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The Free-Market Family: Liberalism, Families, and Government’s Responsibility to Regulate the Market

The movement to recognize that dependency is a basic feature of the human condition has helped liberal theory make great strides in the last three decades. In that time, many writers, including myself, have called attention to the fact that the autonomous citizens depicted in liberal political theory are never, in fact, completely autonomous in the sense that all they need from others is protection from encroachment on their rights (Eichner 2010). Further, to the extent that citizens are autonomous at all, they become so only through a long developmental process that requires copious amounts of caretaking and human development.

Attention to the fact of dependency, these theorists have asserted, changes the basic responsibilities of government. No longer can the state simply guarantee some combination of the freedom and equality that an autonomous adult would require, as traditional liberal theory would have it. Instead, the state must also concern itself with the project of ensuring that those within its borders get the caretaking and human development they need to become the sound adults depicted in liberal theory. Furthermore, the state must concern itself with ensuring that these sound adults stay that way, which also requires ensuring that adults get the caretaking they need. These responsibilities in turn require that the state attend to the well-being of families, the principal institution in which these tasks are accomplished in our society.

Families, though, are not black boxes that will produce the same outcomes regardless of their circumstances. Instead, the environment in which they function critically affects their well-being, as well as their ability to provide the caretaking and human development their members need. In modern, industrialized society, one of the institutions that most profoundly affects families is the market.1

Friedrich Engels long ago called attention to the market’s profound and, in that case, deeply harmful effects on working-class families in his description of life in Manchester, England, during the Industrial Revolution. In his account, the grueling demands of industrial labor decimated working-class families’ caretaking and human development functions. Market imperatives caused men, women, and children to work from early morning to late at night, leaving them too exhausted to nurture children. Meanwhile, infants were drugged with laudanum into quiet in their parents’ unheated flats while their families worked. The consequence was that children were never properly socialized. In short, the brutal economic circumstances that prevailed suffocated feelings of love and affection, eviscerated caretaking and human development, and led to the breakdown of the family (Engels [1845] 1975, 424-425).

Contemporary examples of the market’s destructive effects on families in the United States, where I write, tend to be somewhat tamer than in Engels’ time. Yet market forces are nevertheless having profoundly negative effects on U.S. families from the bottom to the top of the income ladder. These pressures create problems that look very different for families of different classes. Low-income families, and particularly poor families, clearly have it worst of all. Uncertain job prospects and low wages mean that many adults in this group won’t ever form the stable partnerships they badly want. Because of this, rising numbers of children are born to unmarried parents, and most children are at some point raised by single mothers. In addition, the economic pressures on low-income families mean that they can’t give their kids the sound start they need.

Yet the market’s harmful pressures extend even to families at the top of the income ladder. Families headed by professionals at the top of the income ladder generally have the money they need to support their families (although it may not always feel that way to them). But the long hours typically demanded by their jobs, combined with the many hours they put in to make sure that their kids will be economically stable once they leave home, make life a grinding slog. Their stress and exhaustion are aggravated by technology that means these parents are never completely off-the-clock, and always checking texts and emails from work, even when they’re home. Meeting all these demands leaves them stressed and overwhelmed.

Despite the harmful effects of contemporary market forces on families, government’s responsibility to regulate the market, and to ensure that the economy supports families, remains significantly undertheorized in liberal theory. This chapter begins to fill that gap.2 The first part argues that a fundamental responsibility of the liberal state must be to regulate societal institutions in order to support the circumstances that families need to thrive. The second part outlines the many ways that market forces in the United States are undermining the health of families. The third part argues that, insofar as the market isn’t delivering families the circumstances they need, it is government’s role to regulate markets and to structure the economy in order to support families. The first section explains that markets are not, as is often thought today, the economy itself. Instead, they are but one part of the economic system whose job, properly conceived, is to ensure that goods and resources support the well-being of citizens. This in turn necessitates supporting the well-being of families. The second section then lays out the tenets that should govern economic regulation to support families. These tenets would embed both markets and families into a larger economy whose purpose is to ensure that individuals get the resources they need - through families, market, and the government - to thrive.

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