooper was a barrel maker.
All this kind of things, all the Smiths, right? So that’s how we know that family and occupation was once – there’s the farmer, right? So all this kind of …
Trevor Burrus: I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of feminists Marxists professors, which I’ve known many of them and so has Aaron actually and Aaron once had a professor who said that serfdom was better than capitalism. Was that what you said?
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, because the lines of responsibility were clear and people knew who you were supposed to be taking care of and they had obligations to take care of people based on status.
Steve Horwitz: So when you died at 35, at least you knew who was …
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: But we get to the 19th century. I can see a feminist being – oh, this is interesting. I’ve never really heard about this or maybe capitalism or at least a very bare-bones type of it. Again, the 18th century capitalism emerges in some markets and trading, helped women get out of just picking things in the field and then never leaving – just being sort of subjugated to their husband constantly. But it seems that in the 19th century, you could argue that the industrialization of the world pulled men out of the home and put them into a place where they were in positions of power because the marketplace was assumed to be a place of status and power and left women in the home and not give them the opportunity to be in the marketplace which exacerbated or maybe returned the subjugation of women at a new level starting in the sort of Victorian era in early 19th century.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah, and there’s truth to that, right? I mean one thing I will note is that the story that I’m telling and certainly that I’ve told so far is not inconsistent with the Marxian story, right? I mean if you read Marxist stuff on the family, it’s a similar kind of story. Like we diverged more in the 20th century.
But this is an interesting question because – it’s true that now men had power in the marketplace more often perhaps than they did before. So before capitalism, men had power in the home. In the world of poverty and sort of agricultural family, the husband still has all the power. Now what has happened is he’s earning that income outside the home and bringing it back to the home and coming in with that power.
But at the same time, the shift towards marriage for love created a weird kind of pressure to the degree that now men and women were married because they loved each other. It became harder to justify tyranny within the home. Again, it happened. I’m not denying that it happened. But it’s kind of – it was on rockier ground and there was a sense in which there was being – the fact that they loved each other opened up a door to a claim of equality that did not exist before. Yeah, go ahead.
Trevor Burrus: These are sort of I think mutually feedbacking effects but you talk about the separate spheres. But the other thing you kind of get out of this is – because love is a product of wealth in this interpretation. But there are other things that come from wealth like – oh, say separate bedrooms for children and parents.
So then you start getting almost a private sphere also coming out of the 19th century, which again some feminists would say it would be a bad thing, but maybe it can actually be looked at as a good thing.
Steve Horwitz: And right, and it – again all of those things that made marriage into this more sacred, more emotion-based institution, at least created pressure toward equality and the separate sphere point is important because the way this sort of played out was women basically began to say, “OK, you guys have the public space of the market. We will take the private space of the home.” And all that Victorian domesticity that we think of and often in nostalgic ways was women laying a claim to the private sphere as their sphere and this also extended into sort of civil society to some extent with charitable work among wealthier women and so on.
It blew up this whole sort of rhetorical ideological justification that argue, well, it’s not unequal. Men and women just have different things they’re good at and they’re separate but equal to use a phrase that didn’t matter in other dimensions. But essentially that was the argument, right? Different but equal might be a better way to put it. It was an argument about men sort of saying – sometimes we see it in different forms today. But the distinct feminine and masculine qualities and that women were responsible for the home and men for the public space. Then that was a fair – in some sense, a fair deal, right?
Aaron Ross Powell: But don’t we have historical evidence of that sort of divide going way, way back? I mean that’s how like the ancient Greeks operated along those lines with – the women were basically in charge of managing the home while the husband – although the husbands did the shopping. But I mean it seems predate.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah. To some degree but it was never – at least as I understand history, that was never a way of – never an ideological cover that made it seem equal, right? The sexual division of labor is universal. It’s not always the same, people doing the same things. But the idea that men and women have generally different tasks is pretty universal, right?
But the separate spheres in the Victorian era was paper – that was papered over by this language of equality that said we have separate spheres but they’re both important, right? And was that really true? No. But it became a way sort of – kind of first step on the road to equality and you can see how the end of coverture and the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement and all these things were going to bust out from it, right?
We’re just going to say, well, wait a second. If we’re talking – we really aren’t equal. This is just nonsense to sort of claim that the separate spheres are equal. We don’t have the vote. We don’t have full property rights, right? We’re not educate in the same way that men – I just finished reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman which was written in the late 1800s and it’s – the 18th century and it’s making – she saw all this kind of coming and saw it at the time too, this sort of – you know, treating women as different. But later it became the difference turned into a – an argument for equality and I think that’s the difference you see at the turn of the 20th century.
Trevor Burrus: There are a lot of interesting things you point out that I found to be very perceptive and kind of filling in gaps. So you talk about in the 19th century, as we start to get wealth, it allows for private spheres, for bedrooms, for homes, for children’s rooms. Like, we start – there are like children’s toys that – we think of children’s toys and Victorian era and we also think – start thinking about holiday celebrations as things that you do in your house with your family. So you think about traditional Christmas imagery of the Victorian era starts coming out there as opposed to a thing – we all go to the Square and do together. We start doing it in our home. These are all kinds of interesting developments. It’s part of the kind of – I guess you could say invention of childhood in the 19th century.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to put it. What you begin to see is childhood as a distinct phase of life and then adolescence as a distinct phase of life, right? Because before that, kids would go out to work or apprenticeship at 10 or 11 or 12 and boys at least anyway. So that was the end of childhood as we think of it today. But once you have the wealth, once you have the sort of keeping kids in school and educating them, and then you have the development of sort of privacy of the home and the – the nuclearization of the family, right? The sort of paring the family down to parents and kids and it’s sort of love and affection and all this kind of things have room to be there now.
Yeah, you get this very different picture of childhood and you get the kind of gauzy Victorian romantic version of the family, which was not untrue, right? In some important ways.
Trevor Burrus: Is this like a specialization regime? I mean basically if it may be the case that – say 1450 – I think one of the answer to Aaron’s question about the Greeks is that – I mean maybe not 1450 but like 850 say in England. I think the Greeks had a – considerably higher standard of living than your average person in 850 England.
Steve Horwitz: Sure.
Trevor Burrus: And that’s also not exactly continuous socially with England. But I mean in 850, if we’re thinking about the nature of it takes a village, it did and they could do that because – and they were poor. They’re all very interrelated. It could take a village. They could have community laws that were strong enough to treat the community like a family. It took a village but it’s also inexorably related to the fact that they were really poor.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah. Any decision that a family makes – let me be generalized. Any decision that a family makes in a really poor society is likely to have spillover effects to the rest of the community. So who you married mattered. If you didn’t marry someone who could help you produce, it wasn’t just you who were potentially at risk. It was your ability to provide for the community because your margin might have mattered a lot.
So the privatizing of the family to turn towards home is certainly related to wealth.
Trevor Burrus: It just seems like interesting – we’re almost inventing privacy.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah. And one of the interesting – yes, certainly the idea, the man’s home is his castle, right? Which it has a nefarious version, but if we just think in terms of the idea of the privacy of the home, right? That is certainly made possible by the economic changes of the 18th and 19th century.
Trevor Burrus: And – sorry, Aaron.
Aaron Ross Powell: It just occurred to me this may be a completely wrong way of thinking about it. But does this invention of childhood and invention of adolescence, is it possible to look at that as like a declining comparative advantage of children that like as you get wealthier, children just don’t have any comparative advantages anymore? So we just let them have at adolescence where they don’t really try to contribute because it’s easier for me to do those chores than to fight with my kids about it?
Steve Horwitz: Well, now you’re talking about your family.
Trevor Burrus: The question is – you know, your kids can mow the lawn because you should be working here.
Steve Horwitz: The way I put it is, is that kids – we are wealthy enough – I often say this to my students when I do talks to their schools. We’re wealthy enough that you guys, meaning college students, can sit around for your first 22 years of your life and not produce anything, right? I mean we are wealthy enough that we can invest in you in those ways. So I think that investment in their human capital is what prolongs childhood and adolescence in these ways.
So we were able to invent this distinct thing because we – it’s not so much that kids didn’t have things they could do. We didn’t need them to do it, right?
Trevor Burrus: And that’s a point I’ve made a lot and you cite our colleague Brink Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance book which is a spectacular book.
Steve Horwitz: It is.
Trevor Burrus: I mean adolescence and how much adolescence consumerism for example defines modern – you don’t have rock and roll without adolescence. We first invented childhood and let’s say that’s until 10. Then we invented teenagerhood. Let’s just say 11 or 13 to 18 and then we gave them disposable income and maybe a garage for a garage band and a good – relatively cheap guitar and now they can produce culturally relevant artifacts and then we can all sit around and be nostalgic about how everything was awesome. We were 18 and they don’t make as good a music anymore.
Now we’ve just like pushed it forward to our 30s. I mean I think Aaron always wants to ban millennials. I mean it’s his favorite hash tag.
Aaron Ross Powell: I do.
Trevor Burrus: It’s the same story too.
Steve Horwitz: The psychologists talk about now, late adolescence or post-adolescence to describe that period of life. So here’s the really tricky part today I think, right? We’ve extended the – the thing people say about millennials is they don’t reach the traditional markets of adulthood until they’re whatever and we’ve …
Trevor Burrus: Forty-eight.
Steve Horwitz: Right. We’ve extended childhood and adolescence socially but biologically, the age of first menses has never been less, right? Girls are starting their periods at 11 and 12, right? So now, we have this long period of time where girls are capable of – are biologically capable of reproducing but sort of are emotionally and developmentally and financially not necessarily prepared to be mothers. If you think about – I don’t know if you – Aaron, I can’t remember if you have little girls or not.
Aaron Ross Powell: I have both.
Trevor Burrus: He has two and a little boy.
Aaron Ross Powell: Two girls and a boy.
Steve Horwitz: Heads up, right?
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, yeah, no.
Steve Horwitz: This is the thing, right? So if you think back a couple of hundred years, we threw kids into adulthood before they were biologically adults. Now we’ve done the reverse, right? They’re biologically adults long before we throw them into adulthood, at least again all Western-developed kind of world.
Trevor Burrus: As a way of getting – connecting this to other relevant topics, I said this gets very – very big and it has many fingers and many elements of social thought. But after we get the privacy and we get the modern family, we start really ending the subjugation of women or start really on the path of that with women’s right to vote and increasing their ability to earn outside of the home and would increase their human capital. This leads to even things you argue like the normalization and then legalization of same-sex marriage to some extent.
Steve Horwitz: Yeah, and I think we – what we’ve seen happen is that the – to the degree that marriage becomes – put it this way, to the degree that we – among heterosexuals, begin to separate marriage, sex and child – pregnancy, right? Of raising children. Those all became separate things.
At one time, those were all thought to happen together. Now you can be married and have sex but not have kids. You can have sex and not be married. Those are all the combinations.
Once we busted that up and once marriage became about – clearly about love for almost all of the sort of population of the wealthier countries, it’s inevitable that the same-sex marriage thing would come before us, right? One reason is, is that the development of sort of gay and lesbian identity in and of itself was a product of the same sort of social forces. Capitalism made it – created the wealth and the work opportunities in the cities for gay men and lesbian women to survive outside the typical heterosexual family.
So we saw the rise of New York and San Francisco and so on as sort of homes to gay population. You could be anonymous. You didn’t need to have family and over time, that turned into the ability to live one’s life to identify as gay or lesbian and the way that we think about race and ethnicity and so on.
So once you kind of have that and once you have marriage, it’s about love and it’s not about kids, you can see why same-sex couples were saying, “Well, wait a second. Why are we any different? We’re just like you. We love each other. Our relationship is about affection. It’s about romance. It’s about sex. It doesn’t have to be about kids. Look at all these childless heterosexuals. So why are we any different?” and Stephanie Coontz, the historian of the family who I’ve drawn quite a bit in some of this stuff, her line is I think the best one which is that the real revolution was not same sex marriage. The real revolution was marriage for love.
Once you had marriage for love, the toothpaste was out of the tube and it wasn’t going back. So here we are today and one of the ironies of writing the book was I got the page proofs to correct on the book, the day the Obergefell decision was rendered. That was some beautiful cosmic harmony, right?
Then I had to fix some things, right? Because I had said some things about the case that were all sort of in the future tense. I quickly was able to fix a couple of paragraphs in that one chapter though to get it back. But yeah, I mean – and plus the idea of a same-sex family, the notion that gays and lesbians have families and could have families and not just sort of children but in Kath Weston’s words, families we choose, right?
Trevor Burrus: Now things have changed a lot. I mean they will and you write about how much things are going to change in the future. But with – in the latter part of the 20th century, into the 21st century, we have a bunch of factors. Divorce is an issue which is related to the economic possibilities of women. What you call market-oriented human capital versus household-oriented human capital.
Now we have a big conversation about dual income families. What kind of important conversations should we be having now about the nature of – what should we be realizing about what’s happening to the family now?
Steve Horwitz: Well, a couple of things. I think that we’re going to have to deal with – as we move on. Off the top of my head, a few – one good thing I think – there are good things but one good thing is more and more people are able to work out of their homes, right? And that changes a lot of things to the degree that say men can telecommute as we used to call it. You’re working on your own now. Suddenly childcare looks different and the division of labor between men and women and who does what and if both parents can work out of the home sometimes, right?
Suddenly a lot of these issues and especially issues about the sort of gender division of labor within the household begin to look really different, right? And we’re weirdly kind of back to the world we were, with people working in the home. But they’re working in the home but being paid for what amounts to work in the market.
So it’s not as if the home – it’s not that the home is the firm. It’s just the physical site where you’re working for someone else, right? So it’s a weird mixture of the past and I think that – the more of that that we see, that’s going to change how millennials and others think about marriage and family and who has what responsibility and I think if – the more it happens, I think that will continue to narrow the gender or age gap because it enables – it makes more easy the equal division of labor within the household and it gives both genders more flexibility in ways that I think are valuable.
So that’s one thing. I think the other thing that we’re going to have to deal with is what does extended life expectancy mean for marriage. Here’s the blunt version of the question. Are we biologically capable of being married to the same person for 75 or 100 years?
Trevor Burrus: That seems – I mean my parents are pushing 50 but to add another 25 years …
Steve Horwitz: Right. That’s a long time. That’s a long time. No matter how much you love someone, that’s a long time and I mean the biological part. I mean our pair bonding is – has a biological basis, right? I don’t know if it can sustain that. So here’s – I don’t like making predictions but here’s a prediction that I think we would see happen is that I think we will see more people as life expectancies extend, engaging in kind of serial marriages, right?
You can imagine someone saying, “I want to be married to one person when I’m young perhaps, when we can travel or do stuff.” Maybe I want to have – maybe that’s not the person I want to have kids with and then I have kids and maybe when I’m older I want to be with someone else.
One other thing to consider too is that marriage I think has now become at least relatively – again, it’s still important if you have kids, but relatively more important at the end of life, right? You want someone there to care for you at the end. Young people don’t need it, right? That’s why marriage rates are down. They just don’t need it, right?
But they’re going to want it when they’re older. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot of people who are single for a long time and then suddenly getting married later in life because they – I need someone to take care of me and I need companionship when I’m not working anymore.
So I think there are some decent interesting things that could happen there with respect.
Trevor Burrus: The economic status of women continues to increase relative to men in Western countries. For example, going to college and all these things and they can also have kids outside of wedlock and this other stuff. It seems that increasingly – I mean it’s – my grandma, she literally used to say, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” to like my female cousins.
Now casual sex is OK. So the milk for free – all these are socially acceptable. So what reason is there to get married? Are we almost eliminating the reasons that marriage have existed historically? So now we might have to talk about – as we said, the form and the function of the family. Could the family kind of disappear?
Steve Horwitz: I don’t think so. So there are a couple of things here, right? The social scientific – and I will give my conservative friends this – who are listening in particular. They’re absolutely right about one empirical fact. The social scientific evidence is clear that all other things equal, kids do better in two-parent families than in single-parent families. Now they do – if it’s single parent by widowhood or dead of a parent, they look more like two-parent families. It’s divorce that clearly does make on average kids worse off.
So we can talk about that and questions about that. But it’s true and I think it is better for kids, again, all other things equal, to be raised in a sort of loving two-parent – and I would note no matter what the genders are, two-parent families. Two work better than one.
So in that sense, that’s – if you’re thinking about having kids, having marriage or some kind of marriage-like institution makes a lot of sense. I think we do run into trouble the ways in which the welfare system subsidizes single parenthood and/or penalizes marriage depending on your income level and especially the way it does so among orphans.
The tax and welfare system is set up to penalize marriage among poor people and that’s a real problem. So in that sense, the disappearance of marriage – which I’m not so sure it’s really disappearing. I think it’s just changing. But to the degree it’s being driven by policy and I don’t talk a lot about this in the book because other people have done the work on this fairly well. I mean I mentioned it. But I do think we can make some policy changes that would help this a lot.
So in that sense, I don’t think it’s going away and weirdly the other way in which marriage is not – and families are going away is obviously same-sex couples. The other thing I was going to mention earlier is, “What are we going to do with polyamory, right?” Is the demand for more than two going to come at us? And I think it will. That raises some other interesting questions too.
So it seems like people want to live with other people, right? What’s true is economically, it’s not as necessary particularly for women. If you think about marriage as being kind of specialization and exchange the way it has been for much of human history, that’s gone. The narrow benefits to marriage in wealthier economies for men and women are gone. Why marry? Now it becomes companionship, right?
You know, it’s – you’re not marrying for the big broad shoulders but you’re marrying because you both like to ski or you like to see the same movies or read the same books. That’s kind of the foundation of a lot of – or eat the same food, right? That’s sort of where it is, right?
I think that’s probably a good thing but it does mean that people are pickier and we see people marrying later. I think technology is going to let us have kids later too if we want. Another concern is are we reproducing ourselves. We’ve seen this happen in Western Europe and in Asia. So many one-child families or people who don’t have kids and the demographics of that and who is having kids and who isn’t and what that means add a whole interesting set of questions too.
Aaron Ross Powell: One of the concerns that you hear that I’m curious how these trends play into and what we do about it if it seems to be – we don’t want to limit the growth of wealth, right? But – and we don’t want to stop markets from functioning and we don’t want to stop a lot of these positive trend lines but there are scenarios, some of which you just outlined, where things could turn bad because of it.
One that seems to be relatively common today is this, the rising status of women added to the fact that women tend not to want to marry down. That they – that mean will marry down in social class or whatever else whereas women won’t and so as more and more women gain wealth and more and more women go to college and we’re now – we’re now a majority of women for …
Trevor Burrus: Sixty percent.
Aaron Ross Powell: Colleges, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Most colleges.
Aaron Ross Powell: You end up with large portions of men who can’t find a mate because they’re lower status than the women and then large portions of women who can’t find a mate because so many of the available men are lower status. That – I mean there are all sorts of problems associated with unattached men and violence and poverty and bad stuff. So how do we address these kinds of problems without killing the golden goose, without saying, well, let’s limit the wealth or in other ways bring in government and pernicious functions?
Steve Horwitz: Yeah, and it’s not even clear what government could do about this. I mean short of limiting the wealth which I’m not – I’m not even sure would work anyway. But I’m trying to imagine what it would be sort of forced – you know, get all those men into a program where we teach them manners and …
Aaron Ross Powell: Pick-up artist stuff.
Steve Horwitz: Or desensitize them to video games or something like that, right? Yeah, now we’re into say Clockwork Orange and more. So yeah, I’m not sure what we do about that to be honest with you. I think – you know, part of me wants to say women who – why isn’t it the case that women who gain in wealth won’t be as willing as men who have wealth to “marry down,” right? What’s driving women to see this differently? I mean it could be sort of evolutionary concern about I need to make sure that the person I marry is a provider for my children. But in a world where – the ability to work after having kids for women is so much easier than it used to be.
Is that all that important? If you’re a high status, high income woman, what do you really want out of your – if you want to have kids, what do you want out of your husband? Presumably someone kind of reliable and whatever, but it’s not necessarily the case you need resources. You might need their time. They’re willing to be a stay-at-home dad. Why doesn’t it just flip in ways, right?
I don’t know. I’m not sure what the answers are to that. I think though you’re right. The one thing we don’t want to do is kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg. I’m not sure what else we can do about it. Certainly one of the things I would like to see happen is – I wonder how many sort of lower income men were oversold on college and they never found themselves in a – sort of found themselves trapped between not getting the job they wanted and not having skills to do kind of high-paying manual labor.
If we had more – particularly young men perhaps but young women too who realize right away they didn’t need college to make a good living and be a good person. I wonder whether that wouldn’t help us too. I’m speculating there.
Trevor Burrus: If we’re talking about the way – the concerns we have, how the family – there’s a normative question we’re dealing with here which is interesting within the framework you’ve discussed because if we look at the families involving institution, then there’s a completely positive way of looking at it where we just – look at the environment that evolves within and we analyze different constraints upon it and say here’s why women were this way in war times and in the 19th century and this is where the family – all the stuff that we discussed.
But how do we be normative about this? We’re like looking at – into the future and saying this is how families should be or this is the way we should be concerned if they’re being dysfunctional, if they’re being undercut. Aren’t they always just going to be reacting to the environment that they’re within, the policies that are within?
Steve Horwitz: Yeah, to some degree. But I think we can ask – this is kind of the question I asked in the chapter on the parenting stuff, right? Which is what’s the – and this is a Hayekian question too. What’s the family’s role as a social institution in contributing to the survival and thriving of a liberal society, right?
So we need families. We need to make sure the kids are raised well for example, right? So there’s a normative kind of issue we might take up. If we believe that kids are raised best in an environment of two parents who are happily married to each other, OK. Then how do we get out of the way of that happening? How do we help ensure that it does happen? That becomes a way to ask some of those normative questions.
What we’re seeing with parenting right now are too many kids and I’m not sure it’s as widespread as the worst people – sort of worst version is. But too many kids, kind of coming to adult responsibilities without adult skills to deal with them. OK? And you ask anyone who teaches or staff at colleges today about the sort of increased number of kids who simply can’t navigate the world or can’t navigate it without their parents. That’s a scary thing for a free society or society that aspires to be free, right?
To the degree to which childhood is either extremely risk-averse, right? We don’t let kids take any chances. We pad them up and we give them playgrounds with 10 feet of cushion on it, right? And sort of the Lenore Skenazy type stuff or the reverse where kids take all kinds of crazy chances and their parents bail them out all the time, right?
Those seem – both of those seem really bad for a world in which we want entrepreneurship and reasonable risk-taking and people to bear responsibility for their actions, right? So we can – I think we can talk about families normatively too and explanation isn’t justification. So even if we can explain why families – I mean I have an explanation in that chapter I think about why we’ve come to this sort of hyper parenting stuff. But that doesn’t mean it’s right and it’s not a nirvana fallacy sort of thing where everything that is, is ideal.
So I think we can push back and again, policy is part of that, right? But also our beliefs about parenting matter here too for what we – how families play in a liberal society.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please take a moment to rate us on iTunes. Free Thoughts is produced by Mark McDaniel and Evan Banks. To learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.