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How Markets Hurt Kids
Several months ago, Rich Lowry, then editor of the National Review, wrote a column about day care that nicely illustrates the limitations of contemporary political conservatism. Aptly titled “Bring Back the Stay-at-Home Mom,” the article pointed to recent research suggesting that day care may not be as beneficial for children as the day-care industry and most feminists would have us believe. Although both the media and the academy appear eager to ignore or obscure their findings, scholars have noted the higher incidence of illness and violent behavior among children raised in day care, and some have argued that some children show “slowed cognitive development” from their day-care experience.
Lowry drew the correct conclusion that the best answer for most children would be more mothers remaining at home to raise their children. Parents surveyed usually agree that having one parent at home is far preferable to two parents working and putting their children into day care, even “quality day care.” “It should be the goal of public policy,” concluded Lowry, “to make it easier for these parents to act on their natural instincts.”
Amen. But then Lowry went off the rails dramatically. Rather than probe the historical, cultural, and economic reasons why many women seek an independent income and why many men are today hard-pressed to support a wife and children, Lowry simply blames the state. It is “our onerous tax regime” that has “forced both parents into the workplace.” He noted at the end of his piece that our culture “should stop showering praise and adulation on working moms,” but his programmatic cure-all is characteristically simple: Cut taxes.
In the eighteenth century, Adam Smith recognized how Christian moral principles could and should protect society from drives and desires the market encouraged (for example, the desire to look at pornography and the desire to make money by satisfying that desire and indeed turning it into an uncontrollable drive). By contrast, today mainstream conservatives tend to inveigh against the intrusive therapeutic state but avoid the hard questions about a highly intrusive corporate consumerism that interposes itself between family members and gives Mom and the kids independent incomes.
For example, before the late nineteenth century, most businesses thought it improper to address women and children directly in their advertising. Since then, the market has gradually encroached upon the family, inserting itself between husband and wife and between parents and children. By the 1950s, corporations discovered that selling music and movies to teenagers that their parents actually hated could be very lucrative.
Here the analysis of Christopher Lasch is more illuminating than the mainstream conservative one, since he was not content simply to fulminate against the state. Most of all, Lasch explained in 1990 in the journal World and I,
women work for wages because wage earning is the only form of work that is respected in a fully developed market economy. In theory, house work and child rearing are noble callings but the sentimental veneration of motherhood, even at the peak of its influence in the late nineteenth century, could never quite obscure the reality that unpaid labor, in our society, bears the stigma of social inferiority. Work is not likely to be honored, or even recognized as such, when money becomes the universal measure of value.
In his last book, Revolt of the Elites, he concluded: “It is increasingly clear that children pay the price for this invasion of the family by the market.”
Lasch was vilified by his former allies on the Left for his criticism of feminism and his breaking with the social nostrums of the Left. It is past time for Christians to show similar courage and press their conservative allies to face the limits of the market. While Christians have many good reasons to favor a free-market system, they must not paper over the deleterious impact its contemporary form has had on traditional institutions, especially upon divinely ordained institutions such as the family. Otherwise, a system beneficial in many respects becomes simply an idol.
—Gillis J. Harp