Families & the Economy

Perils & Opportunities

The Covid-19 crisis has taught important lessons about economics. First, a true free market is simply a specialized expression of mutual human relationships, involving the voluntary exchange of material goods and services (from the same root word as "servant"). This market economy works well only when undergirded by the virtues of honesty, trust, fairness, and basic justice. Second, the contemporary globalized economy of frenzied energy, mass production, and bigness is actually quite fragile, subject to massive disruptions with high human costs. And third, recent aggressive government controls, even bans, on human economic exchanges also bring on mass unemployment and the disappearance of a wide range of necessary goods, from pork chops to toilet paper.

These lessons also point to an alternative economics, one that was being discovered by some young Christians even before the coronavirus scare.

"Everything I know becomes obsolete every 3–5 years," commented Minnesota software engineer Rory Groves. "It is difficult to build anything of a lasting inheritance for my children and future generations in this over-specialized field."

Welcome to "creative destruction," economist Joseph Schumpeter's apt description of life within industrial capitalism.

Rory and his wife Becca resolved to do something about it. They left the city and moved to a small farm, in order to gain "a more sustainable lifestyle, to grow our own food and keep animals," and to recover the "lost knowledge of living off the land." Now six years into this experiment, they have created a small family business resting on gardening, animal husbandry, and the tending of an orchard.

Without planning to do so, they also turned to home schooling. "It didn't feel congruent to send our kids away from the homestead," Rory explained, for the children "would miss out on all that we were experiencing." The Groves also discovered that choosing to keep them home also meant "that having more children is not financially prohibitive." Pleasant biological "economies of scale" emerged, and they welcomed their fifth child last August.

While gaining a certain independence in these ways, Rory and Becca Groves have also become more focused on building true community. They meet regularly with other homesteading families "for support and encouragement," and they help each other with the purchase of farm implements, machinery repair, and the slaughtering of chickens. In the summer months, the Groves family hosts outdoor worship services at their farm and a "Farm Camp" for children.

The Separation of Home & Workplace

In these ways, they are quietly and effectively defying the negative incentives of an industrial capitalist order. This is significant, for the existing dominant economic system actually poses two major threats to healthy family life. Most basically, the current industrial order rests—almost by definition—on the separation of workplace from home. Prior to 1800, for all of human history and in every land and culture, the normal practice was to live and work in the same place. This could be on a peasant or family farm, in an artisan's workshop, in a fisherman's cottage, or even in a nomad's tent.

The rise of factories, which initially used water or steam power, shattered such expectations and produced a fundamental breach in human relationships. Man and woman, husband and wife, would no longer form a productive economic unit. They were now commonly pulled in different directions: one to this factory or office; the other to a second industrial employer. Moreover, children, the aged, and the infirm lost their significant places in small family economies. They had been, in some ways, economic assets by helping with the light chores that need doing in any small enterprise. They now became liabilities.

Moreover, with active adults pulled out of their homes for 10 to 12 hours a day, a related question emerged: Who would care for the very young and the very old? The early answer was for couples to sharply reduce the number of children they had, through aggressive birth control and abortion (even where and when illegal). In the long run, the industrial order came up with other answers as well: commercial daycare and nursing homes.

The industry model also intruded into education. Home-centered learning, apprenticeships, and small private or religious schools gave way to mass state schools, organized for efficiency. Family autonomy again surrendered to the factory order.

Remarkably, albeit predictably, the Covid-19 scare has exposed the flaws in this system, from the near-collapse of mass state education to food shortages to the horrific death rates found in nursing homes.

The Lack of Limits

The second threat to family life has come from capitalism's lack of respect for limits, once the virtues of fairness and justice have been lost. Whether in the development of life-saving medicines or the production of hard-core pornography, the post-virtue capitalist order has relentlessly sought to meet demand—any demand—and increasingly to use advertising to create demand artificially. The remnants of many family-centered economies have commonly been bulldozed in the process.

As an example, The Wall Street Journal carried a remarkable article in 2017 on how one "super-sized" landowner in Kansas was crushing the prospects for family-scale farmers in his county. The owner of this mega-farm—we shall call him Mr. Smith—was 59 years old, unmarried, and without children or other heirs. He already owned 30,600 acres of cropland and reported annual profits in seven figures, even in the recent years of low commodity prices. As a good capitalist, he accomplished this through close attention to efficiency and scale.

But even with all of this bounty (including a grand farmhouse and two large vacation homes), Mr. Smith has never been satisfied. Whenever other cropland comes up for sale, he routinely outbids the young couples trying to get a start on the land. He has acknowledged this behavior, noting that people ask him, "Haven't you got enough by now?" His answer continues to be no. Capitalism unfettered from the virtues—even in agriculture—has no place for limits.

There is a human price. One of Mr. Smith's neighbors—Michael, age 29—has been trying for nearly a decade to buy or rent land to farm himself: "For as long as I can remember, it's been what I wanted to do." This has resulted in a grueling schedule, working for other farmers during the day while climbing out of bed early in the morning to make his own hay in the dark. It has also meant missing out on much of his son's early childhood.

When some new land recently came available for rent, Mr. Smith again beat him out. Michael remarked, "That's aggravating—opportunities like that where I could get some more land, but [absentee owners] will go directly to the big guys."

In addition, the Journal article reported that "young people are moving away" from that county, the local cooperatives are shriveling—Mr. Smith: "They can't change quickly enough to keep up with competition that can turn on a dime"—and the schools emptying. Moreover, on his death, this successful industrial farmer plans to place all of his land in a foundation or trust, where it would in effect be permanently alienated from potential ownership by future farm families.

This story is actually a textbook example of what the English author Hilaire Belloc calls the rise of "the Servile State," where farmland and other productive property is held by ever fewer persons, while the great majority remain without property and dependent on wages and/or government largesse.

Ralph Borsodi's Solution

So what should be done? Nearly a century ago, a Madison Avenue advertising executive named Ralph Borsodi keenly analyzed these very problems, and proposed a solution. In 1920, he and his Iowa-born wife, Myrtle Mae, seeking a better place in which to raise their boys, moved from Manhattan to an abandoned seven-acre farm in nearby Rockland County. That first summer, Myrtle Mae canned her garden's tomatoes and proudly presented them to her husband. "Does it really pay?" the economist in him asked. He did his calculations and found, to his surprise, that home canning using modern equipment was more cost-efficient than deriving the same product from a factory. Much of the cost of contemporary factory products, he found, derived from marketing, advertising, and distribution, not the item itself.

In books such as This Ugly Civilization (1929) and Flight from the City (1933),Borsodi mounted a strong critique of the hyper-industrialized American economy. He condemned federal court decisions that had given special constitutional rights to commercial corporations as "artificial persons" (confirmed in 2010 in the Citizens United case). The result, he said, was to facilitate a cascade of corporate misbehavior alongside granting privileges—such as limited liability and ease in raising capital through stocks and bonds—that were denied to families. He condemned, as well, all of the dominant economic theories, which uniformly ignored home production—ranging from home gardening and carpentry to maternal nursing—as a contribution to national wealth and human wellbeing.

Defending appropriate technology as a friend of small-scale family enterprise, Borsodi also targeted the real enemy: "It is the factory, not the machine, which is reducing all men and all commodities to a dead level of conformity. . . . It is the factory, not the machine, which destroys both the natural beauty and the natural wealth of man's environment." The factory, he continued, "has robbed men, women, and children of their contact with the soil; their intimacy with the growing of animals, birds, vegetables, trees, and flowers; their familiarity with the actual making of things."

His alternative was clear: a widespread restoration of productive homes, a new wave of homesteading that would heal the wounds of industrial capitalism. Each family, he held, should begin "an adventure in home production," rooted in "true organic homesteads . . . organized to function not only biologically and socially, but also economically." Gardens, chicken coops, a cow or goats, carpentry workshops, loom rooms: all such things contributed to strong family homes. In 1934, the Borsodis founded a School of Living to teach the skills of self-sufficiency.

In a way, the Borsodis also invented modern home schooling. Unhappy with the local public school, Ralph looked at Myrtle Mae and, "when I compared [her] to the average school teacher . . . I saw no reason why she could not teach the children just as well, if not better." They quickly discovered that only two hours of coursework a day were necessary for their boys to keep pace with their state school counterparts. The remaining hours could be filled with activities in the garden, the woods, and the workshops. Moreover, the Borsodis learned that true education "was really reciprocal; in the very effort to educate the boys, we educated ourselves."

Ralph Borsodi also explained how attachment to a homestead was bound to a flourishing family life. He found the "companionate" family model of the mid-twentieth century—which featured limited commitments by the spouses, relatively few children, and informed consumerism rather than functionality—to be inadequate. Rather, he believed, satisfying living meant being a "corporate member" of a true family, ideally including three generations living together, tied to inheritable land, and bearing a distinctive genealogy, values, history, and traditions. This, he held, was the surest path to happiness.

During the 1930s, "Borsodi homesteads" mushroomed, particularly in the Northeast. And yet, something important was missing. Curiously, Borsodi himself was a strong atheist. While he would work closely with groups such as the Catholic Rural Life Conference, the glue that helps intentional communities to survive the inevitable troubles or crises that arise—shared religious beliefs—was absent from his program.

A More Faith-Filled Path

Successful efforts at post-industrial living that emerged later in the twentieth century followed a different path. In 1973, the young Southern Baptist pastor Blair Adams and his wife Regina founded a storefront ministry in the then-troubled Hell's Kitchen area of lower Manhattan. They soon attracted a cluster of believers from diverse backgrounds: Puerto Rican, African American, Jewish, Italian, German, and Russian. Like the Borsodis over fifty years before, Adams's group sought ways to counter the urban squalor around them. They resolved to "de-industrialize" education and were among the first in their era to embrace homeschooling. Seeking some measure of independence in food, they planted vegetable gardens in nearby vacant lots. Believing that childbirth was not a pathology requiring hospitalization, they embraced home births. And, eschewing the nursing home industry, they cared for the aged and disabled members of their community in their homes.

Eventually seeking closer attachment to the soil, 120 believers left New York in the early 1980s to settle on a rented ten-acre farm in Colorado. Here, they learned the lessons of small-scale agriculture. A decade later, they acquired a large parcel of land on the Brazos de Dios ("Arms of God") River in Texas, which they christened the Homestead Heritage. They have since grown into a faith community now several thousand strong, still committed to individual and community self-sufficiency in food production, personal craftsmanship in furniture, pottery, and fabric, and sharing with their neighbors.

Their activities now include: holding an annual Homestead Fair at Thanksgiving that attracts 20,000 visitors; welcoming over 6,000 schoolchildren each year, along with another 40,000 curious visitors; and the creation of the Ploughshare Institute for Sustainable Culture, which—like the prior Borsodi School of Living—teaches young men and women how to thrive in a post-industrial order. Subjects taught include woodworking, beekeeping, gardening, sewing, weaving, and ax-making.

Potential Public Policy Reforms

These moves by families and small communities into a very new—and also very old—economic order represent ideal forms of action: voluntary, faith-based, and wonderfully free. Still, in a larger framework, such efforts must swim upstream against negative legal and regulatory currents. Accordingly, public policy changes could offer another vehicle for countering the destructive aspects of industrial capitalism, while reinvigorating healthy free exchanges. Specifically, the law can give the dominant economic system the one thing it cannot auto-generate: limits. Possible reforms include:

• At the state level, imposing a progressive land tax that leaves family-scale farms tax-free while encouraging the great landowners to break up their properties for sale;

• Using differential taxation to limit the number of chain stores that any one company can operate, thereby encouraging local ownership of and variety in retail outlets;

• Regulating banks so as to favor local credit unions and lending to small farming and manufacturing entities; and

• Adjusting corporate law to discourage consolidation and to favor division and decentralization.

Wouldn't this result in higher prices? Perhaps. Rory and Becca Groves, though, have a better answer. From conventional measures of price and efficiency, they admit that "it doesn't make sense" to live as homesteaders. However, "we find fulfillment and satisfaction in the work" of the homestead and "a common purpose to which Christ has called us."

Family-centered and child-rich: Might this be the economy of the Kingdom?

is the John Howard Distinguished Senior Fellow at the International Organization for the Family. His most recent book is Family Cycles: Strength, Decline & Renewal in American Domestic Life, 1630-2000 (Transaction, 2016). He and his wife have four grown children and nine grandchildren. A "cradle Lutheran," he worships in a congregation of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. He is a senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. 

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #54, Fall 2020 Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo54/families-economy


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