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Allan Carlson and the Politics of the Family

I reviewed Allan Carlson’s book Third Ways back in January, and since then I have been working my way through his rather enormous catalogue of work. President of The Howard Center, professor of history at Hillsdale College, and author of ten books and countless essays, not to mention the many other distinguishing appointments he has held, Dr. Carlson is prolific and treating extremely important questions. His work deals with the intersection of faith, politics, technology, and economics, all centering around the institution of the family as seen from a traditional Christian perspective. So why have I just now heard of him, and better yet, why haven’t you?

Probably the reason for Dr. Carlson’s relative anonymity among conservative Christians, and especially Evangelicals, is that he doesn’t really publish in the mainstream Christian market, and when he does interact with the Christian market, it is typically a Catholic one. This is consistent with his interest in Distributism, as well as his principled opposition to contraception. Another reason might be his economic emphases, decidedly different from the Austrian-style libertarianism that enjoys a sort of default popularity today, towards something that might be described as Old Left, or at least an Old Left that overlaps with an Old Right. One accessible place where this has found an audience is Front Porch Republic.

Dr. Carlson’s project could be summed as “familial economics.” This means that he emphasizes the family as the most basic social formation, what he calls the “natural family” (as opposed to the nuclear family), and he emphasizes the kind of economy that is not only “compatible” with the natural family but in fact supportive of it. In doing so, he challenges modern global capitalism from both directions. He is very much old Right, really old Right, in his critique of feminism, gay marriage, individualism, and contraception; he is very much old Left in his critique of industrial capitalism, his emphasis on labor and families over capital, and his support of localism over and against large-scale corporations. This amounts to an extreme social conservativism with a local-communal economics, and this is why he calls his project a “Third Way.” Not many are going to understand him, and fewer are going to like him. That doesn’t matter. He’s on the side of the angels, and that side doesn’t win with big numbers: it wins with truth.

Predecessors and Influences

As puzzling as it may be to contemporary American readers, trapped as they are in the polemic between postmodern progressivism and market conservatism, Dr. Carlson’s thought has many predecessors. Frederic LePlay is one of the earliest influences, whose work La Réforme Sociale is cited in Carlson’s From Cottage to Work Station (though curiously the citation lists “Pierre Guillaume” and “Frédéric LePlay” as two different authors, when in fact this is all the same person: Pierre-Guillaume-Frédéric Le Play). LePlay was a counter-revolutionary writer, engineer, sociologist, and economist in 19th-century France whose seminal studies of the working family were intended to inform State legislative support for households against the pulverizing tendencies of industrialism.

Other thinkers influential upon Carlson are Carle Zimmerman (whose 1947 work Family and Civilization was recently republished with an introduction by Dr. Carlson), Pitirim Sorokin, Karl Polanyi, and Wilhelm Röpke. More distinctively “religious” influences are Leo XIII, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Abraham Kuyper. That last name ought to be familiar to the Reformed audience, and indeed it might well offer the best bridge into Dr. Carlson’s political persuasion. “Kuyperianism” is certainly popular even today, though it often means many wildly different things to different people. Dr. Carlson provides a brief introduction to Kuyper’s socio-economic thought here.

Natural Family Economics

While some of the terminology may sound foreign, Dr. Carlson’s “natural family economics” ought to make immediate sense to traditionally-minded Christians, homeschoolers, “crunchy conservatives,” and even certain locally-minded Greens. It locates the family as the central political institution and thus the home as the center of the family’s life. It does emphasize a strong sexual complementarity, celebrating rather than apologizing for the unique ways in which the sexes contribute to the family’s life. This understanding of the family also “rests ideally on the ownership of the homestead, solid habits of work, adherence to inherited mores, internal self-reliance in crisis, and fecundity” (From Cottage to Work Station, 4).

That last quality brings Dr. Carlson’s work into direct conversation with some recent discussions on reproduction and economy. It also highlights the ways in which the family does not fit neatly with contemporary capitalism. Dr. Carlson is well aware of this. He does not identify the origins of social and moral decay in the 1960s. Instead, he goes back to David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus. It was the Industrial Revolution, not the cultural one, which really undermined traditional social, ethical, and religious values:

Industrialization tore asunder this settled, family-oriented European world. In historian John Demos’ words: “Family life was wrenched apart from the world of work – a veritable sea-change in social history.” The goods produced by factories using a division of labor rapidly displaced household-produced commodities such as cloth, shoes, and candles. The unique demands of the new machines, the construction of factories, and the need for labor discipline further severed the workplace from the home. In the new economic order, family living quickly ceased to have a dominant productive side. Family units tended to reorganize as places for shared consumption and shelter. Through legal changes abolishing the protections of rural tradition and guild privileges, labor became a commodity governed for the first time by a national, and eventually an international market. The reciprocal, complementary tasks of husbands and wives in household production were quickly leveled, and questions grew about gender roles in the new order. Older children, too, could forego the obedience demanded by lineage and birth and sell their own labor to manufacturers. In the industrial milieu, the inward-looking, autonomous, cooperative family changed into a collection of individuals in potential, and often real, competition with each other. As residual dependents, infants and small children had no immediate prospects for individual economic gain; the market mechanism left their fate uncertain. (From Cottage to Work Station, 2)

Seeing the problem in this way, Dr. Carlson is not simply going to offer up the typical Reaganomics as a solution. He’s much more attracted to Chesterbelloc, whose own thought owed much to Ruskin and the Chartists. The family wage is actually a central plank in his economic policy. In fact, in a book review of one feminist writer, he claims that the typical progressivist narrative is “not Marxist enough”:

It … ignores the true “great disruption” in family affairs that occurred about two hundred years ago: the industrial revolution. This upheaval displaced the home as the center of productive activity. It pulled fathers, mothers, and children out of households for work in centralized factories. It thrived on a hyper-individualism that denied the claims of family and community. The historical pageant of the last two centuries has actually been the seeking of ways to shelter families from the full logic of the industrial principle. This quest, not romance, was the true source of the breadwinner/homemaker model: the factories could have the fathers, but not the mothers and the children.

So we see that Dr. Carlson definitely does not want to return to the 1950s. He sees them not as a golden age of harmony between the needs of giant corporations and the household, but rather as the last and doomed attempt to arrest the inevitable march of modern industrial capitalism. And so going back is really just a waste of everyone’s time. That means that the only alternative is forward, and that means working from within our system, using the appropriate means at our disposal.

Not Afraid to Get Specific

One of Dr. Carlson’s great virtues is his willingness to put his (seemingly antiquated) views into practical application. In one place he offers seven general principles:

  • First, Treasure private property firmly in family hands as the foundation of a free society.
  • Second, Seek to decentralize, decentralize, decentralize.
  • Third, Understand that the central social and political challenge is to keep competition and the quest for efficiency out of the family and the local community; and at the same time to keep family-styled altruism out of central government.
  • Fourth, Defend the natural family economy through appeals to human biology and human history, emphasizing marriage and the generation of children.
  • Fifth, Place primary faith in cultural affirmations and defenses, and only secondary trust in state actions.
  • Sixth, Look to the infusion of religious energy into culture, politics, and economic life as the surest source of renewal. Only homo religiosus, economist Wilhelm Röpke’s name for man created in the image of God, only this ‘religious man’ can stand up to the servile heir of homo economicus, or ‘economic man.’
  • And finally, build on small acts. In the end, the Family Way means reconnecting everyday tasks with the great purposes of the Creator. Only then do common deeds bend toward transcendence.

More specifically, however, Dr. Carlson sees these principles taking action in our current political landscape in the following ways:

  • To break up, prudently, the great, politically-favored banks;
  • To restrict much more sharply the revolving door between regulated banks and corporations and their regulatory agencies;
  • To focus mortgage lending again on small, locally controlled savings banks (such as the pre-1981 American “Savings and Loans”) and on Credit Unions;
  • To end state “incentive packages” everywhere for migrating corporations;
  • To replace welfare benefits with opportunities for family property ownership and the creation of “children’s trusts.”
  • To limit direct and indirect mortgage subsidies – including tax benefits – to only one residence per family (disallowing them on “second” or vacation homes and investment properties);
  • To reduce property-taxes on homesteads of 3 to 20 acres.
  • To let real bankruptcy courts divvy up failed, albeit politically favored dinosaurs like General Motors;
  • To prosecute aggressively white-collar criminals who have violated the public trust through recklessness and fraud;
  • To redirect farm subsidies ($20 billion annually in the USA) away from vast agri-businesses toward the encouragement of small, general-purpose farms (with the quid pro quo that families receiving assistance would open their properties to visiting school children and others).
  • To loosen zoning laws and other restrictive covenants so as to allow greater use of family homes as places of work and production for market (e.g., telecommuting, professional offices, and so on [sic]) and multi-generational residence.
  • To mobilize credit, at favored rates, for new family businesses and other micro-enterprises.
  • To protect and encourage home education.
  • To impose a progressive corporate income tax on retail giants;
  • To improve greatly highway systems, both the asphalt and digital kinds;
  • To focus tax relief on families with dependent children; and
  • To end neo-imperialist adventures and “nation building” abroad, in order to restore the republic at home.

This is interesting because it is definitely more than just talking points. These are concrete suggestions that can be tested, implemented, and, over time, verified. It is also worth noting that Dr. Carlson has served on national and even international panels for family policies, so he has some experience with the world of politics. He is not simply a think-tank (or echo-chamber) writer.

The Importance of a Third Way

Writing as an Evangelical, I am under no illusions as to the counter-cultural and counter-intuitive nature of this sort of third way. It will be very confusing to many. There is, however, something of an ideological family tree that we can work with. We can start with Francis Schaeffer’s unique mixture of emphases. Moving back to Kuyper, we can then find similar themes in the Southern Agrarians, in R. L. Dabney, and even all the way back in John Calvin. Of course, Calvin, much like Augustine, has the unfortunate condition of being claimed by most everyone, under the supposition that this connection will provide precedent and justification for widely divergent points of view. Still, André Biéler’s treatment is conclusive. Calvin was consistent with the earlier medieval Christian tradition (see also this review of usury positions for a very enlightening picture into Calvin and the other Reformers’ economic views), and that means that similar third ways are not really unorthodox at all. Dr. Carlson’s positions fit comfortably within the scope of traditional Protestant social thought.

Still, whether one agrees with all of Dr. Carlson’s proposals is not the really important point. Instead, the point is that his work asks the right questions in an intelligent search for a true alternative to the political stalemate currently paralyzing America and much of Europe. The disintegration of the GOP has received massive press in recent months, and its leaders seem to think that the best way forward is to retain all of its objectionable old policies with the only modifications being immigration reform and the acceptance of gay marriage. The “Catholic moment”, that political fool’s gold of the ’80s, has passed. More and more Evangelicals are either moving toward a fuzzy-minded Democratic-Party-at-prayer in their social views, or simply dropping out. Something’s got to give.

In some ways Dr. Carlson might be called a conservative. He certainly seeks to conserve virtues which were held in common by nearly every world religion and culture, especially Christendom. And yet, on the other hand, he’s quite radical, challenging global capitalism at its most foundational assumptions. In both respects his project is intriguing, and it offers Christian citizens very clearly posed questions, insights, and suggestions for policy. If nothing else, it invites a thoughtful and daring conversation about pressing issues. We would do well to accept that invitation.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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