- The health of our families, where infants are nurtured—and both children and their parents are formed—must be at the very center of our politics and economics. Tweet This
- The productive, deeply interdependent, and cooperative household was, for most of human history, the locus, indeed the very origin of economics. Tweet This
- If we are naturally made for each other, for sociality, for friendship, then epidemic loneliness is a wretched failure of our civic, religious, political, and economic institutions. Tweet This
Editor's Note: The following essay is a lightly edited version of Erika Bachiochi's remarks at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's "American Economic Forum" on November 1, 2023.
At the risk of appearing immediately ungrateful to the organizers of this wonderful and much-needed event, I want to begin by suggesting that “social capital” is perhaps the wrong frame for what it is that Tim, Michael, and I are here to discuss. To be sure, I deeply respect the work of Robert Putnam, the Harvard social scientist who popularized the term, and as a college student actually cut my teeth on the communitarian movement of the mid 1990s of which he was a key part. But appropriating this neo-liberal frame to describe the real public good of social trust and civic friendship would seem to grant that sociality is not quite natural to us as human beings. That our economics and politics will reap the “dividends” of “investing” in social “capital” gives the impression that human sociality is merely instrumental to econometric or democratic ends. Or that sociality is something that we, putatively self-sufficient modern individuals, choose to enter into or voluntarily ‘join,’ to name the recent documentary dedicated to Putnam’s work.
But that framing doesn’t get human nature quite right, it seems to me. And the question of nature is an essential starting place for conservatives; for though we certainly aren’t looking, as progressives are, to create out of whole cloth the ideal regime, we do want to orient our politics and economics toward the real goods of human flourishing. If each individual must simply be cajoled to “join” in, then the chronic loneliness of our time would seem to be primarily the individual’s failing; but if we are naturally made for each other, for sociality, for friendship, then epidemic loneliness is a wretched failure of our civic, religious, political, and economic institutions.
Because, of course, we human beings aren’t the self-sufficient individuals of early modern imaginings—especially at our vulnerable beginnings and endings, but really throughout the course of our lives. We are always and everywhere necessarily embedded in societies upon which we are inescapably dependent and to which we are deeply responsible. Because of the kind of being the human being is, each is born into and needs a family, and the family (which is essential but itself incomplete) depends upon civic, religious, and political communities for its own flourishing, to carry out the deeply human, formative work with which the family is uniquely and properly entrusted.
Too often, policymakers think in terms of the individual, the market, and the state. And even if ‘mediating’ institutions are remembered, as with Putnam, it’s not the work of nurture and care in the family that is given pride of place in our political imagination; no, that work, that work of the “private sphere,” has been far too often taken for granted.
But if human beings really are to flourish, then we can’t imagine that they simply “emerge from the earth like mushrooms” in Thomas Hobbes’ telling, and then go on to voluntarily join associations. No, the health of our families where infants are nurtured—and both children and their parents are formed—must be at the very center of our politics and economics.
Of course, “focusing on the family” is not a new idea for social conservatives. The religious right, in particular, has long bemoaned the deleterious impact of the sexual revolution on the family. Now, some rather articulate thinkers from the left are coming around to the idea. As well they should. Our social, familial, and human ecosystems are just as, if not more, fragile than our natural ecosystems; and it’s the most vulnerable who are the least equipped to protect themselves and their families from deteriorating social and ecological environments.
But, until very recently, most on the political right have underestimated the way in which major economic transitions and dislocations both predated and then conspired with the sexual revolution to dis-embed our social and familial relationships. After all, the productive, deeply interdependent, and cooperative household was, for most of human history, the locus—indeed the very origin of economics—and so central to how men and women ordered their lives and carried out their duties of care to one another and to their children. But the modern era cleaved economics from politics, work from home, man from woman, and finally and most heart-breakingly, parents from their children. Child-rearing families are still, more than a century later, working to adjust.
In my view, then, there are few better places to look for guidance than to those late 19th and early 20th century social reformers who fought, during a time not unlike our own, to protect the culturally-essential work of the home from the deracinating forces of their day. As leading labor advocate Florence Kelley put it on the very first page of her 1905 book, Some Ethical Gains through Legislation: “The care and nurture of childhood is…a vital concern of the nation.”
As, I think, more on the right are now beginning to see, when we fail to affirmatively champion the essential work of the family—and not just rhetorically—our laws and policies will bend steadily toward the desires of the mythic unencumbered individual. And so we’ll find ourselves living in a regime that systematically disadvantages the vulnerable and dependent and all those who care for them.
And so today, I think we ought to prioritize, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Hull House Founder Jane Addams, “the family claim over the social claim.” How might we do that today? I don’t think it’s in seeking to return to the stopgap 1950s settlement of public men and private women, even if some families would (and happily do) arrange themselves that way. Indeed, in our post-industrial, technologically-advanced economy, in which women are as educated as men, and younger fathers (much like their agrarian predecessors), are increasingly invested in the care, nurture, and education of their children, determining who-does-what-when with their peculiar gifts and constraints requires a practical wisdom that mothers and fathers must together employ for the good of their family. But encouraging that wisdom requires law and policies that respect the work of the family as foundational to every social, political and economic good, and thus respect the autonomy and responsible agency of each family to best organize itself according to its own concrete needs.
Although culture is always the best mover of social norms, the state, the workplace, schools, and other institutions play key family-supportive roles, too. After all, incentives exist throughout society that tend to influence the decisions women and men make, and are free to make, in the tax code, in the job market, in corporate policies, in public accommodations, in educational offerings, in housing and health care costs, in childcare regulations, and of course in laws governing marriage and the duties of care in the family. Some cultural influences and economic realities forestall family formation altogether or make family life far more difficult than it need be. Though we certainly cannot grant every family a smooth path, nor can we compel men and women themselves to prioritize the “family claim” over the “social claim,” our institutions can remove some of the boulders along their way and spread the costs more fairly. Some institutions, like schools and parishes especially, can provide, I’ve personally found, support, guidance, and friendship for the self-sacrificing and ennobling work that is motherhood and fatherhood.
Human beings are at our origins familial beings who need, for our mature development, the give and take within families where each is properly responsible for the others. All policy is, then, in one way or another, family policy. As such, the goods of the family should provide, as my colleague Patrick Brown has put it, the very logic of conservative politics. Only then can we hope to forge a humane regime that provides the just, stable, and peaceable conditions for women and men to carry out their sacred responsibilities to each other, and to the beloved children in their care.
Erika Bachiochi is a fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a senior fellow of the Abigail Adams Institute.