Those wacky libertarians

Kay Hymnowitz thinks we're destroying the infrastructure that creates us:

On the one hand, libertarians make a fetish of freedom; it is their totalizing goal. On the other hand, libertarians depend on the family--an institution that, in crucial respects, is unfree--to produce the sort of people best suited to life in a free-market system (not to mention future members of their own movement). The complex, dynamic economy that libertarians have done so much to expand needs highly advanced human capital--that is, individuals of great moral, cognitive and emotional sophistication. Reams of social-science research prove that these qualities are best produced in traditional families with married parents.

Family breakdown, by contrast, limits the accumulation of such human capital. Worse, divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing leave the door wide open for big government. Dysfunctional families create an increased demand for state-funded food, housing and medical subsidies, which libertarians reject on principle. And in courts all over the country, judges who preside over the manifold disputes occasioned by broken families are forced to be more intrusive than the worst mother-in-law: They decide who should have primary custody, who gets a child on Christmas or summer holidays, whether a child should take piano lessons, go to Hebrew school, move to California, or speak to her grandmother on the phone. It is a libertarian's worst nightmare.

I'd agree that there are libertarians who too readily dismiss social conservative questions about the innate structure of marriage as if they were wacky considerations unworthy of a moment's thought. But even assuming, arguendo, that letting gays marry were undermining the broader institution, it would be at best a trivial contributor to the problem. And the libertarian response to Kay Hymnowitz is the same response she'd likely be perfectly comfortable with if it were on the topic of any of the rest of the world's ills: what do you want the government to do? Shall we ban household appliances, so that it's harder for women to work, so that they're more economically dependent on their husbands, so that they're less likely to seek a divorce? Perhaps we should restrict birth control to women who've had five kids, at which point everyone will be too tired and poor to get a divorce? Should we send vans into inner city neighborhoods to exhort them to get married--pretending that we haven't noticed that every other government program of this sort, from abstinence education to job training, is pretty much a miserable failure? Government sponsored hope chests? What policy do you want us to support?

Or is it that we're contributing to a lower moral tone in America? Look, I love the folks at libertarian think tanks, and all. They're lovely, attractive people, witty and urbane, and they cook some great seafood. But they're not exactly role models for the nation. I very much doubt that anyone out there doing the things that undermine marriage--getting ill-considered divorces, having babies out of wedlock, committing adultery--is thinking to themselves, "I wonder if this will make me as edgy and cool as a policy analyst at Cato."

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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