Is the market the ‘greatest dissolver of the bonds of family’?

Unhappily, the democratic Left also now embraced the other dimension of the 60s revolution, the abandonment of social responsibility and the pursuit of self-interest at whatever cost. This eventually provided the opportunity for the neo-liberals, in association with another force on the Right, the neo-conservatives, to make further great headway among the Western working class by supporting the values of social conservatism. By doing this, the neo-liberals managed to disguise from both others and themselves an obvious truth, namely that the untrammelled market was the greatest dissolver of the bonds of family and community.

Robert Manne yesterday, in another of The Australian‘s What’s Left series.

But how obvious is Professor Manne’s truth about the market and families? There is certainly no direct relationship in our current society – those with most market experience, people with jobs and money to spend, are more likely to be in couple or family housesholds. And the period of ‘neoliberal’ policy has coincided with a fall in the divorce rate. In 2008, it was at its lowest point since the liberalisation of divorce law in 1975.

It is nevertheless true that the unmarried or separated proportion of the adult population is high by historical standards. There are a number of proximate causes for this, which are interconnected in a complex web of cause and effect.

Ideas about marriage have changed enormously over time, from arranged marriages, to marriages based on chosen partners but with very strong social pressure to get and stay married, to marriages based on personal fulfilment. The latter type is the weakest – love is fickle – and has clear parallels with market exchange, which is based on voluntary agreements for the mutual benefit of both parties. The (positive) experience of markets may have contributed to changed views of marriage; though the common idea of individual choice has a complex cultural history.

At this point, I very much doubt that unwinding market freedoms would or will cause conservative views of marriage to re-assert themselves. People like social and sexual freedom, and will keep liking it even as government increasingly meddles in other parts of their lives.

One reason ideas of marriage changed was that family ceased to be the economic necessity it once was. As women entered the workforce and remained in it after marriage they acquired the financial independence to leave marriages they were unhappy with.

At this part of the story, social democrats must surely take a large share of the blame (or credit) for the decline of the family. While it is capitalism that creates the wealth that social democrats redistribute, social democrats had key roles in sweeping away the legal obstacles to women in the workforce, giving women the education to get good jobs, changing the divorce law so that they could legally split from husbands they no longer liked, and giving them welfare to make leaving financially possible.

And as Manne concedes in his quotation above, it was the left that pushed the cultural changes that undermined the family.

In political terms, the decline of the family over the last few decades is largely a left-wing project. As recently as the mid-1990s, concerns about the state of the family were derided by left-wingers as a patriarchal plot to send women back to the kitchen. It was only when they discovered ‘work-life balance’ as a justification for labour market regulation that things started to change, so that now we have two competing forms of familism and no major political force sceptical of the family.

From where we stand now, there is little need for any political critique of the family. But in historical terms I think classical liberals and social democrats would probably agree that though clearly there are costs to the ‘decline’ of the family, there are also many benefits in men and women being able to live free of the misery of failed relationships and families.

35 thoughts on “Is the market the ‘greatest dissolver of the bonds of family’?

  1. “In political terms, the decline of the family over the last few decades is largely a left-wing project.”

    No, I think we’ll share the credit here. Families under economic stress are more likely to break up, and right-wing economic and social policies are more brutal than left-wing ones. Didn’t the globalisation of the economy lead to a lot of poorly educated males becoming unemployed – surplus to requirements? Doesn’t it now take two incomes to maintain the average family – what happened to the growth in the value of real wages?

    Not that I’m comfortable with economic arguments, so switching to ideology … it seems to me that the left always wanted to preserve space outside the commercial, individual, competitive world of capitalism, for communal, convivial, cooperative activities – a spirit that might help keep families together.

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  2. “Didn’t the globalisation of the economy lead to a lot of poorly educated males becoming unemployed – surplus to requirements? Doesn’t it now take two incomes to maintain the average family – what happened to the growth in the value of real wages?”

    Real median wages have risen greatly Russell, in significant part due to the economies of scale and comparative advantage benefits made possible by globalisation. Unemployment isn’t higher than 30 years ago. Uneducated people are relatively worse off because technology has made an education more valuable, but there are fewer uneducated people and technological improvement has pulled their incomes up in absolute terms as well.

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  3. I’ll give Russell a partial point here, while noting that the relevant cuts in protection were made by a social democratic goverrnment. The industries that employed low-skill males were in long-term decline before protection was reduced, but tariff cuts did accelerate their decline (though the drop in the Australian dollar following the floating of the exchange rate increased the competitiveness of Australian industry).

    If people want the living standards they had in the 1960s, a single income should generally be enough. But most families want more than that. As Robert points out, real wages have risen a lot. The only thing that is a lot more expensive is real estate – bid up by too many two-income families wanting to live in the same areas.

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  4. Pre neo-liberal family life wasn’t that great either. Beneath the veneer of the happy family were repressed housewives trapped financially and by social convention in terrible marriages, husbands philandering with impunity, in-family violence that went largely unreported, and so on.

    It’s probably no better or worse now than then, but it is captured in the data.

    Of course unhappy marriages are much more easily dissolved, which is in itself is a good thing, but relationship break up is a huge wealth destroyer, as the breaking up couple need two dwellings to live in.

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  5. Twenty years ago Manne claimed with pride that he knew nothing about economics. His latest piece shows he still doesn’t. Easily the lest interesting of all the pieces in this series. At least the other writers gave us an insight into their own experiances and motives for being on the Left. Manne just wants to write history to suit himself. He should leave that to the lying rodent of a PM

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  6. Although Manne’s piece barely pauses for breath, I think he is referring to social and community bonds beyond just marriage. In this, I think Russell is getting at Manne’s point – that the changing structure of the economy has led to social change. But as Andrew says, this process was only accelerated by tariff cuts. Maybe Manne is also getting at things like longer working hours (especially deregulation of retail shopping hours), which has helped accommodate a more internationalised economy but has probably led to less shared family and community time in the evenings and weekends. Incidentally, though, Germany has one of the most export-orientated economies in the world, but has retained very restrictive shopping hours. And Asian societies are known for close family bonds, but are also known for very liberal and late trading hours.
    At the same time, children spend much more time at home these days – both while they are growing up and in terms of the number of years before they move out – and this is partly due to the changing structure of the economy making higher education more important and housing more expensive. One could also say that fathers are generally much more involved in their children’s upbringing, thereby strengthening family bonds, but this is perhaps not a direct result of economic change. So all in all, Manne’s ‘obvious truth’ is far from one.

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  7. “Real median wages have risen greatly Russell, in significant part due to the economies of scale and comparative advantage benefits made possible by globalisation”
    .
    And possibly most of all, liberal policies that allowed women into the workplace, hence leading to massively higher workplace productivity of the average citizen.

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  8. It is way too simple to blame liberal-style economic reforms (whoever implemented them), or even just economic pressures since the early/mid-1970s.
    Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, an Australian researcher named Alan Tapper published a book that included, inter alia, a revealing graph about divorce trends.
    Tapper showed that the divorce rate had been steadily trending upwards for years. There was a short-lived extra spurt after the introduction of Lionel Murphy’s 1975 Family Law Act, but it didn’t take long for the trend line to return to the steady upward course it had been taking before that.
    Anecdotally (thinking especially of Gen-Y colleagues), the biggest dissolver of familial and communal bonds in recent times has been the tendency to favor voluntary over involuntary relationships — communities that you have chosen (and which have chosen to accept you), rather than those you have just found yourself in because of someone else’s choices.
    I don’t think this can be classed straight-forwardly as a market phenomenon.

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  9. Andrew wrote: “If people want the living standards they had in the 1960s, a single income should generally be enough. But most families want more than that.”
    And why do they? Are they not living in an environment saturated with advertising (which I read somewhere is the biggest industry in the world). A lot of the advertising is for harmful products, but hey, profit is more important than anything else. And we matched the extreme advertising with easy credit, and the government judged the whole thing a pleasing success and encouraged it.
    We’re living in hyper-capitalism now. And it’s all about you. You deserve it. You will be happier if you look like this, or live in this sort of house. It’s not about ‘we’. It’s all about catering to greed, intensifying insecurities. There are no limits to what the market will take over. In this way it’s similar to when socialism goes too far. Eventually even your children will be ‘looked after’ – either by big brother in state-run centres, or Eddie Groves in his dubious child-care centres.

    I only just read that Manne article, and this: “Unhappily, the democratic Left also now embraced the other dimension of the 60s revolution, the abandonment of social responsibility and the pursuit of self-interest at whatever cost. ”

    What rot. The left I knew in the 70s had not retreated to self-interest. The demonstrations I was in – for land rights, anti-Vietnam war, anti-Springboks etc were all organised by the left. There was, understandably, a turning away from politics because of the Dismissal, but that was temporary. People turned there energies to the environment movement and other progressive causes. Just about everybody I met in the Australian Volunteers Abroad program was left-wing.

    Interesting that Manne disapproves of Naomi Klein – he really is starting to look like an old fuddy duddy.

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  10. OK Russell, but you had better stop blog commenting on your very post-1960s PC. And throw out that color TV, that microwave, the CD and DVD players, your mobile phone, the car that’s far safer and more comfortable (not to mention more fuel efficient) than anything on the road in the 1960s, etc etc.

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  11. Andrew – I don’t have a CD, a DVD, mobile phone or microwave …… and I’m not saying people can’t have things, just that extreme-capitalism is distorting our lives, if nothing else by crowding out simpler pleasures by creating insatiable desires and constant busyness.

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  12. Russell:

    These “insatiable desires” you’re talking about is about really insatiable things that are really neat.

    Ever given it some thought that the Ipod, Iphone etc. may not need a great deal of advertising because they actually sell themselves. People want them because they’re fantastic fun products to have.

    And Russell, if you have an internet connection, stop grand standing and get yourself mobile phone. In this day and age it is close to being considered anti-social not having one.

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  13. really neat indeed!
    JC it isn’t just that this gadget or that little luxury is neat – you know from the quantity of stuff that people acquire that we’ve gone past ‘common sense’ and into the ‘addiction’ area.
    Many older people know it but keep buying for the little satifactions the brand aura temporarily gives. It’s OK for someone to like shoes, say, but when they have 80 pairs? Someone likes writing pens, and they have 50? Don’t tell me that you don’t know someone who is renting space somewhere to hold all their extra stuff?? It’s late-stage extreme-capitalism sickness. Rich people can get away with it, but we’re in a culture where everyone is encouraged to get whatever they want.
    I won’t be getting a mobile phone because I can’t stand anything with tiny buttons and minute menu screens.

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  14. really neat indeed!

    Yea they are neat gadgets, Russell, that’s one of the reasons why Apple products have stood up to the recession and the firm is firing on all pistons. It may be hard for you to believe this, but apple doesn’t spend a huge amount on advertising. Their products sell amazingly well because people love them.

    JC it isn’t just that this gadget or that little luxury is neat – you know from the quantity of stuff that people acquire that we’ve gone past ‘common sense’ and into the ‘addiction’ area.

    Define “common sense”. I’d much rather the world now than the Spartan like existence of the 60’s and even the 70’s when Australians were badly dressed because we couldn’t afford to buy better and cheaper imported clothes for instance. We had import quotas!!!

    Many older people know it but keep buying for the little satifactions the brand aura temporarily gives.

    And what exactly is wrong with that? People should be able to buy what they choose to.

    It’s OK for someone to like shoes, say, but when they have 80 pairs?

    Umm People have weaknesses.

    It’s late-stage extreme-capitalism sickness.

    No it’s not. It’s an example of the market working and making things cheaper relative to incomes. It’s being doing that since the industrial revolution.

    Rich people can get away with it, but we’re in a culture where everyone is encouraged to get whatever they want.

    Oh please. Don’t you think there’s more than a like lecturing in there?

    I won’t be getting a mobile phone because I can’t stand anything with tiny buttons and minute menu screens.

    Try an IPhone then as you can make the digit pad larger. It’s made for people that are all thumbs 🙂

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  15. “but we’re in a culture where everyone is encouraged to get whatever they want” – when I should have said ‘encouraged to get whatever they can be made to want’
    .
    anyway, what happens to all these neat things? They quickly become garbage. They’re superceded by new models of neat things. Which is OK if a few million people are doing it, but the planet can’t stand a billion people constantly buying and discarding stuff. Even tiny gadgets have weird metals and you know, radioactive bits etc that have to be mined and then layabout polluting the environment. Capitalism, with its cancerous growth aspect, doesn’t factor in the likelihood of us drowning in our own toxic refuse from overconsumption.

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  16. Russell, don’t you remember those stories in the 1980s of westerners going to the USSR and being offered crazy prices for their Levis and Nikes while they were walking down the street in Moscow? There was absolutely no advertising of these products and no internet or media through which people could become encouraged to buy them. But they wanted them anyway and wanted them badly. You cannot abolish the human drive for status and prestige just by getting rid of advertising. All capitalism does is channel those desires into relatively harmless pursuits – ie consumerism, rather than expropriation or violence. Balancing one’s consumerist desires with other aspects of work and life is a personal development project for all of us. Some do it well and others don’t. But I suggest that the ones that don’t do it well would find some other possibly more harmful vice if consumerism wasn’t available.

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  17. Rajat – nothing wrong with wanting a pair of Levis (Nike is still under boycott for moral crimes) – they can last a long time. But mass consumerism is not ecologically sustainable.
    .
    “All capitalism does is channel those desires into relatively harmless pursuits” – like buying too much (with its environmental consequences) and then being unable to pay for it all? The sexualisation of children in advertising illustrates capitalism’s unethical and voracious appetite for growth – it will stop at nothing. It values money and devalues everything else.

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  18. Russell, you’re missing the point. The Levis were desired for their brand cache, not just because they were something to cover someone’s bottom half. Don’t you think your approach is a bit arbitrary if one pair of jeans is ‘OK’ but an iPhone is ‘Bad’? Today’s iPhone is tomorrow’s pair of daggy red tabs.
    The use of children in advertising can be limited in capitalist countries if the community so wishes. There are plenty of places with little or no advertising where children are routinely raped and abused – typically places that are too poor to uphold the rights of children.

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  19. they can last a long time. But mass consumerism is not ecologically sustainable.

    Who says, Russell? Seriously, who says that?

    If what you’re saying is correct the price of basic commodities would be showing a real uptrend since the industrial revolution. In fact if you bought and held commodities for the past 150 years, you be poorer than a Zimbabwean. The price of basic materials has collapsed in real terms over the past 150 years and quite frankly I’m not going to take your word for it that trend will stop.

    Not meaning to offend, but that sustainability stuff is platitudinous nonsense.

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  20. JC – Surely we’re not going to take ‘the price of basic commodities’ as an indicator of sustainability?
    I guess that so far the obvious price of environmental destruction has been paid in countries where life is cheap – floods in Bangladesh aggravated by deforestation for example. But the accelerating environmental effects of mass consumerism will affect us all in the end – as for prices, how are your local charges for rubbish collection going?

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  21. You heard it from Russell first: “Late-stage extreme-capitalism” to be brought to its knees by rising charges for rubbish collection!!
    Seriously, though, richer countries have better environments and less deforestation than poor countries because rich countries can afford to care about such things. The one area where richer countries are more ‘polluted’ than poor countries is in terms of GHG emissions. But even here, rich countries are taking the lead in developing arrangements to cut emissions. And I doubt people like Russell thought capitalism was terrific before GHG emissions became an issue in the last 10-15 years. They’re just anti-materialist and want everyone else to be like them. As I said in my comment the other day on the Left sensibility, social democrats would love everyone to come out of the same cookie-cutter, whereas classical liberals such as myself are cool with both the abstemious and the profligate.

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  22. Russell:

    So in your mind, Bangladesh is a first world industrialized society?

    Sorry, Russell I don’t want to live like you do and I’m sure most people don’t either. Good luck with it all.

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  23. Rajat, is it not true that rich countries can import a lot of their filthy-in-the-making products from poorer countries, in which case are we not a little responsible for the pollution produced in their creation?
    .
    I’m not anti-materialist enough, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, but there’s no point being cool with behaviour that will eventually destroy the planet!

    JC – on the other hand, I probably would like to live like you, but if we all did, life would become a race between running out of the ‘environmental services’ the planet provides, and poisoning ourselves with our own rubbish. If we don’t get a bit better at deciding what the good life really is, we’ll all re ‘rooned.

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  24. Russell in 1999 or so The economist ran a piece about garbage. The reason I recall is just how insignificant the problem really was at the time… and I would guess it’s not that much bigger now.

    They said that if you took all the world’s in fills together the ditch would measure 10 miles long 3 miles wide and 1 mile deep.

    That’s the world, mind you.

    It really this isn’t a huge problem, Russell. The world’s real problems are poverty and how to get everyone to live like those in the first world… clean drinking water and electrification. Those are our real problems, not garbage.

    As for the planet. The planet can take care of itself and we take care of ourselves.

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  25. The Economist! 1999!

    JC – I have just been reading the latest Gold & Minerals Gazette, and even they have an article about the problems of disposing of e-waste. Everyone is merrily replacing their TVs with digital ones, but the old ones that are tossed out have cadmium, lead – all kinds of nasty chemicals. We are fouling our own nest without having another one to fly off to.
    .
    ‘The planet can take care of itself’ yes, some people call this Gaia, and it’ll take care of us.

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  26. Russell:

    You’re a nice guy by my observations. Settle back and enjoy life as you don’t get many spins around the yellow spot in the sky.

    We can just bury all that crap and no one is the wiser.

    And please, buy a cell phone.

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  27. There’s plenty to enjoy, JC, on that wondrous thing youtube. Do this: google the words: youtube dessay libera The first result should be Natalie Dessay in a red dress. Turn up the volume all the way.
    .
    Then, after you’ve come down a bit from that. Look at that panel on the right of the screen and look at the clip from Daughter of the Regiment. It’s certainly not our Dame Joan. Your whole day tomorrow will be improved as you hum the tunes.

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  28. I would have thought Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were pretty effective at dissolving the “bonds of family and community”. Followed by war.

    But suppose we just stick to domestic Australian things, even though Manne’s statement seems an unbounded one.

    Then there is the old-age pension making “children as pension plan” redundant, female economic independence and fertility control making them less dependent on male support, sole parent benefit making marriage less necessary, cars making people more mobile, television etc making entertainment more individuated, regulations reducing the supply of land for housing making houses and rents more expensive.

    Crime can be pretty destructive of family and community too.

    Have we got to “the untrammelled market” yet? Well, no, because we do not have any such beasts. Given our two biggest markets — labour and housing — are both highly regulated.

    Actually, the market was far more “untrammelled” in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Well known for the collapse of family life, they were.

    Basically, the idea seems to be if people have more choices they become atomised individuals. Nasty, nasty choice! Or is it just commerce that atomises? But tenured academics preening themselves as being more pure because they are not polluted by vulgar commerce is one of the most tedious bits of self-serving self-righteousness of our time. Manne’s stuff always ends up the same place “people like me are morally superior to people like you”.

    The upsurge in divorce and single parenthood coincided with legislative change, cultural changes, a big expansion in the welfare state (particularly income transfers) and some increase in crime rates. Manne is spouting crap, and self-serving crap at that. What a surprise.

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  29. The US is the most market-oriented society and yet it is also the society that most ostentatiously promotes “family values”. I believe it also tends to have larger families, although this is probably related to the cheaper cost of land over there.

    The US is certainly full of “joiners” who accumulate social capital eg scouts, rotary and civic groups

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  30. Andrew Norton says:

    In political terms, the decline of the family over the last few decades is largely a left-wing project. As recently as the mid-1990s, concerns about the state of the family were derided by left-wingers as a patriarchal plot to send women back to the kitchen. It was only when they discovered ‘work-life balance’ as a justification for labour market regulation that things started to change, so that now we have two competing forms of familism and no major political force sceptical of the family.

    No. I wouldnt let the Right get off scot-free as far as family destroying policies are concerned. The attack on the family is a bi-partisan post-modern liberal project. Mainly through abuse of the immigration and integration functions of government.

    I sharply distinguish traditional modernist liberalism from the monstrous mutation that is fashionable post-modernist liberalism.

    Modernist liberalism recognises the utility and inevitability of boundaries, stratification and segregation. eg Menzies

    Post-modernist liberalism simply assumes that all boundaries are arbitrary and unjust. Borderless world, no hierarchies etc. Also, race and gender are social constructs. But also assets dont really have to earn money, they can just be derivatives so who cares what the underlying value is!

    Post-modern liberalism includes Left-liberal “culturalists” whose nation-destroying and religion-debunking behaviour degrades the cult of family-formers. ie multiculturalism and sub-culturalism. Cant form a family if kids dont respect law and order, are led astray by serial perverts. And astronomical rates of immigration mean that native citizens cant properly utilise over-crowded parks, schools and hospitals.

    Post-modern liberalism also includes Right-liberal “financialists” whose union-bashing, asset-stripping and asset-inflating behaviour demote the class of familiy-formers. Cant form a family if wages are crushed and rents and housing prices are skyrocketing. Particularly if both parents are working and working over-time at that.

    Po-mo liberalism is in short, the triumph of solipsistic narcissisim which ends in nhilism. The so-called “Great Liberal Death Wish” (Muggeridge) dream come true.

    No wonder post-modern liberals invest so much ideological fervour into abortion (killing bubby) and euthanasia (killing granny). Way to go to promote humanity!

    PS I am sorry for the over-heated rhetoric but I am calling it how I see it.

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