Presley explains how authoritarian relationships on the person‐​to‐​person level affect a free society.

Sharon Presley, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Association of Libertarian Feminists and co‐​editor of Exquisite Rebel: The Essays of Voltairine de Cleyre. She is editor of Libertarianism and Feminism: Individualist Perspectives on Women, Men, and the Family, an anthology in progress. As a social psychologist, her specialties are gender studies and obedience and resistance to authority. A long‐​time libertarian activist, she is the co‐​founder of Laissez Faire Books. Her articles have appeared in Reason, Liberty, and other libertarian magazines.

Some libertarians imagine that the only thing that matters for a free society is political freedom. If we have political freedom–a libertarian society–then how people act at home doesn’t matter. They couldn’t be more wrong. Libertarian ideas don’t simply pop up out of our brains. They have to be cultivated and nurtured. Early 20th century libertarian feminist Suzanne LaFollette understood this when she said “What its children become, that will the community become.”

Many libertarians disdain psychology and anything that smacks of talking about how people should live their individual lives. But to say that people should be free to live as they choose as long as no harm is done to others is not the same as saying that any way people want to live won’t matter in a libertarian society. For starters, let’s take the examples of bigots and authoritarians. It’s not just that their views are obnoxious; it’s that they are motivated to do something about it. Being a bigot is not like having an opinion about the Red Sox or whether we need more rain. Bigots, because their views are irrational and stem from disturbed and disturbing personal motives, want to do something to scratch their unpleasant itch. They want to curb the behaviors of people they don’t like. “We tend get angry at those who frighten us, and if the threat continues we want to get rid of those who cause it” says psychologist Ken Eisold. Authoritarians, by definition, want to punish people who deviate from the norm. It would be naïve to think that they won’t try to do so even in a politically libertarian society. Without a personal nonauthoritarian mindset in a libertarian society, it may not stay libertarian very long. Think all libertarians are nonauthoritarian? If you think that, you aren’t paying attention.


How well do authoritarian ideas work outside the realm of politics? Let’s talk about work and how well top down authoritarian management works there. Industrial/​organizational psychologists can tell you that work environment makes a difference in not only productivity but overall work ethic. A recent study confirms this. Libertarian economist Barry Brownstein writes that in top‐​down companies with rigid hierarchical structures:

Seventeen percent of employees are “actively disengaged,” which means they are so disgruntled that they are working to harm the organization. The rest are going through the motions, doing the minimum to get the job done and giving the organization little discretionary effort….

Employees come to believe that their intelligence and expertise aren’t valued. They don’t trust management and fear speaking out. Disengaged, dissatisfied and uncommitted employees are the result. Shirking, lethargy and apathy are common in organizations where innovation is resisted and resources are squandered or underused.

Participants who are sympathetic to free‐​market ideas but who run their organizations in a command‐​and‐​control fashion often attend my leadership workshops. I ask them, “Why do you believe central planning will work in your organization when you know it doesn’t work in economies?”

Some libertarian‐​owned companies have already figured this out. Charles Koch, CEO of Koch Industries, uses elements of what he calls “market‐​based management.” Brownstein notes that “Bill Gore at W.L. Gore, John Mackey at Whole Foods, Tony Hsieh at Zappos, Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google, and Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington at Valve Software, among others, have flattened or eliminated the hierarchy and relied on imbued principles, values and purpose to guide behavior.”


Think spanking your kids is OK? Science says you’re wrong. Developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind and many others have been researching childrearing methods for decades. Year after year, the studies all show that spanking and other physical punishments are not good for kids. Baumrind calls such parenting “authoritarian.” Authoritarian parenting is rigid and punishing, with firm guidelines but little discussion or explanation. Such parents are often cold and unaffectionate. It’s “Do what I say. Why? Because I said so.” Children of authoritarian parents, says developmental psychologist John W. Santrock in one of his textbooks, “are often unhappy, fearful and anxious about comparing themselves with others; they tend to fail to initiate activity and have weak communication skills.”1 Recent research shows that “corporal punishment by parents is associated with…aggression among children, and lower levels of moral internalization and mental health.” Such children are also more dependent. Or to put it another way, they are more likely to grow up to be authoritarian, too, just like their parents. Punishment, say developmental psychologists, only teaches children what not to do, not what to do.

On the other hand, “authoritative” parenting uses little or no physical punishment, relying instead on explaining why the child’s bad behavior is unacceptable. Thus parents (or at least one parent) actually provide peaceful and empathic alternatives for the child. For example, “Don’t hit your little brother. Remember how you felt when your sister hit you. It didn’t feel good, did it? Let me help you understand how you could have acted instead.” These parents are warm and nurturing; they expect mature, independent, age‐​appropriate behavior and they get it. Children of such families are more likely to be cheerful, self‐​controlled, self‐​reliant, and achievement‐​oriented. Such parenting establishes a balance between control and autonomy; it gives children opportunities for self‐​initiation, but with firm guidelines for behavior. These children are likely to grow up to be nonauthoritarian like their parents. In other words, LaFollette was right.


Some libertarians may object to discussion of marriage, saying that libertarianism is a political concept and marriage is a private affair. Libertarian feminists, both women and men, would disagree, as would libertarian feminists Suzanne LaFollette and Voltairine de Cleyre in earlier times. While individuals clearly have choices about how they want to run their own marriages, libertarian feminists question the idea that an authoritarian or traditional and unequal marriage is compatible with libertarian ideals. The political really is the personal. If we believe in individualism–that each individual should be treated as an individual, that each person deserves autonomy in their life decisions–then certain ideas follow as philosophical and psychological consequences. Equalitarian marriage, that is, a marriage in which both partners have equal autonomy to act and choose and are accorded equal respect, is a logical consequence of accepting individualism as a guiding precept. Social psychologist Deborah Lee describes an egalitarian marriage as one in which both partners have equal ownership of their lives together.2 Both have equal amounts of influence over the large and small decisions that affect them both. According to Lee, it may mean equal amounts of discretionary time and money; it certainly means equal respect for each other’s wishes and needs. Sociologist Pepper Schwartz defines it as having equal status and equal responsibility for emotional, economic and household duties. In this context, equality does not mean identity but it does mean fairness and mutual respect. What reasonable individualist could object to that?

In Schwartz’s interview of 600 couples, she found many benefits to peer marriages. Those in such a marriage found a deep friendship and intimacy of a kind never experienced before. They were able to understand each other better and were less disrespectful. In the peer marriages, both participants were fully engaged in each other’s lives, which they found very satisfying. Through equal sharing, they were able to empathize as well as sympathize. The bottom line: peer marriage is more emotionally satisfying and more fun as well.

The other benefits of peer marriage are obvious for women. They don’t have to be treated like domestic servants or patronized. They aren’t as tired or stressed because they no longer have “two shifts,” instead sharing the domestic work with their partners. They have more time for their careers. They are respected more. However some might imagine that the men lose. Yes, they lose a servant but they gain a friend, as Schwartz’s research shows. “But without the addition in each spouse’s life of nontrivial collaboration with their partner, the relationship and the family become marginalized,” writes Schwartz.3 There are others costs to men’s traditional “main provider” role; it can be stressful and unhealthy because of the pressure and the often long hours. Careers with long hours also deprive fathers of time with their children. It may affect the emotional intimacy of their relationship with their wives. Schwartz also points out that children benefit too. In traditional marriages they may be deprived of paternal time, but within an equal marriage they can have quality time with both parents.

One libertarian writer who wrote about these ideas in the 70s was Jerry Klasman, author of Living with Equals.4 He pointed out that “[l]iving with equals means giving up your authoritarianism and adopting the principle of psychological laissez faire.” He adds “Psychological laissez faire has strong implications for life‐​styles. Any life style that interferes with emotional freedom can’t be laissez faire.” Thus he concludes that “to be free you must offer freedom.” And why should anyone be surprised at Klasman’s conclusion? To paraphrase Brownstein, why do you believe hierarchy will work in your marriage when you know it doesn’t work in economies? Unfortunately few libertarians have followed up on that idea except for Nathaniel Branden and, well, me.

Power corrupts

The key to understanding why top down management, unequal marriages, and spanking children are all problematic in a free society is to understand the nature of power. Inequality means someone has more power than others in the relationship. Lord Acton’s dictum isn’t just for politics. Power corrupts in personal and business relationships too. A recent study speaks to this issue:

“What we’re finding is power diminishes all varieties of empathy,” says Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, not involved in the new study. He says these results fit a trend within psychological research.

“Whether you’re with a team at work [or] your family dinner, all of that hinges on how we adapt our behaviors to the behaviors of other people,” he says. “And power takes a bite out of that ability, which is too bad.”

But empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of others, is necessary to a free society that respects individual rights. Empathy is the psychological basis of personal morality and thus it becomes the basis of social morality. Without empathy, a free society can be all too easily be corrupted.

These studies are just a few of the many that show that how we live our personal lives has an impact on our social lives and our politics. Power corrupts our personal lives just as it corrupts politics. So yes, for libertarians, the political really is the personal. And then the personal becomes the political. If we want a free society that stays that way, we need nonauthoritarian relationships in our personal and work lives, not just in politics.


  1. John Santrock, A Topical Approach to Life‐​Span Development, 3rd ed., (Boston MA: McGraw Hill, 2007).
  2. Deborah Lee, ed., Having It All, Having Enough: How to Create a Career/​Family Balance that Works for You (New York: American Management Association, 1997.
  3. Pepper Schwartz, Love Between Equals: How Peer Marriage Really Works (New York: The Free Press, 1994.
  4. Jerry Klasman, Living with Equals: An Individualist’s Guide to Emotional and Romantic Happiness (New York: Delacourt Press, 1976). The term “psychological laissez faire” was one that I suggested to Klasman.