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Volume 16, Number 6
Mises on the Family
by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
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
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.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Mises Institute.