G.K. Chesterton called the family an anarchistic institution. He meant that it requires no act of the state to bring it about. Its existence flows from fixed realities in the nature of man, with its form refined by the development of sexual norms and the advance of civilization.
This observation is consistent with a brilliant discussion of the family in Ludwig von Mises’s masterwork Socialism, first published in 1922. Why did Mises address family and marriage in an economics book refuting socialism? He understood–unlike many economists today–that the opponents of the free society have a broad agenda that usually begins with an attack on this most crucial bourgeois institution.
“Proposals to transform the relations between the sexes have long gone hand in hand with plans for the socialization of the means of production,” Mises observes. “Marriage is to disappear along with private property…. Socialism promises not only welfare-wealth for all-but universal happiness in love as well.”
Mises noted that August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism, a paean to free love published in 1892, was the most widely read left-wing tract of its time. This linkage of socialism and promiscuity had a tactical purpose. If you don’t buy the never-never land of magically appearing prosperity, then you can focus on the hope for liberation from sexual responsibility and maturity.
The socialists proposed a world in which there would be no social impediments to unlimited personal pleasure, with the family and monogamy being the first impediments to go. Would this plan work? No chance, said Mises: the socialist program for free love is as impossible as its economic one. They are both contrary to the restraints inherent in the real world.
The family, like the structure of the market economy, is a product not of policy but of voluntary association, made necessary by biological and social realities. Capitalism reinforced marriage and family because it insisted on consent in all social relations.
The family and capitalism thus share a common institutional and ethical foundation. By attempting to abolish them, the socialists would replace a society based on contract with one based on violence. The result would be total societal collapse.
When the democratic socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb traveled to the Soviet Union, a decade after Mises’s book, they reported a different reality. They found women, liberated from the yoke of family and marriage, living happy and fulfilled lives. It was as much a fantasy–actually a bloody lie–as their claim that Soviet society was becoming the most prosperous in history.
No sane intellectual embraces full-blown social economics anymore, but a watered-down version of the socialist agenda for the family is the driving force behind much of U.S. social policy. This agenda goes hand in hand with the hobbling of the market economy in other areas.
It is no accident that the rise of free love in the U.S. accompanied the rise of the fully developed welfare state. The goals of liberation from work (and saving and investment) and liberation from our sexual natures stem from a similar ideological impulse: to overcome fixed realities in nature. The family has suffered as a result, just as Mises predicted it would.
While the advocates of the family and the proponents of capitalism should be united in a single political agenda of smashing the interventionist state, they typically are not. Family advocates, even conservative ones, often decry finance capitalism as an alienating force, and advocate ill-advised policies like tariffs, union monopolies, and wage floors for married people.
At the same time, free enterprisers show little interest in the genuine concerns of family advocates. And neither seems interested in the radical attack on both freedom and family life that government policies like child labor laws, public schooling, Social Security, high taxes, and socialized medicine represent. In Mises’s view, this breech is unnecessary.
“It is no accident that the proposal to treat men and women as radically equal, to regulate sexual intercourse by the State, to put infants into public nursing homes at birth and to ensure that children and parents remain quite unknown to each other should have originated with Plato,” who cared nothing for freedom.
Neither is it an accident that the same proposals these days are pushed by people who have little to no regard for family or economic law.