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Prague, The Czech Republic 1997:   Conveners | Declaration | Speakers | SwanSearch Speeches

 

 

 

 

TOWARD THE VIRTUOUS ECONOMY

  Opening Remarks

 

Allan Carlson, Ph.D.

  BIO

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 planning.

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 village.

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 economy.

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 national average.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Prague, The Czech Republic 1997:   Conveners | Declaration | Speakers | SwanSearch Speeches

 

 

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