Allan Carlson’s Third Ways is not a new release. It has been out for nearly six years now, but it still seems relevant and even forward-looking. The news has had several recent discussions about the question of child-bearing and child-rearing. And of course, no one seems to be satisfied with the current Left Wing / Right Wing divide of American politics, as the bifurcation leaves out the concerns of a large portion of the general population. But what would an alternative actually look like? Allan Carlson attempts in this book to give us an answer. He offers up many truly different options, listing seven different political and economic attempts made during the 20th century. Though quite different in important respects, each of these “third ways” is centered around the domestic household and the local community. And in this way, each is both “conservative” and “liberal” in surprising ways.
The different “third ways” were all attempted in the first half of the 20th century, with the last and most diverse movement continuing on today. In order, these are: (1) the Distributism of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, (2) the Family-Wage policy, (3) Alexander Chayanov and the Russian Peasant Utopia, (4) the post-peasant Green Movement in Eastern Europe, (5) the Swedish Socialist Housewives, (6) Karl Polanyi’s market-less economy, and (7) the pan-European Christian Democratic movement. While the differences might at times be as significant as the similarities, each of these represent protesting movements against the more dominant political theories of the 20th century, being neither communistic nor fully capitalistic, but each also attempting, however successfully, to offer correctives from within their respective systems in order to create realistic options for the near future.
The chapters are of uneven quality. Some commentators have even complained that Dr. Carlson gives too superficial a treatment to the Green movements of Eastern Europe, while others have said that he is too optimistic as regards the successes and lasting legacies of the Distributists. And in a way, one might criticize Third Ways for being more of an apologetic than a history. This would seem to miss the point, however, as Dr. Carlson is not so much attempting to give exhaustive treatment to, nor to vindicate, any particular movement or policy in this book. He is simply trying to introduce a mostly unfamiliar audience to the possibility of alternatives to the late capitalist system. With the current intellectual landscape so barren in this regard, Dr. Carlson is actually one of those few voices pointing to the foundational issues of our societal dilemmas, and when he is at his best, he is downright inspirational in his vision and prescriptive suggestions. One doesn’t have to agree with everything in Third Ways to find real encouragement to continue working towards a better way.
One of the more surprising and stimulating aspects to Dr. Carlson’s work over the years is his ability to employ Marxism’s own critiques of both capitalism and industrial communism against socially destructive principles presumed by both Left and Right. That’s certainly a feature in this book, particularly in his treatment of Chayanov, the Eastern-European Greens, and the Swedish Socialist Housewives. The problem of alienation is by no means solved in a technocratic socialist economy, and Dr. Carlson trenchantly critiques most of what, in the 20th century, went by the names “Communism” and “Socialism.” As Dr. Carlson would say, these movements weren’t Marxist enough, in a way. Still, Carlson is more at home when he treats the traditionally-minded Christian critiques of industrial capitalism. This is especially evident in his chapters on the Chesterbelloc, the British and American Family-Wage, and the Christian Democrats of Europe. We do not want to wholly overlook the other chapters mentioned just earlier; in fact, it is very important to remember that different political models work with differing degrees of efficiency and ease in other cultures, and Eastern Europe is in many ways positioned to advance its own sort of “third way” in the coming generation. We can hope that some of its leaders will take notice of the precedents set in their regional histories. Still, it seems that the ways of the Christian domestic household existing within late capitalism are nearest to contemporary Westerners and therefore most relevant to their immediate concerns. For this reason, and in the interest of space, we will limit our further comments to the first, second, and seventh chapters.
Dr. Carlson’s chapter on Chesterton and Belloc is very good. At a time when C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton enjoy what is perhaps an all-time high in familiarity and popularity, still, very few people are acquainted with the economic and political thought of Distributism with which both Chesterton and Tolkien were associated. Dr. Carlson argues that, contrary to many critical claims, Distributism was not an idiosyncratic ideal concocted by Belloc and then popularized by Chesterton. It was instead a consistent outworking of the Catholic social teaching of the 19th century, particularly the papal bull Rerum Novarum (5). In fact, Chesteron preceded Belloc, at least in print, in expounding Distributist critiques of English capitalism (8). Dr. Carlson goes on to explain the exact points of critique and alternative proposals made by Chesteron and Belloc, noting their emphasis on land-holding, local culture, and the promise of the suburbs.
Perhaps the most helpful portion of Carlson’s treatment here is his summary of Belloc’s critique of capitalism. Belloc argued that there were seven basic reasons why ordinary “free market” societies inevitably turn into corporate monopolies: (1) the cost of overhead is proportionally cheaper on the larger scale than on the smaller; (2) the larger corporation is able to purchase and control machinery and information, especially advertising, “one of the worst plagues of English modern life”; (3) credit economies favor the larger units who can borrow more money more easily, changing interest rates and controlling the interests of the banks; (4) large-scale companies can almost always undersell smaller companies at a temporary loss in order to destroy competition; 5) capital is too difficult to come by for smaller entities to risk enough to begin competing against already large businesses; (6) Powerful corporations corrupt the legislature, resulting in crony capitalism; and (7) true justice is not in the system’s interest, because “the cost of recovering a small debt is out of all proportion to the cost of recovering a large one” (24). For these reasons, Belloc believed that capitalism lead either to a government takeover of industry, as in fascism, or in the corporate takeover of government, what he called the servile state.
Belloc predicted that the future would see the loss of property-holding citizens, high taxation which would destroy the Middle Class, a plutocracy financed by bank credit, and a welfare state that provided the needs formerly considered to be under the jurisdiction of the family. From today’s point of view, it is hard to see anything that Belloc missed. Belloc saw all of this flowing out of the so-called free market, given the uneven economic landscape and subsequent time. The Distributist counter-proposal was to make use of government power to support the family and local communities, and they had no qualms calling for heavy taxation upon big businesses and for state distribution of land among all of the citizenry. This was something that was never to be, too outrageous for even the average “progressive”, let alone the moderates and “conservatives.”
Most people view Distributism as a failure, not much more than a well-intentioned but impossible dream. Dr. Carlson tries to push back against this perception, noting something of an intellectual succession in various figures and minor economic policies in Britain, Canada, Australia, and the United States. Still, this seems more like wishful thinking, as each example can just as easily be seen as but a modest accommodation by the servile state to certain demands of an opposition which would ultimately prove ineffective. Readily available loans, courtesy of the US Federal Housing Administration (31), certainly do not seem to have done much for the American household. Likewise the family has not fared well in Britain, Canada, or Australia. In retrospect, the Distributists, while helpful critics and conversation partners, do not seem to have been all that clear on immediate and practical options for achieving stronger families and a more level playing field. While not giving us much by way of politics, perhaps the Distributists can help us with meta-politics, pointing us towards a necessarily religious and philosophical framework for crafting a better politics.
The most helpful chapter, viewed from the point of view of contemporary America, was the second one, titled “The Wages of Kin: Building a Secular Family-Wage Regime.” Dr. Carlson successfully shows how the early capitalists, and especially Adam Smith, presupposed a strong domestic family as a basic unit of their political and economic system. As such, they always expected to see a “family wage” so that a single-worker, almost always the husband, could provide for his wife and children, allowing them to remain at home and craft a strong and meaningful domestic identity (36–39). This condition was deemed basic to social justice. The major mistake of thinkers like Smith, and also David Ricardo, was that they thought this sort of family-wage would arise naturally from the market. To quite the contrary, it could only ever exist when defended by the state. Apart from state support, the family wage could not survive, and as Dr. Carlson convincingly shows, eventually neither could the family.
The family wage continued to exist in the United States, in some form, until 1970, but through the combined efforts of social progressives, calling for sexual equality, and fiscal conservatives, calling for certain market liberties, it was finally done away with. This actually had the effect of increasing poverty among families:
Between 1980 and 1991, for example, the real income of married couple families with the husband as the sole earner declined by 6 percent, while the real income of married, two-earner families rose by 5 percent. Over the same period, the proportion of married couple families with children below the poverty level climbed by 10 percent. (51)
The logic is fairly simple. Without a family wage, both mom and dad have to get a job. And this meant that “American families became fully industrialized or commodified for the first time” (51) and “the material basis of the individual family disappear[ed] in the sphere of consumption” (52). Marshalling a wide array of studies and statistics from the second half of the 20th century, Dr. Carlson shows that “the universalization of wage labor” contributed directly to the growth of “corporate capitalism and the centralizing state,” both “at the expense of the family” (53).
As the economy went, so did the social choices of the American people and the health of the family. Carlson shows that there was a direct relationship between “the decline of the family-wage system and a growing avoidance of marriage” (52), as well as a similar relationship between the decline in the family wage and the marital fertility rate. When families made less money as families, they had fewer children. This reality is one that conservative Christians who try to simultaneously promote libertarian-style markets and “family values” need to face up to: Will your wife drive the forklift at Walmart, or does it have to be mine? That supposes, of course, that any of us will still be getting married in the future, something no longer safe to simply take for granted.
Conservatives are currently decrying the erosion of the family, the declining birthrates, and the government’s role in promoting contraception and even abortion under the guise of healthcare. All of this, they would say, is evidence of decadence and decay, even a violation of social justice. Yet they continue doggedly to promote anti-family economic policies, policies that are sure to discourage fertility and the domestic home, which means that they will encourage all of those things conservatives decry. The family’s commodification affects employment choices, but also education options for the children and ordinary prices for home, transportation, food, and more. Has not one of our own poets said, “If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense”? And currently, starting a family most certainly does not make economic sense. American conservatives are caught in their own trap.
So then why not propose family-friendly legislation? Obviously this cannot mean simply blocking female employment or forcing citizens to start families against their will, but it can mean making the domestic family a more attractive and appealing option. The family wage was meant to provide freedom, the freedom to raise families and provide local nurture and educational options. Furthermore, John D. Mueller has in the past proposed a family-friendly flat tax. Until “conservative” politicians begin to pay attention to the economic health of the family, they shouldn’t be surprised when people don’t pay attention to their calls to protect the ethical health of the family. Even more, they shouldn’t be surprised when people simply don’t believe them.
Dr. Carlson also covers the Christian Democrats of Europe. These theologians and politicians are the most diverse, spanning nearly a hundred years and composed of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and even Neo-Calvinist thinkers. Starting with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, Carlson also mentions Étienne Gilson, Abraham Kuyper, and Wilhelm Röpke as significant names in this movement. Standing on human rights and the natural law, these Christian democrats favored the use of “public policy to refunctionalize, and so strengthen, families” (155). This would involve tax benefits for marriage and childrearing, as well as the restriction of giant corporations from squeezing out local retail.
This “Christian Democracy” is still ongoing, and Dr. Carlson points to some of its most significant achievements in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948” (167), the “‘Mexico City Declaration’ of the World Congress of Families” in 2004, and the European Union’s “Family First Declaration” in 2005 (171). Each of these locates the family as the primary social unit and looks for a promotion of the domestic sphere as the means to revitalize the larger society.
Carlson notes that “there has never been a serious Christian Democratic party in America” (172), and therefore the relationship between economy and religious ideology has been tenuous at best. With the rise of the “New Calvinism,” the further promotion of Kuyper and Neo-Calvinism’s literary body of work, and the ubiquitous use of “worldview” terminology among American writers and media, we can hope that this will change in the future. But this might require conservative American Christians to give priority to Amsterdam over Austria, a seemingly tall order.
Third Ways concludes with Dr. Carlson’s prescription for the future. He has presented portraits of various movements which call for state force in the promotion of mostly traditional Christian domestic households. Thus understanding that he has confounded both the “right” and “left” wings of American politics, he offers up six concluding thoughts (185–86):
In a way, these remarks sound like reassurances that the vision is still properly conservative. And in a certain way, it is. Traditionally minded Christians ought to be the ones most sympathetic to the concerns and needs of the family. However, we shouldn’t miss just how deep has been, throughout this book, the criticism of what is currently thought of as “fiscal conservatism”. The unified “way” which Third Ways attempts to set up throughout is one which puts the domestic family at the center of the social vision, believing that only with its success and well-being can the individual or the larger society ever truly prosper. Ironically, this borrows elements from both “social” conservatism and fiscal “liberalism,” something close to the polar opposite of Rupert Murdoch.
Third Ways is a provocative and persuasive book. While leaving open many pressing questions, which concern both general principles of political constitution and specific questions of logistics, Dr. Carlson is profoundly successful in making his case. Perhaps most of all, this book helps expand political imagination, and that is the most fundamental issue facing American politics now. We certainly do need a “Third Way,” and we can only hope this book serves as a signpost toward that road.