I begin with what some call the paradox of an age of abundance that is also
an age of moral degradation.
Modern Twentieth Century economies have produced a cornucopia of material goods,
rising average incomes, and longer life spans. In this process, capitalist
industrial economies based on competition, profit, and rewards for efficiency
have proved vastly superior to socialist industrial economies based on central
The Twentieth Century has also witnessed an unprecedented level of family
dissolution, developments that have been especially pronounced in the very
nations where industrialization has been most complete.
The critical question becomes: Are these two developments related? And if so, is
it possible to find a way to have both material security and family virtue? Can
we craft a virtuous economy?
The answer to the first question is "yes": industrialization tends, by
its very nature, to undermine the material and psychological bases of the
family. To understand why, we need turn to the very essence of modern industry,
and what it replaced.
The pre-industrial economy is a household-centered economy, where each family is
largely self-sufficient, in food production and preservation, in shelter, and in
clothing: that is, in the essentials of material life. This self-sufficiency
delivers to the family economic independence, or autonomy. Husbands, wives,
children, and other household members specialize to some degree in tasks, a
natural division of labor that generates material gain. The natural family
household serves as a unit of both production and consumption, one built on
altruism and love, where the principle of selfless sharing actually works. This
is why the natural family finds its favored setting on a subsistence farm--among
a free peasantry or, in Anglo-American parlance, among the yeomanry--or in the
In its essence, industrialization means breaking apart these human-scale
productive households, and distributing the human parts to factories: both to
material factories such as textile mills, industrial canneries, automobile
plants, or offices; and to social and educational factories such as mass state
schools or day care centers.
This is why it is fair to say that both modern large corporations and modern
states have a perverse common interest in family decline. Viewed in terms of
efficiency, the autonomous family unit represents a drag on the gross national
product. Family bonds interfere with the purely efficient allocation of human
labor, and household production partially limits the sway of a money-based
economy. What we call "economic growth" rests, in some part, on the
steady transfer of ever-more productive functions from the household, where such
work is not monetized and so is uncounted, to industrially-organized entities,
whether corporate or state. In the beginning of the process, these transferred
functions include tasks such as spinning, weaving, and education. And as the
process consumates, these transfers from family to industry include food
preparation, the rearing of infants and toddlers, and the care of the elderly.
The treatment of women under the regime of industry offers another case study.
In the unregulated labor market of industrial capitalism, as in the formal
program of industrial socialism, women--particularly young women--are desired as
industrial workers: for their nimble fingers and relative obedience; and for
their valuable role in expanding the labor pool, and holding wages down.
Commonly, it has been the long and difficult organization of labor that has
rebuilt boundaries of decency around the household, and limited industrial
intrusion into the home. In Australia, the United States, and parts of Western
Europe, organized labor built "family wage" systems in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries, so that the factory could claim only one family member
per household--normally the father--who would in turn be paid a wage sufficient
to support his family in decency. Women could then return home, to bear, rear,
protect, and educate offspring.
More thoughtful industrial leaders came to see the wisdom of this "family
wage," and the virtue of preserving some level of family autonomy within
the factory system. In the United States, automaker Henry Ford startled
observers in 1914 by doubling the wages paid to married workers, arguing that
the worker "is not just an individual....He is a householder....The man
does the work in the shop, but his wife does the work in the home. The shop must
pay them both." In France, meanwhile, Christian priests organized the
industrialists in their parishes into study circles devoted to Church social
teachings. These factory owners went on to craft a vast, voluntary family
allowance system, which supplemented the wages paid to heads-of-households with
bonuses determined by the number of their children.
Yet the more common response by industrialists was to allow the family to
dissolve into its constituent parts. In the United States, for example, the
National Association of Manufacturers has--for over a century--consistently
opposed the "family wage" regime, seeking access to the labor pools of
married women and children.
There have been varied responses to this situation. The great economic heresy of
Communism can be viewed as an attempt to apply the altruism or family principle
across all society. Our century has shown this to be a huge and tragic error,
something that cannot be done. For once we move beyond small communities such as
the household, the clan, the religious community, or the village, this form of
altruism fails, leaving only violence.
A second response to the plight of the family in the industrial milieu was the
quest for the "Middle Way," the path of Social Democracy that
supposedly led between industrial capitalism and industrial communism. For about
three decades, 1940 to 1970, the Scandinavian social democracies did seem an
attractive model. But the system succumbed thereafter to its own internal
contradictions, all linked in a way to the family problem.
Today, the classic "Middle Way" states of Sweden and Denmark face both
fiscal and moral crisis. There proved to be no real "Middle Way."
But there have also been hints, in our century, of a "Third Way" of
economic organization that does represent a better path. The common denominator
has been recognition and defense of a family-centered economy. These approaches
to the problem cut directly to the unchanging nature of the true family, and
seek to build barriers that would protect the altruistic home economy from
corrosive individualism, consumerism, and statism. Put another way, they
encourage the "refunctionalization" of families by driving state and
industry back from some of the household ground they have seized.
The best known advocates for a Third Way were the English essayists G.K.
Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Chesterton argued openly and boldly for the
building of a "peasant society," based on small acreages and small
shops. Belloc wrote that "[t]he family is ideally free when it fully
controls all the means necessary for the production of such wealth as it should
consume for normal living."
A more systematic economic theory of the family-centered economy came from the
pen of Alexander Vaselevich Chayanov. Before his arrest and execution by the
Soviet Communists, this Russian economist had refuted the view, held by liberal
and Marxist theorists alike, that peasant or family farms are irrational and
inefficient, and should be eliminated. In his 1925 masterpiece, PEASANT FARM
ORGANIZATION, Chayanov persuasively showed that small family farms--combining
subsistence vegetable and animal production with cottage industries, household
production, and variable outside employment--these were in fact a logical, even
superior, form of economic organization. Another economist active at the time,
the American Ralph Borsodi, emphasized "family production" as the
program "for folk who aim at virtue and happiness, and for whom the good
life is represented by home and hearth, by friends and children, by lawns and
flowers." He gave special attention to the economic contribution of the
mother in the home. Where the dominant economic theories dismissed the homemaker
as economically useless, or even a parasite, Borsodi emphasized the true
economic value of her regular tasks, from gardening, and the keeping of
chickens; to bearing and nursing babies; and protecting and teaching children.
Moreover, the fact that the gain from these activities could not be taken from
the family through taxes made--in his words--"the maintenance of an
adequate balance of family production absolutely essential to the preservation
of individual economic independence and freedom."
These models of an economic Third Way, I repeat, shared a focus on family
well-being. Family renewal would come only as certain tasks or functions were
protected from immersion into industry, or deindustrialized and returned to the
household. Under these models, the measure of economic success would be the
formation of marriages, the birth of children, and the solidarity of the
household group. This would turn economic analysis back toward its authentic
roots, in the Greek/Latin word, oeconomia, meaning the "management of the
household." So, rather than dwelling on a "Third Way," it might
be better to talk of a "Family Way" as the path to the virtuous
And this Family Way is more than mere theory. There are modern examples of
nations that have, by accident, stumbled onto secular policies that have
reinvigorated the family by restoring certain functions to the household: in
Mexico during the 1940-1970 land reform period; in China since 1978, where the
return of land-use to the rural peasantry has led to a resurgence of traditional
family-patterns and fertility-despite the best oppressive efforts of government;
and--as Michael Farris alluded to yesterday--among home educators in America,
whose average fertility is nearly four children per family, nearly twice the
In short, a Family Way economics is more than abstract theory. There are
examples on the ground that show us how we might proceed to build a better, more
virtuous, and more natural order.