One of the dangers of modern libertarianism is that some people want to apply the ethical rules and insights that make complete sense in the market to micro-orders such as the family and the firm. Because our day-to-day life is made up of these micro-orders, it would seem to many libertarians that any consistent philosophy should go all the way down.
But as Hayek argued in The Fatal Conceit, the macro order and its rules — which he called the “extended order” — are distinct from the norms and rules that make up these more localized levels of description. When we fail to make this distinction, we wrongly apply the ethics of the extended order to the intimate orders of families and firms, which risks crushing those micro-orders.
This problematic tendency is most pronounced in the ways some libertarians discuss parenting.
They often begin by asking what “libertarian parenting” would look like. Naturally, they then imagine parents being analogous to government and children being analogous to citizens. Unsurprisingly, they conclude that, on libertarian grounds, parents should interfere as little as possible in the lives of their children. Some even propose organizing the household on market principles.
For example, advocates of libertarian parenting might argue that children should always get paid for chores and that parents should never say, “Because I said so!” to their kids. With the best of intentions, they believe that what we might call “laissez-faire” parenting will create children who will be more likely to support a laissez-faire society.
I think they are deeply mistaken for several reasons.
First, there is the empirical evidence from psychology. Psychologists distinguish among a number of parenting styles, but the major ones fall on a spectrum from most involved to least:
The advocates of libertarian parenting clearly reject the “authoritarian” style and presumably would reject “neglectful.” What they seem to want is perhaps something like permissive parenting:
Permissive parents … allow children to make their own decisions, giving them advice as a friend would. This type of parenting is very lax, with few punishments or rules. Permissive parents also tend to give their children whatever they want and hope that they are appreciated for their accommodating style. Other permissive parents compensate for what they missed as children, and as a result give their children both the freedom and materials that they lacked in their childhood.
As it turns out, permissive parenting doesn’t work very well. The psychological research indicates that children of permissive parents suffer from a variety of problems as they mature.
By contrast, authoritative parenting provides the best results:
Authoritative parents encourage children to be independent but still place limits on their actions. Extensive verbal give-and-take is not refused, and parents try to be warm and nurturing toward the child. Authoritative parents are not usually as controlling as authoritarian parents, allowing the child to explore more freely, thus having them make their own decisions based upon their own reasoning. Often, authoritative parents produce children who are more independent and self-reliant. An authoritative parenting style mainly results when there is high parental responsiveness and high parental demands. Authoritative parents will set clear standards for their children, monitor the limits that they set, and also allow children to develop autonomy.
In other words, it’s perfectly appropriate to place limits on your children’s actions and to insist on only such freedom as is age appropriate. Authoritative parents have high expectations and are not hesitant to say no to their kids. The evidence is clear that this style produces the best psychological outcomes for children.
This style of parenting is not just the best for individual outcomes, but also for promoting a liberal social order.
Many things that might seem to be “anti-liberty” that happen within healthy families are, in fact, preparing children for life in a free society. What children need to become responsible adults is not freedom but structure. For example, they need to learn the importance of following rules, as a free society is a rule-governed society. Political and economic freedom are enhanced by rule-following, and parenting can model that.
It’s perfectly fine as a libertarian parent occasionally to say, “Because I said so.” Obedience to legitimate authority, which includes following rules, is not anti-libertarian. It’s a necessary skill in a world where some people and institutions actually do have authority. And small children in particular do not need everything explained to them. That’s how you end up putting them in the center of your familial universe, which is the mistake that permissive parents make. Parents should be leaders, and they should lead by example.
Encouraging and even forcing your kids to share their possessions is not socialism and it’s not bad parenting. It is not a bad thing to demonstrate to kids that sharing with other individuals they know, even when they might not wish to share, is often an effective way to prevent conflict and establish trust. You can also help them to understand the difference between the expectation to share with known others versus anonymous others. Sharing is what families do, after all. Would children rather their parents didn’t share the income they earn and the food they prepare?
And requiring chores without compensation is an excellent idea and it’s not anti-liberty. The institutions of civil society, such as families and religious organizations, are not bound together by the cash nexus. (There’s a reason that cash gifts among close friends are often considered tacky.) The world does not divide into either state or market. Outside state and market, we often do things out of obligation to others, whether it’s some form of expected sharing or providing help without monetary compensation. Learning that this is often the appropriate way to behave helps to ensure that the institutions of civil society survive and thrive. They are just as important to liberty as are the institutions of the market.
One area where the “libertarian parenting” advocates are correct is in the importance of allowing children to play on their own, without constant parental supervision. The psychological literature is clear about the benefits of unsupervised play for helping children develop the capacity to create, follow, and enforce rules; think about issues of fairness; and learn empathy. Most important, from a libertarian perspective, such play requires the continuing consent of the players. Behaving in ways that upset other children will bring play to an end. Unsupervised play teaches children how to negotiate and compromise to ensure that playing relationships are consensual. Consent is at the core of both markets and civil society, and parents who let their children play without parental supervision are helping those children to develop skills and abilities central to a free society.
When libertarians think about parenting, we should not be asking, “What sort of parenting appears to be implied by our ethical and political views?” Instead, we should be studying what psychologists know about child development and seeing how that aligns with the aptitudes and attitudes we know are necessary for a free society. We shouldn’t want parenting to be libertarian; we should want to parent in ways that produce children who have the skills they need to value and sustain liberty.
Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.