Man, Family and State

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May 25, 2007

About a year and a half ago, I started recording libertarian podcasts in my car during my drive to and from work. It seemed like a fun way to kill the time in traffic, and it also gave me a chance to help clarify my thoughts with regards to various issues that people had written to me about after my first articles were published on Lew Rockwell. At first, my podcasts were largely concerned with the economics of anarcho-capitalism, and details regarding the implementation of my theory of Dispute Resolution Organizations (DROs), and how they could replace existing state functions.

I was impressed at how quickly this turned into a very involved philosophical conversation. At first, a few thousand podcasts a month were downloaded ' then, this figure began to rise inexorably. In March of 2007, over 200,000 Freedomain Radio podcasts were downloaded, and tens of thousands of videos were viewed.

The Internet is a wonderful medium for philosophy, because it can instantly distribute ideas to hundreds of thousands of people, and through message boards, can stimulate fascinating discussions on the resulting topics. Plus, philosophy was originally an oral art form, designed to be spoken and discussed, not just read.

Also, because of the amount of time people spend doing things which preclude reading, but which do not preclude listening, such as going to the gym, doing groceries, doing laundry, going for a walk, or driving, podcasts can reach interested parties in a way that books never can.

The rigor of this new philosophical conversation was far beyond anything I had experienced before. As a community, we certainly talked about economics, politics and contemporary events, but it quickly became evident to me that where there is disagreement on fundamentals, there can be no real agreement on details ' and that, relative to metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, politics is a mere detail.

So, with the help of the listeners, I began to define the methodologies that we could use to help determine truth from falsehood ' largely based on the scientific method, empirical observations and rigorous logic. And we made great progress, or so it seemed . . . .

And then, my wife got involved.

My wife, a practicing psychotherapist, said something extraordinary to me after reading one of my tracts on moral philosophy and the evils of the state. Looking up, she said, "It all starts with the family."

It all starts with the family.

We mulled this over for some weeks, and then I decided to expand the conversation from philosophy to psychology and, in conjunction with my wife, began to trace our susceptibility to statism from our very first experiences of family life. In a series of podcasts, I put forth the proposition that the state is merely an effect of the family, and thus in order for libertarianism to really take root and flourish within society, what was required was not only a reevaluation of man, state and society, but a rigorous moral examination of the most essential social unit: the family.

This is when the conversation really beganto take off!

I received hundreds of e-mails from people about their experiences of authority within their own families, within the school system, within churches and other cultural institutions, which in general supported the role that our personal experiences with authority plays in our later susceptibility to impersonal authority, in the form of the state.

So far, this new direction seems to be really bearing fruit. If our adult susceptibilities to political hegemonies are rooted in our childhood experiences of authority, this helps explain why decades of talking about the evils of the state has done precious little to prevent the growth of the state. If statism is primarily an emotional reaction, or psychological defense mechanism, rather than a rational deduction, then it cannot be opposed with logical argument alone, but rather must be patiently undone through empathy and introspection.

Naturally, to many this all sounds too ridiculous to be believable! Responding to the statement "I believe that the state is both moral and necessary," with the question "Tell me about your parents," seems like a blinding non sequitur. However, it can be a very powerful approach, since it is based on a simple and empirical observation:

No rational examination of the evidence would lead any sane man to statism ' yet statism is the default position in society. Since statism is so blatantly irrational, it cannot have become so widespread through rational argument. Thus, there must be another source to the pervasive belief in the virtues of governments.

To many libertarians, the answer seems clear: Children are turned into statists in public schools, where conformity and a deep, fearful "respect" for arbitrary authority is instilled day after day.

However, this cannot be the full extent of the story. Anyone who has spent any time around toddlers during the "terrible twos" knows that the willpower and independence of very young children is a near-superhuman force. It strains credibility to imagine that a single kindergarten teacher can restrain in 30 children the force that two parents find difficult to deal with in one child.

Thus it must be that many children are delivered into the public school system with their independence already undermined, and filled with unease in the face of arbitrary authority.

This lesson can only have come from their parents.

This does not mean that all parents are malevolent beasts out to destroy their children, but rather that the virtue of subjugating oneself to arbitrary authority ' which is another way of saying that arbitrary authority is always virtuous ' tends to reproduce itself generation by generation. Children who are subjugated to the mere authority of their parents ' without reference to objective values ' tend to grow up with a blind spot about the dangers of arbitrary power, and to assume its virtue in the absence of evidence.

This approach also helps explain another baffling aspect of libertarianism ' why people take political arguments so personally. How many times have you been involved in political or economic discussions with someone who gets irrationally offended by your arguments? Unless you are Condoleeza Rice, if you and I are discussing foreign policy, it has about as much relevance to our daily decisions as the existence of a gas planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. People rarely get offended about mathematics, but economics and politics seems to light an enormous fuse in far too many people.

At Freedomain Radio, the theory which may explain this goes something like this:

  • ' - When most people are talking about the government, they are really talking about their parents.
  • ' - When you criticize the government, most people unconsciously interpret that as you criticizing their parents.
  • ' - If you equate government power with immorality, most people unconsciously hear you saying that their parents are evil.

This theory, while it might seem outlandish, has proven to be remarkably accurate in practice ' but there is no reason to take my word for it! One of the amazing things about philosophy is that we get to work with empirical data from our own lives. Both I and hundreds of board members at Freedomain Radio have found this to be a very powerful and effective way of figuring out whether it is possible to have a rational discussion with someone about philosophy, economics, or politics ' but you can easily determine for yourself whether this approach has any value. Just ask about the personal history of those you debate with, and see if any patterns emerge.

When we talk about the state, we are really talking about authority, which is nothing more or less than the power that one person has over another. When children are young, each family operates as a kind of "mini state." Just as, in the democratic ideal, states exists to serve and protect their citizens, in the familial ideal, parents exist to serve and protect their children. Just as citizens are considered participatory members of the state ' though ultimately subject to its authority ' so children are considered to be participatory members in the family ' though ultimately subject to the authority of the parents. The ideal within the democratic paradigm is that the more virtuous the citizens are, the less authority the state is justified in wielding. The same is true in the familial ideal ' parental authority should only be exercised when children are acting badly. From Socrates onwards, the goal of an ideal state has always been considered the same ' to inculcate virtue in its citizens, and thus reduce or eliminate the need to exercise authority over them. The same is true in ideal parenting, which has always been considered the process of inculcating virtue in children, so that parental controls and authority can be relaxed ' and ideally, eliminated.

However, libertarians understand that the modern state does not follow the democratic ideal ' in fact, it acts in direct contradiction to it. If the power of the state is inversely proportional to the virtue of its citizens ' in other words, the more moral people are, the less state power is required ' then clearly there is one sure method to increasing the power of the state, which is to make citizens more and more immoral ' either within their own minds, or in reality. If citizens can be convinced that immorality is on the rise, and the power of the state can be "legitimately' expanded, under the illusion that an increase in state power will reverse the trend towards decadence.

Of course, as libertarians well know, quite the reverse is true. Increases in state power ' banning drugs, the welfare state etc. ' always lead to increases in immorality ' both real and imagined ' and thus a vicious circle is created wherein the state feeds its own increase, a process which can only end in bankruptcy and collapse.

But where is it that people get the idea that power is legitimized by the immorality of those it controls? This idea must already have been absorbed by the time the children go to public school, since public-school teachers merely capitalize on this belief.

It must come from parents ' and this is primarily not the fault of parents, but rather of philosophers.

Societies which do not have an objective and commonly understood methodology for determining truth and falsehood, good and evil, inevitably have to end up substituting authority for virtue. Statism leads to war, science leads to conferences. If, to educate children in what they should and should not do, parents have to end up invoking authority rather than objective values, then the best that they can do is to teach their children to be obedient, not to be moral. To conform, not to think. To bully or be bullied, but not to approach others as equals.

How many times do children hear these clich's of parenthood? 'Don't be selfish.' 'Share.' 'Be Nice.' 'Be Polite.' 'Be Considerate.' 'Think of others.' "Don't push." And so on and so on and so on. All of these injunctions to children are mere orders, empty of meaning, thought or reasoning. The silent expression at the end of all of these orders to children is 'because I'm telling you to.' Children cannot ask "why," because there is no answer. Parents cloak these orders in the moral authority of objective values, but cannot explain how they came about, and so strenuously resist being questioned.

Thus the greatest sin for children becomes disobedience, not irrationality. The worst thing that they can do is not fail to think or examine evidence, but to defy the will of those in authority.

And what is the will of their parents based on? Objective reality? Rational values? Of course not. The will of their parents is based on the expectations of everyone else. Conformity with social norms becomes the eternal absolute, a dog chasing its own tail.

If children have this experience with their parents, how will they experience the state when they become adults? Will they be able to say that values exist independent of authority, which authority itself must be subject to? It seems unlikely ' almost impossible ' given their own experiences with their parents. Most people do not have the willpower or intellectual strength to create values independent of their personal histories. In the realm of values, most of us just blindly reproduce what came before. Great philosophers are as rare as great scientists, and expecting the average population to reach such heights is like asking everyone to be a movie star.

Once children learn that morality is conformity with the will of those in authority, this allegiance is easily transferred to the State through the public school system.

And then, when some libertarian comes along, equating the state with evil, unconscious defenses rear their ugly heads, since what is really happening is that the original and irrational authority of the parents is being questioned. This is why people react to arguments about the immorality of the state as if you were waving a hot poker in their face.

As my wife said, "It's not about the state. It all starts with the family.'

Having come to this realization, we have spent the last year or so in the Freedomain Radio conversation attempting to find ways to get through these psychological defenses, so that we can have rational debates about the nature of authority and virtue without provoking aggressive or defensive reactions in people. We've had some good successes, though there is always further to go!

I invite you to join in this conversation, because I think it is essential. I am as passionate and committed an anti-statist as I was when I was 16, but I think that now I have some new and powerful tools, both for understanding why this conversation has been so difficult in the past, and how to make it far, far easier in the future. If we understand the emotional and personal sensitivity of these issues for others, we can design our conversation to get to the real root of the issues, rather than dealing with the mere symptoms, and focus on personal freedom first.

We cannot make men free by getting rid of the state. But we can get rid of the state by making men free.

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Stefan Molyneux's picture
Columns on STR: 17

Stefan Molyneux is the host of Freedomain Radio, the most popular philosophical podcast on the Internet, and a Top 10 Finalist in the 2007 Podcast Awards.  He is the author of Universally Preferable Behavior: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics, On Truth: The Tyranny of Illusion, and the novel The God of Atheists.