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The Freedom Fetishists Strike Back

My article “Freedom Fetishists” in last month’s COMMENTARY (reprinted in OpinionJournal.com with the subtitle “The Cultural Contradictions of Libertarianism”) has provoked quite a bit of discussion in the libertarian blogosphere, and while some of it is cranky (in many senses of the word), much of it is thoughtful. But even those thoughtful responses expose a few misunderstandings that tend to prove my point about the limitations of libertarianism in dealing with the breakdown of the family.

Misunderstanding one: I equate libertarianism and libertinism.

Not at all. I do observe that the libertarian movement has attracted more than its share of crazies—an observation supported by Reason editor Brian Doherty in his Radicals for Capitalism. I also point out that some libertarians were silent in the face of post-60’s attacks on marriage. This is not the same as saying that libertarianism programmatically supports what Brink Lindsey calls the Aquarian lifestyle. (And for what it’s worth, my libertarian friends and acquaintances are a rather buttoned-up group.)

Interesting, isn’t it? Of those who view family breakdown as a major social problem, I don’t know any who argue that we should ban divorce and lock up single mothers. I actually agree with libertarians that many government policies have greatly harmed the family, and while I would probably go further than they would in supporting some government attempts to stem the tide—say, state laws that provide longer waiting periods before divorce—I believe that the state is pretty hamstrung in this regard.

But unlike many libertarians, I don’t think that’s all there is to say. Family breakdown is largely a consequence of changing cultural norms. And when it comes to culture, libertarians are of two impossibly contradictory minds. In their Hayek mode, they argue, like the Volokh Conspiracy’s Ilya Somin, that the “harmful effects of private choices . . . are best dealt with through the private sector,” a sentiment with which I strongly agree.

Unfortunately, in practice libertarians tend to see all criticism of personal behavior as a threat to liberty. Brian Doherty snarks about my “tut-tutting” over America’s (his wording) “parlous moral state.” Glenn Reynolds taunts that libertarians “can even think that traditional childrearing and marriage are generally a good thing without insisting on social mores that punish those who live differently.” Libertarians believe government shouldn’t say anything about the family problem. And neither should anyone else.

Forty years ago, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised the alarm about the rising number of nonmarital black births, critics charging racism and sexism hounded him into silence. (For a fuller description, see my Marriage and Caste in America.) Today, you’re extremely unlikely to find a married couple in the inner city. It’s entirely possible that this would have happened if the subject of the black family had not been off limits for over two decades after Moynihan’s warning. But if I am correct in thinking that the way we go about marriage and childbearing is determined by cultural norms, then it’s possible that a vigorous assertion of the value of the two-parent family from elite opinion-makers might have done some good.

No, libertarians are not libertines. Nor, pace Doherty in his rebuttal to my article, are they the cause of family breakdown. But their tendency to view individual personal liberty as The Good that should swallow up all others (a view admittedly shared by more Americans than I would wish) sure makes it hard to deal with this major social problem—one that harms their own cause above all.



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