Friday, November 21, 2008

On Relationships Between Parents and Young Libertarians

So there's been this fiasco over the last week or so in the aftermath of an article in The Guardian, which basically pointed out that Stefan Molyneux, host of Freedomain Radio, may be influencing young libertarians to break off contact from their parents in situations where that's actually a bad idea. A lot of people have had a whole lot to say about this, including myself in various places, but I'm not really interested in getting into the he said, she said elements of the issue. What I do want to talk about is the fact that young libertarians often have significant difficulties in relating to their parents, and that there is a lot of potential for families to be strained as one of their younger members is exposed to libertarian ideas for the first time. This incident with the Guardian article, and the greater concern surrounding Stefan's work, I think, is partly an outgrowth of this deeper problem (though the particular case in question doesn't seem to have been about political philosophy), and I think that the libertarian movement as a whole has done a rather poor job of addressing it. So I'll take a stab at it, admitting up front that this isn't likely going to solve anything, but hopefully it can be useful to someone, particularly parents whose kids are becoming exposed to libertarianism for the first time, and who find themselves in a difficult position with their kids.

The first thing that parents need to understand about the libertarian movement is that most young people do not become libertarians because they learn about libertarianism in their economics, political science, or philosophy classes and find the position the be more appealing than the other coherent paradigms in political philosophy. Rather, they are generally exposed to a set of insights which are very intuitively compelling to young people through some resource that's outside of the mainstream educational system or their family upbringing. They hear Ron Paul speak, or they read Atlas Shrugged, Economics in One Lesson, The Law, What Has Government Done to Our Money, etc., or they listen to Stefan Molyneux, or they read an inspirational article on the internet, or whatever. Or alternatively, they speak with a libertarian who exposes them to these insights. But when you trace the source of libertarian ideas back to their sources, you rarely hear that someone's parents made them libertarians, or that they learned about libertarianism in school (of course, if someone were turned on to libertarianism by their parents, I wouldn't expect that the parents would need to read this article...)

Now, it's very important that this is how young people come across libertarianism. Because libertarianism is not suggested to most people at a young age, and because "the establishment" basically doesn't recognize libertarianism as a legitimate worldview, young libertarians almost inevitably feel alienated from the world around them. Everywhere they look, they see the institutionalization of the things they so ardently oppose: collectivism (the idea that "the good of society" is what matters, and that individuals are just parts of society), statism (the idea that centralized authority should solve all of our problems and make our lives complete), authoritarianism (the idea that it's acceptable for some people in positions of power or influence to use or authorize force to impose their will on others), and paternalism (the idea that people in positions of power should be free to force us to live "properly," instead of the way that we think is best, even if we're not hurting anyone). And even worse, most of the people around them seem to have no problem with this state of affairs; many of them even support it!

And in this state of alienation, here are their parents -- typically nice enough folks who don't know much about political theory, but who are thankful to live in the greatest country in the world -- and they're completely oblivious to these great new ideas to which the young libertarians have been exposed. Being extremely enthusiastic and believing that they have discovered a long lost truth which will save the world, the young libertarians inevitably find some opportunity to confront their parents about their non-libertarianism. At this point, things almost always go badly. Some parents try to duck out of the conversation with something like, "I don't know anything about these sorts of things; I think we're lucky to live in such a wonderful country." Other parents disagree more openly, with something like, "I think you're wrong; the government needs to take care of these kinds of things because otherwise society would fall apart!" But since they almost never actually understand what they're talking about (it's not unusual; most people don't), they don't make a compelling case. Other parents defend their views with even more vigor, even attacking the child or her positions, with something like, "Where did you hear about this nonsense? You've become an extremist!" or "Lots of young people feel strongly like you do, but when you grow up, you'll realize that the real world is a lot more complicated." In pretty much any of these situations, the child leaves the conversation feeling scornful towards their clearly close-minded and unintelligent parents, and offended that after all the time and effort they put into forming their views, they were dismissed so summarily and without real consideration.

If any parents of libertarians are reading this, it's likely that one or more of the above conversations has already happened. I had pretty much all of them with my parents at one point or another! So perhaps now you have an alienated, possibly hostile kid on your hands who quite likely feels like you don't respect him and that you're part of what's wrong with the world. What should you do? Quick disclaimer: take note of the fact that everything I say here is just my opinion. I feel like I have a pretty decent perspective on this, as I'm relatively young, so I can remember what it was like to first become interested in libertarianism and to have to relate to a family which was not particularly receptive to it, but I'm also far enough removed from that state of affairs that I feel like I can sympathize with both sides. That said, this post is meant to help, not to command.

But the first thing that you might want to do is step back and take a look at your own perspective on political issues. Most adults don't understand the nature of the political system in which we live, and have no idea how or why the government does the things that it does. Many of these adults think that they do understand these things, because they've been around a while, or because their jobs expose them to markets and government policy, or because they pay attention to the issues during election years, or because they read the newspaper or watch the news, and therefore know what's going on. But the fact is, most adults don't know the first thing about political, economic, and social thought, and those who do tend to know only what is immediately relevant to their particular job or living situation. Perhaps they read The Economist, or took economics in college, or are exposed to government policies on a regular basis. But most cannot name, for example, any of the dominant schools of economic thought in today's academic and policymaking world (i.e., admit it: you don't know what "Neoclassical" means). They don't know who John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Joel Feinberg, James Buchanan, Kenneth Arrow, F.A. Hayek, Ronald Coase, Lionel Robbins, or Ludwig von Mises are. They don't know the difference between the Justice as Fairness and Sufficientarianism. As a parent, you should probably start by acknowledging that you simply don't possess many of the intellectual tools, and much of the theoretical perspective, that would be necessary for you to properly critique your child's newfound views.

So the first step is to look long and hard in the mirror and say, "My son/daughter's views are not my own, and they don't sound right to me. But I really don't have any idea how to go about analyzing his/her position. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to treat him/her like he/she doesn't know what he/she's talking about. I don't know what I'm talking about." I'm serious; say it. Out loud. And realize that by saying this, you're not saying that libertarianism is the gospel truth, or that your views are wrong. All you're saying is that you haven't really examined the issue closely enough to be really sure. And that's almost certainly true. So say it again.

The next step is to ask yourself a really important question: Do you want to learn about this stuff so that you can intelligently talk to your son/daughter? Or would you rather just try to maintain a relationship with your child which does not have anything to do with political theory? For most parents, the answer will be of the latter variety, and so that's the possibility I'll address here. But if you're one of those parents who genuinely does want to gain a better understanding of these issues, I would be more than happy to help. Feel totally free to contact me!

If you think that things would be much better for your relationship with your child if you just avoided the issue of political, economic, and social philosophy altogether, I can give you an "out" which is both honest and respectful, and which will hopefully make your child feel better about his/her disagreements with you. But first you'll need to determine what kind of libertarian your child is, because believe it or not, we aren't a homogeneous bunch. Below are some sample responses tailored to a few different kinds of libertarians. If your child is none of these sorts, feel free to ask him/her to describe what kind of view he/she holds, and let me know. I'll update this post with a model response tailored to his/her point of view. But here are the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

Your child is a libertarian because he/she believes that...

...Ron Paul (or another libertarian political figure) understands what needs to be done in this country, and the mainstream candidates do not.

"Ron Paul (or whoever) has a lot of interesting ideas, but to the casual listener, a lot of them sound very extreme and unintuitive. I don't understand a lot of the theoretical ideas that underpin his arguments, and without that understanding, it's very difficult for me to decide whether I think he's right or wrong. If I were to change my voting patterns just because you think I should, without understanding the reasons why, I would be a part of the very problem that you're trying to fight. I wish you the best of luck in working towards a better understanding of the political process, and hope that you can spread awareness of the kinds of changes that need to be made in order to make this country better. But I don't have the time or energy to give those questions the attention that they deserve. I hope that you can understand and respect that."

...the way that our government is set up makes a peaceful and productive society more difficult to maintain (or, the institution of government in general is detrimental to the prospects of having a free and prosperous society).

"I don't know enough about the reasons you might think that to form a real opinion. But I will say this: I've become accustomed to living in the kind of society we have now, and so have a lot of other people. So hopefully a part of your view is the idea that a good society will be one where people do not have to completely derail their lives in order to implement some ideal set of institutions. If you think that a society more in line with libertarian principles would be better than our own, then I wish you the best in trying to spread awareness of those ideas and in setting in motion change that would make our society a better place to live. But I don't know enough about the things you've been thinking about to really talk about them with you on an intelligent level. So I hope that you can appreciate that and not feel like I'm trying to be dismissive; I'm just not a social engineer, and it would do me no good to try to talk like one."

...our government does not properly respect human rights, and we must fight oppression everywhere (or, government is institutionalized coercion, and we must stand up for the victims of its tyranny).

[Warning: Libertarians of this stripe can be the most difficult to deal with for someone who plans to continue doing things like voting or advocating certain kinds of government policies. If your child believes that his/her views reflect matters of human rights, you have to understand that your positions may strike him/her in much the same way as someone might strike you if they advocated the Jim Crow laws.]

"I respect your position, but I'm not sure if I think that people are due the kind of treatment that you do. I'm not saying that you're wrong; I'm only saying that I don't feel oppressed by our society, and that I haven't given enough attention to the issue to really understand why you feel the way that you do. I understand that you feel very strongly about this, and to hear me saying what I'm saying might sound really terrible to you. But even among professional economists, ethicists, and political philosophers, libertarianism is not universally recognized as the one true way to think about justice, and there are arguments on all sides of the debate. Unfortunately, I don't have the time or energy to try to figure out for myself who's right and who's wrong. So perhaps I'm not quite ready to take the leap that you've taken, because I don't have the understanding that you have which makes you think that such a leap is justified. But I respect your opinion, and I'm proud to see you so passionate about the things that matter to you. I just know that I won't be able to speak intelligently with you about these things, because I don't really have the knowledge that would be necessary to do so."

Hopefully these examples can be helpful to struggling parents! And hopefully they can make your family feel whole again, and convey to your children that you respect them, even though you don't necessarily buy into everything they're pushing. And that's really the goal: to have respectful disagreement which allows you to move on to the parts of your relationship that really matter to both of you. Good luck, and please let me know if I can be of any help!

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