TCS Daily

Separation of Family and State

By Arnold Kling - November 10, 2005 12:00 AM

"The rioters are generally 12 to 25 years old, and roughly half of those arrested are under 18...Traditional parental control has disappeared and many Muslim families are headed by a single parent. Elders, imams and social workers have lost control. Paradoxically, the youths themselves are often the providers of local social rules, based on aggressive manhood, control of the streets, defense of a territory.


...Americans, for their part, should take little pleasure in France's agony -- the struggle to integrate an angry underclass is one shared across the Western world."
-- Olivier Roy


One way to describe libertarianism is that we believe in the separation of family and state as strongly as the American Civil Liberties Union believes in the separation of church and state. In contrast, both the Left and the Right view government as a substitute parent. As pointed out by George Lakoff in Moral Politics, the Left wants government to be a nurturant parent and the Right wants government to be a strict parent.


Libertarianism does not want the government to act as a parent. What I want is for government to ensure that property disputes are resolved peacefully, according to rules. The rules themselves do not have to be perfect. They should reflect prevailing custom, which in turn may evolve gradually over time.


Teenage Rebellion


With some trepidation, I chose to connect this essay to the news du jour, namely the riots in France. Everyone wants to interpret those riots according to their preconceptions. Some pundits see the riots as an anti-Western intifada. Others see them as a cry for social justice.


My reaction to the riots is to view them as teenage rebellion against the state as parent. The French government, like a deer caught in the headlights, cannot decide which direction to turn. Should it adopt the strict parent model, and crack down? Or should it adopt the nurturant parent model, and try to provide better education, jobs, and social acceptance for ethnic minorities?


In this particular case, I believe that libertarian thinking tends to correspond to conservative thinking. With property being destroyed and people being assaulted, government needs to enforce the rules, by force if necessary -- and force is clearly necessary.


Libertarianism also offers clear philosophical resistance to the solutions dear to the hearts of those who want government to act as a nurturant parent. I think it is fair to say that France ought to have rules that forbid discrimination against ethnic minorities. Beyond that, however, the libertarian message to people of color in France would be, "Your prosperity and dignity come from your own efforts. They do not come from the state." Of course, our message to the white French would be exactly the same.


To the traditional Left and Right, one question raised by the riots is how the French welfare state affects Muslims and other minorities. The Right worries that it provides too much support for "alien" immigrant "parasites." The Left worries that it does not provide enough education and employment opportunities.


To libertarians, the welfare state is something that is economically ineffective and morally wrong for everyone, not just for ethnic minorities. Families and non-coercive institutions, such as charities and churches, ought to provide for basic needs. Education and health care ought to be primarily the responsibility of families, not of the state.


The Coase Theorem and Imperfect Rules


I believe that a key element of practical libertarianism has to be a willingness to live with imperfect rules. I view the famous theorem of Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase as an illustration of this.


Suppose that there are two users and a common resource. An example would be a ball field that could be used by soccer players and baseball players. Another example would be a stream that could be used either to water livestock or irrigate crops.


Roughly speaking, the Coase theorem says that it does not matter who owns the common resource, as long as someone owns it. If the farmer owns the stream, then the herder can buy water from the farmer. If the herder owns the stream, then the farmer can buy some water. Either way, water will be allocated efficiently. Furthermore, the owner will have an incentive to maintain the stream in such a way as to maximize the value for both uses. On the other hand, if no one owns the water, then each user will attempt to consume too much. Perhaps the stream will go dry.


A willingness to live with imperfect rules is a little-noticed requirement for libertarianism. If instead you say, "I believe in a government that only enforces rules, but the rules must satisfy the larger needs of justice," you have created a hole in libertarianism through which one can drive a proverbial truck of big government. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, the Quest for Cosmic Justice is never-ending and self-defeating.


Family, Church, and State


The United States and France have been fairly aggressive about separating church and state. For example, in public schools the U.S. bans school prayer and France bans Muslim head scarves.


Libertarians would like to see equally aggressive policing of the boundary between family and state. We would eliminate the controversy concerning religious expression in public schools by eliminating public schools.


Under the welfare state, government usurps the role of the family in education, health care, and saving for retirement. As economic historian Robert Fogel has pointed out, these are the fastest-growing segments of our economy. Government's role in the economy, as measured by the ratio of taxes and government spending to GDP, is certain to increase sharply as long as we fail to enforce a boundary between family and state.


Policies that treat the state as parent often are defended as helping families that are economically disadvantaged. However, in Bleeding-heart Libertarianism, I showed how we could have a redistributionist tax regime without having government take over family functions. (See also, What's Wrong With Paternalism?)


Does family-state separation have the same Constitutional status as church-state separation? In practice, it clearly does not, and perhaps one could argue that nothing in the Constitution favors family-state separation. However, it strikes me that church-state separatists choose a particularly strict reading of the "establishment clause" of the first amendment, while paternalists choose a particularly loose reading of the parts of the Constitution that limit government's powers in other realms. I would prefer a strict reading on all counts.


What I would like to see is a philosophical movement for the separation of family and state. Such a movement could act as a bulwark against "big-government conservatism." Government should leave children behind and let seniors face the cost of prescription drugs. Those needs should be addressed by families, with support from non-coercive charitable institutions.


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