Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Free Market and the Family

I recently read a fabulous article in a recent issue of The Freeman, the monthly journal published by The Foundation for Economic Education , called Capitalism and the Family, by Steven Horowitz. I found it particularly stimulating because it dispels many myths widely believed by people on both the right and the left about the issues surrounding family values, child labor, the women’s movement, the market process and so forth.

For example, many on the left believe that, were it not for benevolent, enlightened and altruistic politicians, “free market capitalism” would lead to a “race to the bottom” were old people and orphans would be living in cardboard boxes, making slave wages in sweatshops. Legislation, it would seem, was needed in order to protect children from being exploited, and helping them to get a proper education and thus, a more humane range of choices as adults.

Many on the right think that the rise of feminism has lead to a collapse of traditional family structures, and traditional values with it. They (rhetorically) support free market capitalism and limited government, but see no connection to economic progress and an increased range of choices for women, let alone a general impact on societal normas and customs. Feminism, for them, is some sort of nihilistic, knee-jerk, left-wing social rebellion that upsets the natural order of things.

This article shows is that both sides have it wrong. For the left, industrialization lead to a situation where families could remove their children from the burdens of work, not the other way around. Prior to the industrial age, the entire family would have to go out and bust their humps on the farm, scrounging to produce enough to sustain themselves, let alone prosper. Industrialization didn’t change that requirement at first. But, as is the empirical nature of the free market, the eventual increase in productivity from the division of labor and capital formation reduced the need for families to use their children (and eventually the women) in the production process. It was the market process that freed children laborers, not benevolent politicians.

For the right, the women’s movement was a natural outgrowth of capitalistic progress. Historically, marriages were principally for economic or political purposes. At lower levels of economic development, families sought to arrange marriages in order to preserve or increase their political and economic status. But with industrialization and the development of the market economy – and the subsequent explosion in the wealth of society – the economic impetus for marriage diminished. Marriage then became more of the romantic ideal we see today – the satisfaction of emotional needs. The fact that women (and men) are now in a position to be able to pursue independent lives, the economic incentives to stay in an otherwise unfulfilling marriage are less important. Capitalism, it would seem, undermines the "traditional" family. (My personal argument would be that it actually strengthens the family, as the increased liklihood that your partner can leave you makes it more important for a person to develop those healthy virtues that are needed to attract and keep a prospective mate.)

I made copies of the articles and passed along to two friends – one very liberal, one devoutly conservative – and I am waiting to see what their reactions are. My hope is that my leftwing friend begins to see free market capitalism in a more favorable light, while my rightwing friend begins to relax his otherwise stodgy, reactionary social views. My gut tells me that my leftwing friend will be more open to being persuaded, while my rightwing friend will make excuses, qualifications, and possibly call the article “malcontent propaganda”. I think this because I have found that while both of them are hostile to free market ideas, my leftwing friend is open and honest about his objections and his values, while my rightwing friend insists that his version of Statism is really free-market capitalism, and any suggestion that he really is a socialist is just bunk. So, I expect either he’ll re-evaulate his views of the market process, or he’ll take a harder line against the market.

My conclusion from this article - the market truly is the source of human civilization, and the unfettered market is the only way for true, enlightened progress. As we develop economically, the concern over raw materialistic needs for survival give way, and allow for human kind to turn its attention toward developing his spiritual side. Just as we no longer spend our every waking thought on whether we'll have enough food to get us through the winter, we are able to spend time reflecting on more deeper values like justice, morality, ethics, and the like. We are able to spend time developing our personal selves to become better people, more humane and virtuous.

Read the article for yourself. Tell me what you think.

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