“That Which is Not Seen” (Part II)

This short essay finishes my present reflections on the role of the family in the realm of political economy. For Part I of this duo, inspired by Bastiat’s famous essay by the title, “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas,” I invite you to begin here. Otherwise, read on, dear reader!


I have been blessed with incredible professors who give me interesting things to read (if you think this might be you… yes, it’s you). I am also blessed with this thing called the Internet, which provides an unimaginably huge garden of information through which I can discover more interesting things to read. The following thoughts are largely based upon a few of these readings: North’s work on institutions, Hayek’s writings on knowledge, Dr. Morse’s book Love and Economics (thank you, Acton), and a healthy dash of Josef Pieper, Adam Smith, and C.S. Lewis (surprising, I’m sure).

Permit me to begin with a speedy lesson on institutional economics.

We go about our daily business within the framework of our society’s formal and informal institutions. One side is labeled formal, since it is embodied primarily in our rule of law. The complimentary side of institutions are called informal, and they refer to the culturalreligious, and societal norms that also shape our behaviors. These both can be thought of as the “rules of the game,” and one of the many things that they provide is the incentive structure for our actions. For example, you may be more willing to invest in experimentation and invention if you know that your idea can be protected by patent law, which enables you to reap the rewards from your successful risk-taking.

Who plays this game? You and I, to be sure, and mainly through the organizations we are a part of (think civil society). These organizations are the political (parties and councils), economic (firms and unions), and educational (schools and training) bodies that were founded in order to fulfill specific purposes within our community.

North (1993) writes, “It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance” (VII). Taking enforcement as given, is there a relationship between these formal rules and informal norms? North and many others (notably going back to Smith) acknowledge this fact: Formal institutions are underpinned by the informal institutions of a society. There is much accumulated evidence (see here and here) to show that these two must fit together, otherwise the desired rule of law (one that unleashes economic prosperity) will not “stick.” In the spirit of this casual stream of consciousness, it might be fun to consider everyday examples:

  • Just because it was legal for me to watch PG-13 movies at the age of 13 did not, in fact, mean that my mother’s rules were the same, and I had to abide by her rules or suffer dreadful consequences. (And now my bookishness is beginning to make sense…)
  •  Although it would be legal to host a business meeting in a tree-house, it simply isn’t done. (A terribly inconvenient truth.)
  • There are many “forbidden fruits” in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that are still legally and socially acceptable in our society. Nevertheless, myriads of religious individuals continue to submit to the restrictions placed by their beliefs.

If informal institutions are truly the underlying determinant of formal institutions, upon which rests the fate of economic prosperity, then it becomes important that some of us specialize in shifting our gaze toward the informal institutions of culture and religion. Religious belief and cultural norms are often accepted as givens in economic analysis, but today I propose that this is no longer a valid or necessary assumption.

Enter, family.

Just as the rule of law is the embodiment of our formal institutions, the family is the manifestation of our informal institutions since religious and cultural beliefs are passed down within the sacred space of the home. To wander this small kingdom is to indeed wade into rich and deep waters, so I just want to focus on one thing that the family–above all–safeguards throughout generations: human dignity.

In this, there is no substitute for the role of the family. Organizations and institutions can treat a human being with dignity, and of course the best ones do, but they cannot possibly nourish human beings with the deep knowledge of their inherent dignity, moment to moment, like our family members do. Love and Economics contains a passage in which Morse reminds us of this hidden teaching, glimpsing into the rich love of the mother for her little one:

“People do things they do not fully understand, acting upon knowledge they truly possess but cannot fully express… [The mother] might tell you she folded laundry and did dishes. But she probably will not remember that she rewarded every little noise her baby made, by smiling at the baby, or imitating the baby’s sound, or having an imaginary conversation with him. Far more is going on between a normal mother and child than we would ever imagine…” (17).

If you are familiar with Hayek at all, the first sentence may have reminded you of his “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His main idea there, loosely paralleling the religious doctrine of human dignity, is that every single human being possesses an unique, irreplaceable knowledge of our world, equipping each to identify the best choice in surrounding situations better than anyone else. Above all, the knowledge and perspective that each of us stewards–mental models as North refers to them–have been extraordinarily shaped by our family. The understanding of our dignity or worth, and consequently that of others, can only be fully instilled by a mother and father who take it upon themselves to live out the greatness of their dignity as husband and wife and mother and father each day. And we know that dignity is the basis of institutions that support economic freedom and prosperity.

What might this mean in our current situation, when the decline of the family is hard, cold fact? In his foreword to Leisure the Basis of Culture, Fr. James Schall pulls us in with a striking sentence: “When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are.” This is my next task.

Morse travels back to the pioneers of political economy and posits that Adam Smith, and the subsequent family tree of classical liberal thinkers, held the rational assumption of close familial relationships when describing the workings of the free market with terms like “the invisible hand” and “spontaneous order.” Such close quarters with our kin inevitably grows mutual sympathy, the term Adam Smith uses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe the way that we learn to test our perceptions against the imagined or real praise or blame of others, thus cultivating our moral sentiments. The strength and prosperity of the market operating under formal institutions was rooted in this shaping of virtue.

I invite you to read “The American Family Today” at Pew Research (or just look around) to see that tightly-knit families are no longer a safe assumption in the United States. The covenantal bonds of family are rapidly dissolving all around us.

Before proceeding, however, far be it from me to claim that families will ever be perfect. For, far be it from imperfect humans to bind ourselves perfectly in covenant. Fortunately love doesn’t need perfect. It just needs patience, kindness, and all the rest. Though imperfect, the family is the single institution within which human beings are freely bound together for the purpose of love. It is the only place in the world where “do this” equates almost directly to “this is truly in your best interest.”

If families are no longer in place to perform their fundamental role in shaping moral sentiments and religious and cultural beliefs, what will happen to our formal institutions? (Or better yet: What is happening?) Speaking from her experiences as an adoptive parent, Dr. Morse points out that we are seeing a growing number of children who have never learned of their inherent dignity (and that of others), whether parental neglect, over-spoiling, or attachment disorder is to blame. My good friend C.S. Lewis vividly paints this picture better than any other:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We taught at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst” (The Abolition of Man).

If we are left only to operate under our formal institutions, we are saying that there is no prior reality, in fact, we are shifting our identity from mother and father to worker and citizen. The agora can either serve as a strong force for building community or a vulgar replacement for it; without dignity, all the power lies in the “rules of the game.”

We inherently ache to covenant ourselves to one another because it will fulfill us, and in no small way, remind us that we are more than our production and consumption capabilities. Depending on our covenants, our contracts will either make or break us.

But, materialism only robs us of our joy if we give it permission, and a healthy family is the best counterbalance to the world of labor, scarce resources, and efficiency. As Chesterton reminds us:

“Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that the home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.”

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