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Small government, strong families

Interview | Why libertarians should support family values-hint, What is the most basic nongovernment institution the world has ever known? And what grows in power and influence when that institution breaks down?

Issue: "Abortion: Delta force," Jan. 22, 2005

Four more years for the Bush White House-and what will they be like? Much depends on whether the GOP coalition between people who care most about moral issues (often Christians) and people who push hardest for small government (often libertarians) can be maintained. The task seems hard because many economic libertarians are also social libertarians: They want easy divorce and sexual laissez faire. They oppose governmental pro-marriage policies.

Here's where the analysis of Jennifer Roback Morse could prove influential. Jenny Morse is a well-informed economic libertarian: She earned a doctorate in economics and then taught for 15 years at Yale University and George Mason University. She also is pro-marriage and pro-family, and shows it in her own life: She left her full-time university teaching post in 1996 to move with her family (a husband and two young children, one of them adopted from Romania) to California. She is now a part-time Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and she and her husband are foster parents.

WORLD: The number of people who call themselves fiscal conservatives but social liberals seems to be growing. Why do you argue that this combination doesn't make sense?

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JM: Libertarians like the fact that the market is self-regulating. Set up property rights, contract law, and a court and police system. Populate it with people who have a functioning conscience and sense of reciprocity. Give the system a push and it runs mostly by itself.

The problem is that we are not born with either functioning consciences or a sense of reciprocity. Babies are self-centered bundles of impulses and emotions, until they are socialized by their parents. And if they do not have parents to love them and guide them, they are at high risk for becoming people who cannot control themselves or have regard for others. At the most extreme, kids without parents become sociopaths, who impose enormous costs on society. These are people who cannot be turned loose in a free society, because they don't know how to use their freedom without bothering other people too much. This basic fact about the human condition is why advocates of minimum government need to pay attention to the family.

WORLD: Some libertarians claim that easy divorce increases liberty. Why do you believe the opposite?

JM: Two reasons. First, there is a dangerous confusion about what liberty actually means. The lifestyle left has been promoting a vision that defines freedom as being unencumbered by human relationships. This vision underlies the left's position on easy divorce, unlimited abortion, day care on demand, and many other social issues.

Second, current divorce laws are not consistent with the most basic principle of the free market, namely a respect for contracts. Millions of dollars change hands in real-estate transactions in every city in America, every day of the week. People couldn't do that if they were permitted to unilaterally violate their contracts without penalty. Yet we expect people to make lifetime investments in children, without any contract protection whatsoever. Establishing a legal system to define and enforce contracts is one of the most basic functions of government.

WORLD: This fits with your economic analysis of the importance to children of what you call a "marriage revolution-one man, one woman, for life."

JM: We now have a regime of unilateral divorce: One party can end a marriage for any reason or no reason, essentially without legal penalty. But children are one of the most important "products" of marriage, to use economic language. Children require large-scale capital investments over a long period of time. The parenting relationship also has what economists would call "relationship-specific capital." That means that no other man is a good substitute for the particular man who is the father of my children. Economists know that contract enforcement is extremely important in activities with these properties.

WORLD: In a paper you presented at last month's Witherspoon Institute conference in Princeton you explained how the child-custody arrangements that grow out of divorce lead to government expansion. Why?

JM: Family courts routinely invade the privacy of families having custody disputes. The courts pass judgments on things like how much money and time each parent spends for their children, what kind of schooling and religious training they should have, whether parents can move out of the state, what language they speak at home, and much else. In a functioning, intact family, people work these things out themselves. People who gasp at the thought of government regulating sexual conduct seem oblivious to the fact that the government engages in egregious invasions of personal privacy when marriage breaks down.

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