Capitalism and the Family

“Capitalism” in some circles, is blamed for the evils of materialism and selfishness, making humanity focus solely on consuming more and more, leaving us little time and attention for much else.

But let’s stop and ask: what was society so focused on before the Industrial Revolution, other than survival, food and shelter?

Was a society driven by the highest needs- food and shelter- listed in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs- better? Society was then composed of families bonded together not necessarily by love, but by the need survive.

Steve Horwitz’s new book, to be released September 2015- Hayek’s Modern Family– poses these questions and further explores the question of- What role has capitalism played in the family? What opportunities has capitalism created for society?

He argues“Understanding how capitalism has met our material needs is one thing, but as we more easily meet our material needs, we open up the ability to pursue all kinds of non-material values. The less time and fewer resources we have to spend on life’s necessities, the more we have to spend on things we want simply because we enjoy them. In 100 years, we’ve almost doubled the percentage of the income of the average American household being spent on things other than food, clothing, and shelter. We indulge our toys and our hobbies like never before. We give gifts and we travel. Even what we do spend on the necessities can be spent on not just items that are merely functional, but those that please us aesthetically. Our expenditures on food are on vastly better food than a century ago, if not even a generation ago.

More generally, this expansion of wealth has freed us to engage in education, art, and leisure that was possible only to a tiny fraction of humanity for most of our history. Even relatively poor Americans can get a college education and have access to books, music, and art that even the wealthy of generations past did not have. For others, the expansion of wealth is an opportunity to create knowledge, music, literature, and art that would not have been available generations before. Even the fact that so many young people spend the first 18 to 22 years of their lives just learning and not engaged in much in the way of economic production is a luxury of the wealth capitalism has produced.”

Horwitz also addresses the naysayers of capitalism- “Consider these points in light of the frequent complaint that capitalism makes people overly materialistic and focused disproportionately on money and profit. By contrast, I would argue that market capitalism has freed us from a focus on the material and the narrowly economic by producing so much material well-being and economic growth that such concerns can be less central to our daily lives. Capitalism has freed us to pursue an ever-expanding range of non-material interests and values.”

Not only has capitalism been an impetus of change for our “non-material interests and values,” but also for the function of the family in society.

“The changes in economic activity and the wealth that capitalism brought have freed the family from a concern with material survival and have opened the space for it to be the site of our deepest non-material aspirations,” argues Horwitz. “We look to the family for love and emotional satisfaction rather than sheer survival.”

To be sure, capitalism has not been the sole force of change in any of these realms. But before disbarring capitalism, one must step back and analyze in what ways it has been a force of positive change and what benefits society has reaped.

For mroe of Steve Horwitz book, check out this preview of his argument. 

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