Allan Carlson: Here's a way for America to give it a shot
09:34 AM CDT on Sunday, September 23, 2007
We know that state socialism doesn't work – but is the unrestrained free market the only alternative? In his forthcoming book Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies – And Why They Disappeared , social historian Allan C. Carlson explores 20th-century economic experiments attempted by democratic Europeans who didn't want traditional society bulldozed by either big business or big government.
What is a "family-centered economy," and how does it differ from our own economy?
Such an economy would treat the family grounded in marriage, not the individual, as its fundamental unit. Real property would be so treasured that every household would have some. Where outside employment was necessary, it would favor the payment of a "family wage" to the head-of-household so that the other parent – normally the mother – might devote herself to children and home production.
It would give strong legal and financial preferences to family-held businesses, rather than to joint-stock corporations. This economy would use differential taxation to favor small farms and independent shops, while discouraging mega-farms and retail chains. It would favor home offices for doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals. It would encourage families to create home businesses, to garden, to engage in modest animal husbandry and to homeschool their children. And it would frown on advertising that relied on the vices of lust, sloth, greed, gluttony, envy and pride.
With the exception of giving a preference to owner-occupied homes, our existing economy really does none of these things.
Social conservatives bemoan the destruction of the traditional family and communities, but aside from scholars like you, very few have made the connection between that phenomenon and the economic policies favored by conservative politicians. Why not?
Some of the confusion comes from the "fusionism" that has dominated conservative thought since the 1950s. This scheme sees free-market individualism in creative tension with the traditional institutions of family, neighborhood and religion. This approach made some sense when both sides faced a common enemy in expansive communism. Reaganism might have been the fusionist apogee.
However, as the communist empire rapidly dissolved in the late 1980s, the fusionist alliance no longer held. The income-maximizing capitalist had no immediate interest in preserving marriages, families or viable communities; all stood in the way of profit. The Republican Party has tried to paper over the growing chasm. Most Republicans talk "family values" and may even vote that way at times when the issue is of little importance to the corporations (for example, "same-sex marriage").
However, when the interests of families and big business collide, Republican leaders quickly line up behind the latter. For example, the bankruptcy reform act of 2005 gave vast new protections to predatory credit card issuers while turning affected families into the indentured servants of banks and credit card bureaus.
Why did the various European experiments to find a "Third way" between the free-market capitalist model and the state-socialist model mostly fail?
The primary reason lay in the relative decency of Third Way advocates in an era dominated by violence and moral monsters. In Russia, for example, Alexander Chayanov constructed a theory of and program for "the natural family economy." He believed that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was about intellectual freedom, democracy and economic justice, involving the distribution of land to the peasants. He failed to foresee the rise and brutality of Stalin and died in the gulag.
Agrarian leaders who came to power in eastern Europe also placed their faith in democracy and constitutional governance and implemented policies favoring family-scale agriculture and manufacturing. Alas, their enemies – communists, fascists, militarists, royalists and monopolists – were more ruthless, ready to crush democracy and to murder the elected peasants. Swedish socialist homemakers, who believed that women's liberation meant freedom from working in factories, successfully built an economy favoring a family wage for the men and full-time mothering for them. However, in the early 1970s – a period known as "Red Sweden" – they fell victim to the radical social-engineering schemes of [Prime Minister] Olaf Palme.
What would a Third Way for contemporary America look like – and would it find support in either political party?
A contemporary American Third Way would build on those sweet cultural revolutions already spreading in the land. Homeschooling, a rarity three decades ago, now embraces 2.5 million children and is reinventing American education on a family-centered model.
After a century of decline, family-scale agriculture is growing again. "There has never been a better time to be a farmer" crows Small Farmer's Journal this month. Market demand for organic foods has tripled the income of many family farms; there are 4,500 farmers markets in 2007, up from 1,750 in 1994; Community Supported Agriculture farms, where farmers and their customers form a partnership, may number 3,000 (none in 1985). A surging worldwide demand for milk has also reinvigorated family dairies.
Meanwhile, the number of home-based businesses in the United States may be as high as 36 million, quadruple the number found in 1990. Since most American laws and regulations still favor mass schooling, agribusiness, centralized factories and big-box chains, these gains remain fragile. All the same, the political party that genuinely embraces this emerging family-centered Third Way will know success.
Allan C. Carlson is president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. This Q&A was conducted by editorial columnist Rod Dreher. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
via The Distributist Review