Feeding the Market
What Schumpeter’s analysis failed to detect was that the deterioration of traditional family life in many ways nurtures the market economy (at least once the engines of capitalist productivity were primed). Along with the decline in marriage, increasing levels of cohabitation, and the rise in childlessness, by the dawn of the twenty-first century the traditional arrangement of mothers at home and fathers in the paid labor force represented only 29 percent of all married couples—down by one-third from 1980. But these trends hardly undermined the capitalist order. More than anything else, perhaps, today’s affluent capitalist societies require a flexible labor force and extravagant consumption of the ever-expanding supply of modern luxuries. Whether advertising incites consumers to want often trivial stuff that adds little to the quality of life, as John Galbraith argued, or whether it just provides us with knowledge about what is being produced, as Friedrich Hayek responded, capitalism has a way of turning luxuries into what people consider to be necessities.17
For both luxuries and necessities, single people are terrific consumers. Contrasexuals want to take flying lessons and yoga classes; they purchase their own condos and refinance the mortgage to go scuba diving off the Ivory Coast; and, without ties to partners and children, they constitute a highly mobile labor force. Childless couples, known as DINKs (dual-income, no kids), are slightly less mobile but tend to have more surplus income for purchasing homes, snappy clothes, the latest in flat – screen TVs, and mountain bikes, and for enjoying nights out on the town together. High rates of divorce have created an industry of mediators, therapists, and family lawyers; promoted real estate sales and day-care services; and increased the labor – force participation of women. Two-income married couples with children rely heavily on a support network of fast-food vendors, dry cleaners, housekeeping services, personal time organizers, gardeners, and nannies and other child-care providers.
In addition, the unraveling of marriage and traditional family life has had some curious side effects on patterns of consumption. For example, as marriage rates fall and the practice of cohabitation becomes increasingly common, those who walk down the aisle together do so amid increasingly elaborate and expensive ceremonies. Between 1998 and 2003 the average price of weddings in England and Wales rose by 45 percent. So why are couples spending more on weddings just as marriage seems to be going out of fashion?
According to The Economist, it may have to do with rise in average age at which people get married. Middle-class women delay marriage to invest in their careers and raise their value on the marriage market. A lavish wedding is one way to demonstrate the increased value attached to the participants.18 But I prefer an alternative explanation that draws more on the social-emotional meaning of the wedding event than the status attributes of conspicuous consumption. There was a time when the wedding ceremony typically marked a profound change in the daily routine of the participating couples—altering their social, emotional, and sexual lives. Not only did they sleep together for the first time that evening, but the next day they awoke to a life in which they would now be sharing the same space, enjoying sexual intimacy, and seeing each other every morning and evening. Under those circumstances, even if the wedding were a simple affair, its social implications were staggering. Today, with many couples marrying later in life and cohabiting for long periods before walking down the aisle, the event has lost much of its social consequence—following the ceremony, nothing much is altered in the couple’s daily routine. Under these circumstances, perhaps, a grand wedding is an effort to lend social gravity to an otherwise unremarkable event.19
Another unintended consequence of the decline of family life stems from the outsourcing of household production, which accompanied the rising rates of women’s labor-force participation. Inas Rashad and Michael Grossman report that as much as two-thirds of the increase in adult obesity can be explained by the explosive growth in the number of fast food restaurants per capita since 1980. “As nonwork time for women became increasingly scarce and valuable over the last few decades,” Rashad and Grossman explain, “time devoted to at – home meal preparation decreased. Families began eating out more often.”20 Other researchers have found a relationship between the number of hours mothers spend in paid employment and obesity among children.21
In a sense Schumpeter foresaw the outsourcing of family production in his analysis of capitalism as an evolutionary process of “creative destruction.” In this process the existing modes of production must endlessly compete with new commodities, new sources of supply, and new types of organization, which command a decisive cost or quality advantage. It is not so much price and quality competition among firms as the continuous cycle of new markets, new products, and new organizational developments that “revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”22
Although Schumpeter’s discussion of creative destruction focused on industrial life, it readily applies to the outsourcing of family production. Fast-food chains, ready-made meals, and microwave ovens compete with homemade meals that have become increasingly inconvenient and relatively more expensive to prepare as women spend more time working in paid careers. Nationwide, child-care industries are launched to serve the burgeoning market for nonmaternal care of children. New reproductive technologies have created a private fertility market for renting wombs at $10,000 and purchasing eggs at a going rate of somewhere between $2,500 and $50,000. Since the start of commercial sperm banks in 1970 the commerce of conception has grown into a $3 billion industry.23 As the boundaries between family life and the market economy soften, the capitalist process of creative destruction has moved into the productive and reproductive functions of motherhood.
The idiom “creative destruction” suggests a favorable outcome—otherwise it would not be creative. However, it is worth considering what is lost in this process. When applied to commercial life, the destruction strikes less-efficient, less- useful, old-fashioned and more-expensive modes of production. In the domain of family life, the destructive consequences extend beyond the material arena of commerce into the psychological realms of human interaction and emotional bonds.
If the creative destruction of capitalist culture subverts the bonds of domesticity, socialist doctrine is equally inhospitable to family life. “This body of thought,” Irving Kristol observes, “has always been hostile to the family as an institu
tion, not only because the family is the crucial vehicle for the transmission of values, but because it is in the family that the very sense of tradition, the basic human instinct of piety toward an ancestral past, is preserved and conveyed.”24 It might also be added that the family is the primary institutional vehicle through which privilege is transferred from one generation to the next. In quest of a more egalitarian, utopian society, socialism seeks a break not only with tradition but with bourgeois family life, which is depicted by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as exploitive—to put it mildly. In their view, “the bourgeois claptrap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the actions of modern industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labor.” In the bourgeois family, Marx and Engels claim, the wife is treated as a prostitute and a “mere instrument of production.”25 These antagonistic views of the family found practical expression when the Bolsheviks first came to power and introduced liberal reforms under which abortion and divorce rates soared. Later the laws were revised to reinforce marriage and family life.26
Although the bitter animosity expressed by Marx and Engels toward the family does not represent the sentiments of modern social-democratic governments, these governments do share the communists’ quest for a more egalitarian society as reflected in their spirited support of family-friendly policies. In this case the equality sought is not so much among social classes as between men and women—representing the triumph of feminism over socialism. As Alan Carlson puts it, “The equality of households, the democratic socialist goal in the early twentieth century when issues of economic equity
predominated, became subordinate in their scheme to the equality of individuals within households.”27 Thus, for example, by assuming traditional obligations of the biological family, a major objective of the collective “people’s home” (as the Swedish state welfare is known) is to free women to participate equally with men in the labor market. In what some would consider an ironic twist, the triumph of feminism winds up advancing the culture of capitalism.
While Schumpeter may have overestimated the extent to which the fraying values and motives of traditional family life would deplete capitalist initiatives, his prediction that the material success and utilitarian conventions of capitalism would contribute to the thinning of family bonds has indeed come to pass in modern times. His line of reasoning is summed up in one very long sentence: “As soon as men and women learn the utilitarian lesson and refuse to take for granted the traditional arrangements that their social environment makes for them, as soon as they acquire the habit of weighing the individual advantages and disadvantages of any prospective course of action—or, as we might also put it, as soon as they introduce into their private lives a sort of inarticulate cost accounting— they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions and of the fact that at the same time, except in the cases of farmers and peasants, children cease to be economic assets.”28
There is probably some truth in Schumpeter’s claim that traditional values and conventions of family life are destabilized under capitalism. On one side, a cost-benefit mentality harnessed to the constant flow of new products feeds and arouses new desires, which disturb established conventions. On the other side, rational calculations in the quest for efficiency and material gain inculcate a mental attitude that eventually extends to the rationalization of everything in life, including social contacts and family affairs—what some have called the “commercialization of social relations.”29
Cost-benefit calculations that inform the design of social policies related to family life can sometimes go astray. The Constitutional Court in Germany, for example, ruled in 2004 that childless workers had to start making higher contributions than those with children to the country’s compulsory nursing home insurance. The reasoning behind this ruling was that parents bear the primary costs of raising the next generation of workers, who will contribute to the pay-as-you-go pension scheme, while those who are childless will reap some of the benefit when they retire.30 Here the cost-benefit equation weighs the financial costs and ignores all of the transcendental benefits of parenthood and childrearing. Childless workers might have reversed the equation, arguing that they are the ones owed compensation since, through taxes, they bear some of the costs of free education and health care services consumed by children, but they reap none of the psychological and emotional joys of parenthood.
Another example comes from a family-friendly measure recently introduced in France that raises the question: Would you have a third child for $11,000? It is a question French officials might have pondered longer before announcing plans to increase fertility rates by awarding more than $900 a month for one year of unpaid leave from work to parents who have a third child. By trying to increase the proportion of families with three children, the new policy automatically rewards all the people who would have had large families in any case. From what we know about social characteristics related to family size, this group is likely to be less educated and more religiously orthodox, and to contain a higher proportion of immigrants than families with one child or no children. As for those who might be swayed by the offer, it is not hard to imagine that many who would find the short-term material gain a compelling motive for a long-term commitment to parenthood may not be exactly the kind of people best suited for the role.