Home is where the liberal heart has no place

Consistency is generally regarded as a virtue, especially in political life. If you are an authoritarian, you back the father state, prison as the payment of criminals' debt to society and the suppression of Squeegee men. If you are a laisser-faire type, like me, you fight for the rights of minorities, small government and the sanctity of the voluntary contract.

Deviating from your pattern can win you praise in the short term - "how interesting" - but turns deadly over time. You lose the regard of those who count on you to deliver the true message.

But there is one arena where we leave-me-alone liberals find our sweet theories disproved. That arena is the home. There, before one's very eyes, amid the Christmas wrappings, the shimmering ideal disintegrates into chaos.

And if you - father or mother - do not subject your minorities to as many rules as a potentate would, they will enslave you and, in the process, themselves. You find your house subject to faction and disruption - in short, the sort of behaviour that is so unsettling to town managers and monarchs and is so visible in the average household during school holidays.

This embarrassing conflict long went unvoiced, a fact for which liberal types were doubtless thankful. Now, though, the contradiction has found its philosopher in Jennifer Roback Morse, a fellow at the Social Philosophy and Policy Centre at Ohio's Bowling Green University.

Mrs Morse was once a relentless free marketeer, as I can attest, being one of her former students. But becoming a mother altered her views: "I have lived in the laisser-faire family," she writes in a new book, "and I have learnt from experience that it does not work."*

The intellectual odyssey she describes is a common one. Formerly, she says, "I liked applying the Invisible Hand to my family life. I had many difficult relatives. I found it convenient to ignore them on the pretence I had never voluntarily agreed to a relationship with them." This sounds familiar.

What Mrs Morse discovered, a little farther on, was that laisser-faire life in the private sphere did not make children, parents or, certainly, observant great aunts particularly happy - even when untold amounts of unedited love were added to the mixture.

The "noble savage" is well and good but no one wants his child to be one, especially when the grandparents are watching. And unless children have lessons in touch-typing, manners, phonics and religion, they do emerge as savages, and not particularly noble ones.

In short, parenthood is not a series of voluntary and mutable contracts between two parties but an unending obligation to ourselves, our children and society. Being a good adult child is not optional: it is wrong to ignore your mother at holiday time, even if you believe she neglected you.

Adults who are products of a truly laisser-faire family culture face problems. They lose out at work because they are not "team players". They lose out in relationships because they are unable to get through the "for worse" part of "for better, for worse". Children may not articulate this problem but their behaviour acknowledges it.

Consider John Walker Lindh, the American who ended up on the wrong side in Afghanistan. Morseians would argue that his behaviour stemmed from his family life. His parents, 1960s freewheelers, jettisoned the family tradition of Catholicism, divorced and sent their son to a high school that wilfully deprived its students of authority figures.

"Teachers at Tamiscal are not like classroom teachers," reads the school website. "The Tamiscal teacher's role is to evaluate what the student is independently learning." After years of this easy-going regimen, Mr Lindh eventually sought authority in the form of the Taliban.

Not everyone goes so far. But children crave rules in a quantity that adults find suffocating. They find comfort, and even a sense of freedom, in navigating those rules. What are the Harry Potter books, after all, but a chronicle of the pleasure children find in handling the numerous prescripts set down at a Victorian-style boarding school?

This is easy to write but hard to implement, especially for us laisser-faire souls. How horrifying to discover one's liberal self, as parents of teenagers do, poking around household drawers for suspect tablets with all the zeal of a Stasi officer. Those hypocrisy monitors called children are quick to point out the inconsistency of a parent who battles against an intrusive state while monitoring their spelling.

Still, the combination of a structured home and a free world is not in the end a paradox. Fortified by a home of warm consistency - not that anyone I know has entirely achieved such a thing - children are equipped to emigrate into the wider world as competent adults. And is that not what we hope for?

At least we liberal parents can take comfort in the knowledge that our children, today so oppressed, will be free to take revenge as adults by adopting political positions diametrically opposed to our own. I've long known of a fellow named Brad DeLong, a Berkeley economist who is sceptical of free markets. I recently received a free market e-mail screed from another DeLong, a Jim. When I asked Jim if he was related to Brad, he replied: "I am his father. When people ask how this can be, I answer that every family has its black sheep. He is mine; I am his. It's symmetrical."

I told my children this story and we talked about their freedom to form their own views, and to fight cloying and capricious authority. I know this fight is one they will wage, some time in the future. And I want them to do that - just not in my house.

*Love and Economics: Why the Laissez Faire Family Doesn't Work, by Jennifer Roback Morse, Spence Publishing.

© Copyright 2001 Financial Times

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