Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Progressive Family

More on progressivism in the news today, this time from Phillip Longman at Big Questions Online. His article, Demography and Economic Destiny, discusses the indebted welfare states and falling birthrates of the West. My thoughts on this article will be brief. Like last week's article on progressivism my point is not to moralize but to tease out the premises and logical consequences of the attempts to define progressivism and the arguments used in favor of it.

First consider the title, Demography and Economic Destiny: it's a rather cold title considering what the article is about: taking care of both children and the elderly. Second, the article is fourteen paragraphs long and one word is absent until the final. That word is family. Considering the subject matter, its absence is a little odd, don't you think?

Also revealing is the context it comes up it, "Government programs designed to smooth the tensions between work and family." So working and family are inherently in tension and the government tries to fix this "natural" tension. That sounds odd, since for most of human history the family was considered a very efficient economic unit. People once got married in part to pool their resources, yet yesterday in the WSJ I read that allegedly young people were putting of marriage until they were better off financially. I have yet to make sense of this development though there are undoubtedly other factors involved.

The author goes on to write:
And in countries both rich and poor, we see a rise in religious fundamentalism and patriarchy, which are the old-fashioned (and proven) means of keeping birthrates above replacement rates.
It certainly seems that the author equates family with "fundamentalism and patriarchy." (I wonder how many husbands in the West today would consider themselves "patriarchs.") We ought to note that if he doesn't equate these things then he considers a "traditional" family completely off the radar as a solution to taking care of people, since he has posed that problem and won't have mentioned "traditional family" at all. ("Traditional" is another word noticeably absent.) In that case the alternatives are the state or "fundamentalism and patriarchy," the former of which he concedes has failed and the latter of which certainly seems unfavored by him. So it is impossible for a non religiously-fundamentalist or patriarchal family to exist? What about without the "help" of the state?

The author truly seems to lament the days in which the welfare state was thought to have been discovered as a perfect means of taking care of people:
As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson once proclaimed, in defense of America’s Social Security system, “a growing nation is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever contrived. And that is a fact, not a paradox.” But Samuelson was writing in 1967, when it looked as if the Baby Boom would go on forever.
Obviously in this context then, the welfare state was seen as the substitute for the family for taking care of the elderly. No more did a couple potentially* have to save and take care of their parents (up to four for the couple.) They didn't have to sacrifice a room that could have been a den or even stayed in the neighborhood where their parents lived to take care of them, potentially passing up job offers in other states. As long as we had enough "young workers" a new "generation of retirees" could partake in Social Security et al and the "young workers" could be "liberated" from the demands of. . . family.

I haven't read E. F. Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered" but after reading this article I very much sympathize with the title.

* I say potentially because, obviously, many could and did plan for their retirement. Once all you had to do was put some money aside from your paycheck each week. Remember when you didn't have to speculate to avoid losing your money? I don't. (See here: If you don't watch the video, read the summary and anecdote below it.)

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