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Toward a Family Friendly Economy

July 30, 2019 by

painting by Donal
Painting by author

Progressive Christian friends often tell me that a more socialist economy would reduce social ills, such as abortion, by relieving financial pressures on working-class families and allowing them to flourish. If we ignore the fact that socialist politicians (especially of the contemporary variety) generally take a dim view of good old-fashioned values, and look at economics alone, we might ask whether a “socialistic economic life” is indeed the most Christian model. It’s clear that helping the poor is a key tenet of Christian doctrine, while ignoring them is not. Because of Christ’s mandate to “sell what you possess and give to the poor,” because of the Book of Acts, and because of the longing for a fairer society, some Christians are attracted to the socialist vision. But as farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka observed in The One Straw Revolution, “When a decision is made to cope with the symptoms of a problem, it is generally assumed that the corrective measures will solve the problem itself. They seldom do.” Social safety nets are vital to protect the most vulnerable in our society. But that doesn’t mean the age-old wisdom is wrong that handouts tend to undermine work ethic and self-respect.

The fact is, there is simply no substitute for satisfying work, quite apart from the income it generates. When I point this out to progressive friends, they typically shrug and say, “Well, there will never be a perfect welfare program, but we can’t just do nothing, right?” Right. And “doing nothing” is exactly what free-market capitalists (including many conservative Christians) suggest we do. This philosophy hardly needs a rebuttal; walk through the poor side of town to get an impression of how effectively the hands-off approach is working (or not working) for “the least of these my brothers.”

So, we must choose between a hand-out economy that offers little incentive to work and a sink-or-swim economy in which millions drown. I honestly don’t believe there is any sweet spot on that spectrum. I am convinced we need to look elsewhere.

If we take a step back from today’s red-hot political climate, we can see that in the great wheel of history, certain patterns repeat themselves. In the late nineteenth century, post-Enlightenment Europe freed itself from feudalism and became more secular and industrialized. A free-market economy emerged, with its inevitable exploitation and corporate greed. In reply, a radical new idea called socialism had hatched and was trying its wings.

Don’t wait for socialism to restore the family; instead, believe that the family has the power to restore society.

In 1891, amid this simmering social ferment, Pope Leo XIII penned the encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of the New Things), in which he condemned these twin evils and laid out in broad strokes what a truly Christian economy might look like. It was not the socialistic vision of C. S. Lewis, or the laissez-faire approach championed by many of today’s Christian politicians; but neither was it a compromise between the two. This was the first time the church had developed such a comprehensive stance on economic matters. Though deeply rooted in Biblical teaching, this was a “new thing” entirely; a viable third way.

Rerum Novarum laid a foundation that inspired the economic philosophy known as distributism. If capitalism is for big business and socialism is for big government, distributism is for big family. It considers “the society of a man’s house” to be the building block of general society, and works toward an economy in which families can flourish.

While socialists and capitalists argue over the rights of workers versus employers, distributists believe that workers should be self-employed as much as possible. This would mean a million small family-run businesses rather than a few titanic corporations. It would look like a deregulated environment for small enterprise (no lemonade stands being shut down) and aggressive anti-trust laws for big corporations (no Bayer-Monsanto mergers). It would be an environment that fosters self-sufficiency; instead of labor unions fighting management, it would be trade guilds in which workers and employers collaborate to advance their craft; instead of big banks, local credit unions. Rather than a Dickensian London or an Orwellian Animal Farm or some clever combination of the two, it would be Tolkien’s Hobbiton – that rustic little settlement that saved the world.

Of course, at the moment such an economy seems as distant and unreachable as Middle Earth, but there are real policies that could move the nation at least incrementally in that direction. In his recent book The Once and Future Worker, Oren Cass suggests a wage subsidy. Such a policy would encourage potential workers to go to work, rather than discouraging them with welfare payments. Better wage security could propagate a marriage culture in place of the current hook-up culture. Cass’s idea is unpopular with both tax-cut conservatives and raise-the-minimum-wage progressives, but it would surely entice more people into less-skilled jobs, keeping families together and helping small towns survive.

If you really want to change the world, you could turn off this screen and go read the classics to your children.

You are perhaps thinking, “So what do I do about it?” Well, you could cast a symbolic vote for the American Solidarity Party, which bases its economic policy on distributism. Or if you really want to change the world, you could turn off this screen and go read the classics to your children. Show them how to build beautiful things with their hands. Teach them to grow tomatoes to share with a neighbor who’s never tasted home-grown produce. In other words, nurture the garden of your family. Imbue honesty and hard work. These quaint, old-fashioned habits are the subversive tactics of the distributist. Don’t wait for socialism to restore the family; instead, believe that the family has the power to restore society.


Donal McKernan lives with his wife, Cornelia, and their two children at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in NSW Australia.

For more on the Christian and economics, see Plough’s latest quarterly magazine, Beyond Capitalism.

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