Religion & Liberty Online

How Capitalism Humanized the Family

poor-working-class-family-after-the-days-workCapitalism is routinely blamed for rampant materialism and consumerism, accused of setting society’s sights only on material needs and wants, and living little time, attention, or energy for much else. But what, if not basic food, shelter, and survival, was humanity so preoccupied with before the Industrial Revolution?

As Steve Horwitz argues in a preview of his forthcoming book, Hayek’s Modern Family, our newfound liberty and accelerated activity in the Economy of Creative Service has actually freed us to devote more to other spheres of stewardship, not less:

Understanding how capitalism has met our material needs is one thing, but as we more easily meet our material needs, we open up the ability to pursue all kinds of non-material values. The less time and fewer resources we have to spend on life’s necessities, the more we have to spend on things we want simply because we enjoy them. In 100 years, we’ve almost doubled the percentage of the income of the average American household being spent on things other than food, clothing, and shelter. We indulge our toys and our hobbies like never before. We give gifts and we travel. Even what we do spend on the necessities can be spent on not just items that are merely functional, but those that please us aesthetically. Our expenditures on food are on vastly better food than a century ago, if not even a generation ago.

More generally, this expansion of wealth has freed us to engage in education, art, and leisure that was possible only to a tiny fraction of humanity for most of our history. Even relatively poor Americans can get a college education and have access to books, music, and art that even the wealthy of generations past did not have. For others, the expansion of wealth is an opportunity to create knowledge, music, literature, and art that would not have been available generations before. Even the fact that so many young people spend the first 18 to 22 years of their lives just learning and not engaged in much in the way of economic production is a luxury of the wealth capitalism has produced.

Horowitz focuses more specifically on how this relates to the family (the Economy of Love), arguing that economic prosperity has not only changed the way many view the family (no longer as survival assets), but created more room for love, sacrifice, and investment along the way:

The changes in economic activity and the wealth that capitalism brought have freed the family from a concern with material survival and have opened the space for it to be the site of our deepest non-material aspirations. We look to the family for love and emotional satisfaction rather than sheer survival.

For most of human history the family was hardly the Victorian domestic ideal. Children died young and those who did not were expected to work hard for the household and eventually leave to earn their own keep at what would to us be a young age. Like the cattle, children and women were seen as assets to be managed by the male head of the household. Often this meant that the needs of humans were less important than those of cattle, or that the opportunity cost in terms of market production foregone of engaging in human labor-intensive forms of child care was simply too high. The pre-industrial and pre-capitalist family was simply not a pleasant place. Capitalism, and the wealth it brought, began to change all of this almost completely for the better.

… Capitalism offered ways to earn income outside of the household and in doing so slowly eliminated the family’s role as an institution of market production and thereby removed it from the realm of narrow economic calculation and “Prudence Only,” or at least “Prudence Mostly.” …As Prudence began to spend more time out of the household and in the market, capitalism made it possible for Love (and perhaps Faith and Hope as well), to come in and take its full and rightful place at the family table. In making this transition possible, capitalism thereby humanized the family. By providing us with such bountiful material wealth, capitalism has enabled us to treat other people, including our families, less instrumentally. The less we have to worry about the material, the more we can engage in the non-material.

It’s important to note that many of those same competing forces surely persist, not to mention that we now face a whole new set of challenges given these developments.

For one, the drift away from the family as “market producer” has left many children spoiled and selfish, overly insulated and sheltered from the powerful lessons of manual labor and hard work. Likewise, it’s not that we are all of a sudden empowered to actually love our families, but rather that we at least have a choice as to whether and how we spend our extra time with them (which can then lead to increased investments and exchanges). In both cases, people can and do make the wrong choices, and although they won’t involve starvation or diphtheria, the destruction can be sweeping.

As Jonathan Last argues quite convincingly, many of these great and powerful achievements of modernity have, as an unintended side effect, led more and more people to abandon marriage and child-bearing altogether, focusing not necessarily on career and wealth, but just plain old convenience or personal hobbies. This is fine if you aren’t called to pursue the family, but prosperity makes it easier to sideline that question altogether.

All of this is simply to say that although we have indeed “humanized the family” (and many other areas), in celebrating this, we ought to be careful that we don’t abuse that privilege for the cause of new pet idolatries. Which is why, with so much time and resources on our hands, in the end this will all boil down to what we want and enjoy, which ultimately has to do with who or what we serve.

As we go forth into each of these economies of service, then, let’s remember that God is the primary source, Jesus the way, and obedience a daily stepping stone. We’ve been blessed with enormous opportunities to invest our lives in the Economy of Love, and if we seize it for the glory of God, the prosperity and flourishing of civilization will follow in turn.

HT: Brad Birzer

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.