Columnists > Voices

Progressing to the past

Once a cause of family problems, capitalism may now be a solution

Issue: "PAS: The truth hurts," Feb. 8, 2003

IT IS UNFORTUNATE THAT WE HAVE REACHED THE point where the family has become a political issue, because this means we have to be "pro-family," and thus are prevented from telling the whole truth about the family. The family has been a major theme of Western literature, from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Tolstoy. And one of the major conclusions of this literature is that the family is a pain. The family is the locus of pettiness, drabness, and ongoing disagreement. Think of it: You are forced to spend your whole life with a bunch of people that you didn't even choose!

Such an arrangement is bound to cause problems. Unfortunately, conservatives cannot publicly discuss those problems because we are "pro-family," and we don't want to give any ammunition to those who would undermine the family. The great writers of the West had a more subtle view. They understood that, whatever the tensions inherent in family life, there is no serious alternative to the family. They knew that the family is a flawed, but indispensable, institution.

It is indispensable because children come into the world as barbarians. Over the years I have come to realize that babies and toddlers are not just ignorant, they are also wicked. This point was also made by Augustine over 1,500 years ago. He urged us not to be fooled by infants. They look angelic, he writes, but consider how shrill, irascible, and demanding they become when their slightest want is unfulfilled; notice the malevolence with which they strike out at the nurse. Augustine concludes that babies do not lack the will to do harm, only the strength. So who will civilize these barbarians? Who will teach them knowledge and goodness? There is only one answer: the family.

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The success of technological capitalism, though, contributed to the decline of families. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most people worked at home. The Industrial Revolution drove the man, and later the woman, out of the house and into the workplace. Naturally the family was transformed. The first stage of this transformation is when the man went to work and the woman stayed home. We consider this the "traditional family," but it is not. It is a transitional stage away from the traditional family and toward what we have now. Now, most American children are born into families where both parents work outside the home. I cannot help but suspect that this is a dysfunctional system, despite the Herculean efforts of many parents to raise their children well within this framework.

Capitalism has also caused problems for the family by producing affluence. Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation celebrates the virtues of the generation that came of age in the 1950s. Families during that decade remained intact, communities were cohesive, people borrowed sugar from their neighbors. Many conservatives regard the 1950s as a near-perfect past. They would like nothing better than to go "back to the '50s." But the Depression and World War II were the experiences that made the greatest generation so great. The parents from the greatest generation then wanted their children to have that which they never had-and so the frugal, self-disciplined, sacrificial generation of World War II produced the spoiled children of the 1960s.

In addition, foolish government policies over the past several decades have harmed the family. One example of this is the so-called "marriage penalty," in which couples filing a joint return pay a higher tax rate on their combined income than they would pay if they had filed individually. Another example: government programs that have encouraged illegitimacy by paying women to have children out of wedlock.

The poor have been helped as some of those programs have now been reformed, and the rich are also gaining another chance through new economic and technological progress. In many of America's more affluent neighborhoods, women don't work outside the home. The reason is that the additional income would not significantly change the family lifestyle. These women-and they are educated women-would prefer to be stay-at-home moms rather than career moms. Technology is making it possible for many women to work part-time at home and for many men to work full-time at home. The separation of home and workplace, caused by the Industrial Revolution, could be undone over time by new technologies. Family life will benefit if this happens.

-Dinesh D'Souza is an author affiliated with the Hoover Institution


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