CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: by John BallantyneNews Weekly
Family values overlooked in the market-place
, February 2, 2008
Economists devalue families, to Australia's great cost, writes John Ballantyne.Recently, a prominent Australian economist and self-confessed atheist, Padraic McGuinness*, denied that Christians could have anything useful to say on economic and social questions. "The immorality of Christian social policy" was the haughty title of his recent article for Quadrant, the conservative monthly magazine he edited until recently. In it he castigated churches' economic and social policies for being "at best stupid and at worst wilfully immoral" (Quadrant, November 2007).
Some of his comments were doubtless justified, especially his targeting of some well-intentioned but misguided Christian organisations or "social justice" bodies which promote unworkable and economically damaging - and, I would add, anti-Christian - doctrines such as Marxism. But McGuinness was wrong to characterise all Christian thought on social matters as pernicious in this way.Crisis of modernity
The absence of Christian values in our political and economic thinking is a major part of the crisis of modernity. Although there are countless aspects of the economy that one could discuss from a Christian perspective, in this article I shall confine myself to considering the failure of contemporary policy-makers to recognise the economic value and spiritual importance for society of that most fundamental institution: the family.
Modern free-market economics, with its emphasis on economic growth, the profit motive and individual self-betterment, often over-simplifies matters and sidesteps the fact that few, very few, people exist as solitary beings answerable to no-one but themselves. In infancy, old age and sickness most people are dependent on others, just as when they are of working-age and in good health they are often providers for others.
The great Christian statesman of two centuries ago, the Irish-born Edmund Burke, spoke of "the little platoons" of our society - institutions such as the family, church, neighbourhood, workplace or professional association. He said that "to love the little platoon we belong to in society ... is the first link in the series by which we proceed toward a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it...".
Of these little platoons that make up society, the most fundamental one by far is the family, for it is a God-ordained institution that predates both the church and state. The term "economics", it should also be remembered, comes from the ancient Greek term oikonomia
, meaning wise management of a household for the long-term benefit of its members. Christians, then, are on firm ground in upholding the institution of the family as vital to the good of society.
Unfortunately, today the family has fewer and fewer friends in politics. Much of left-wing ideology is captive to radical feminists who excoriate the institution of marriage as patriarchal and oppressive to women, and who devalue motherhood as a sort of drudgery for which no intelligent woman should sacrifice a paid career.
The conservative side of politics, however, has not been equal to the task of defending the family adequately in recent times. It is true that the Howard Government did a few things for the family. It passed the Marriage Amendment Act of 2004, which enshrined the legal definition of marriage as being the union of a man and a woman, thereby preventing radical judges from re-defining marriage to accommodate same-sex couples (as had happened shortly before then in Canada and the American state of Massachusetts). It made at least some improvements to the disastrous and mis-named Family Law Act introduced in 1974 by Gough Whitlam's Attorney-General Lionel Murphy. It also adopted some electorally-popular measures such as financial benefits for families with dependent children (but unfortunately failed to index them to inflation).
Even while the Howard Government did these worthwhile things, its economic policies sometimes worked in opposition to the family. Most notorious of all, in my opinion, was the Coalition's response to a Western Australian referendum held on February 25, 2006 - the same day as the WA state election - in which a substantial majority of WA voters said "no" to proposals to deregulate shopping hours and to introduce seven-day trading in the Perth metropolitan area. The Howard Government's response was to impose on WA an annual fine of more than $7.5 million for its refusal to comply with the National Competition Council's demand for full deregulation of trading hours.
Britain's famous World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said: "Sunday is a divine and priceless institution, the necessary pause in the national life. It is the birthright of every British subject, our responsibility, privilege and duty to hand on to posterity."
Unfortunately, in today's Australia, as in much of the rest of the world, the supposed economic imperative of seven-day trading now takes precedence over the Christian birthright of families to one day of the week free of labour.
Some radical free-market economists see family responsibilities literally as an encumbrance on the "productive" side of the economy. When a woman leaves the paid workforce to have children, economic output is said to suffer, so everything must be done to entice her back into the paid workforce.
However, omitting from our national accounts figures the significant unpaid, or underpaid, work undertaken by a married woman in the household is a scandal, and gives people a very lopsided and incomplete picture of the economy. There is no logical reason for this. None other than Australia's internationally-renowned economist, Colin Clark (1905-1989) - a devout Christian and father of nine children - drew attention to this oversight many years ago.
Hailed as the father of the gross national product (GNP) for his 1930s work in the pioneering of modern national accounting methods, Clark later became the first economist to attempt to estimate the value of unpaid work undertaken in the household sector. In 1958 he came to the startling conclusion that it was responsible for between a third and a half of all work done in the economy.
In 1989, Melbourne University's economist, Dr Duncan Ironmonger, following Colin Clark's example, attempted to put a money value on Australia's household sector. He concluded: "Collectively the household is a far larger industry than any other sector of the 'market' economy. Australian households actually produce about three times the output of Australia's entire manufacturing industry; or ten times the GDP of Australia's much publicised mining industry."Linking generations
However, from a Christian point of view, there is something even more important than the mere economic contribution of household production. The family is God's ordained instrument for linking past and future generations and enabling civilised values to be passed on to the young.
A secular writer, the late Dr Alberta Siegel (1931-2001), professor of psychology at Stanford University - famous for her pioneering research on the effects of televised violence on children - once warned that civilisation depends for its survival on its ability to reproduce civilised values in the younger generation. She said: "When it comes to rearing children, every society is only 20 years from barbarism. Twenty years is all we have to accomplish the task of civilising the infants who are born into our midst each year. These savages know nothing of our language, our culture, our religion, our values, our customs or our interpersonal relations. The infant is totally ignorant about communism, fascism, democracy, civil liberties, the rights of the minority as contrasted with the prerogatives of the majority, respect, decency, honesty, customs, conventions and manners. The barbarian must be tamed if civilisation is to survive."
Today the survival and future of Christian civilisation itself is at stake. The great Anglo-American Christian poet and cultural commentator T.S. Eliot spoke of the peril of allowing Christian civilisation to decline. Should this happen, the task of rebuilding will take centuries. He said: "If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes. Then you must start painfully again, and you cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made. You must pass through many centuries of barbarism. We should not live to see the new culture, nor would our great-great-great-grandchildren: and if we did, not one of us would be happy in it."
Australian society today suffers from the family lacking sufficient time to perform its indispensable civilising role. What with both parents usually in the paid workforce - not necessarily out of choice but out of financial necessity - it is an increasing rarity for all members of a family to be seated together around the table for a meal. Children, instead of deriving their values from their parents, are increasingly vulnerable to the influences of today's coarse and toxic mass culture.
Much more could, and should, be done by government to recognise the importance of family and to enable it to discharge its functions better. Government should:
1) Strengthen marriage laws, discourage easy divorce and, indeed, treat marriage as a privileged institution, not to be treated as no more significant than a de facto couple shacking up together or a same-sex relationship.
2) Provide financial justice, either through tax relief or the payment of family benefits, for married couples with dependent children. This should be seen, not as a demeaning welfare payment, but as legitimate compensation for the loss of a second income when a mother leaves the paid workforce to have children, and for the considerable costs a family incurs in raising them. Genuine choice, not financial compulsion, should govern whether a mother with young children should return to the paid workforce or continue as a full-time homemaker.
3) Empower families to be able to exercise the maximum choice in how they raise and educate their children. Funding (or tax deductions) for "child care" should be paid, not to child-care institutions, but to parents who should be free to choose between raising their own children or hiring a paid stranger to do so. Funding for schools, instead of being paid by governments to schools, should be paid to families in the form of vouchers equal to the standard cost of educating a child of a given age. Parents could then spend the voucher on the school of their choice, government or independent.
Last, but not least, government should yield both to God's law and to voters and bring back the work-free Sunday.- John Ballantyne is editor of News Weekly. This article first appeared in Australian Presbyterian (December 2007).
* Padraic 'Paddy' McGuinness died at his Sydney home on 27 January 2008, after this issue of News Weekly
went to press.