September 8th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: Lessons of the influx of 'boat people'

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Northern Territory election: why the CLP lost

SOUTH AUSTRALIA: SA Parliament debates third Euthanasia Bill

TRADE: Making sense of trade policy

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Bleak House, The gravy boat, The rights of children

WESTERN AUSTRALIA: WA drugs summit takes predictable path

Letters: Teaching infrastructure

Letters: In praise of Serong

COMMENT: Preferential option for the family

QUEENSLAND: Red tape swamps fishing industry - FABA

INTERVIEW: Networking key to success: anti-euthanasia activist

Books: 'The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon', by Anthony Summers

Books: It Ain't Necessarily So, David Murray, Joel Schwartz, S. Robert Lichter

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Preferential option for the family

by Dr George Pell

News Weekly, September 8, 2001

This is an abridged version of the important recent address by Dr George Pell, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, to a Quadrant magazine dinner in Sydney.

You may also download the complete text of Dr Pell's address as a PDF file.

The family in Australia once enjoyed a privileged place at law and in social and economic policy. Nothing epitomised this more than the 1907 landmark judgment of Henry Bourne Higgins, President of the newly established Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, in the Harvester case. As you know, the case established the basic wage, defined as a wage sufficient to support a working man, his dependent wife and three children "in frugal comfort". Higgins set the rate initially at two pounds and two shillings for a six day week.

I do not want to give the impression that I support everything Higgins did and said over his long and often controversial public career, but I think it is worth reflecting for a moment on the social arrangements that were put in place around the time of Federation to support the family, and how things have changed since. My concern is much less with economic theory than with practical living conditions (although Higgins' system lasted for 70 years through a depression and two world wars), but even more with the social consequences for the family of our economic arrangements.

The Harvester case is usually referred to as one of the key elements in the development of the raft of benevolent laws and social legislation - the "New Protection" as it was called - which Australian governments began to put in place in the wake of the economic crash of the 1890s. These laws were intended to minimise social conflict, especially conflict between labour and capital (thus the compulsory arbitration of industrial disputes before Higgins's court); to ensure a decent standard of living for workers and their families; and more broadly through the system of tariffs and economic protection, to encourage local industry and to maintain Australia's independence.

Higgins' Harvester judgment linked wages to human need, not only to profits or productivity. As historian John Hirst has remarked, it represented "an Australian act of defiance against the dictates of the market and an assertion that the country was to remain a true new world." It was also one of many measures in support of a great social experiment, keenly watched in Europe at the time, to build a peaceful, egalitarian and democratic society without revolution or violent upheaval. By and large that experiment was a tremendous success, and it is perhaps a function of that very success that over the last 30 years we have dispensed with most of the structures put in place to attain it, not just in the area of tariffs or industrial relations, but also in relation to the family.

Harvester placed the welfare of the family at the centre of social and economic policy from the beginnings of Federation. In a new nation concerned to minimise the divisions between rich and poor and to lay a solid basis for social stability this made perfect sense. As I will discuss in a moment, over the last 30 years an enormous amount of empirical work has been done on the relationship between marriage breakdown and family dysfunction, and the rise of the different social pathologies that pose such problems today for all of us, but especially for law enforcement agencies and health and welfare workers. One of the many things this research makes clear is that if you want to preserve social stability or to prevent it being slowly eroded, it makes good sense to buttress the stability of the family.

By the time the basic wage was abolished in 1973 Australia had become a very different place and new pressures on the family were emerging. In 1960, Australia became one of the first countries in the world to grant approval for the general distribution and use of the Pill.

The freedom this gave women to defer marriage and childbirth, limit the number of children and pursue a career coalesced with the rise of feminism to change the pattern of family life, not least in making the "traditional" family of male breadwinner and dependent partner and children a minority lifestyle today (fewer than 35 per cent of families with children under 15 in 2000).

This is not to suggest, of course, that the traditional family (man, woman and children) has become a minority lifestyle choice. On the contrary, couples with children under 15 constituted a little over 79 percent of all families with children under 15 in 2000, although in 1990 the figure was over 85 per cent. Over the same period single parent families headed by the mother rose from 13 per cent to almost 19 per cent.

Feminism, the Market and Family

Feminism also coalesced with changes in how we thought about the economy. As it became more and more difficult for families to maintain their standard of living on one income, feminism came to the rescue by sending wives out to work. This offset the disappearance of a family wage and enabled families to maintain and often improve their standard of living, at least initially, although for many poorer families today even two incomes are not enough and parents find they have to seek a "third income" in the form of additional part-time work at nights or on the weekend to make ends meet.

The way feminism helped offset the consequences of market reform on families and helped make those reforms possible by reinforcing the radical individualism of market ideology has led American sociologist Philip Selznick to claim only half-jokingly that in the 1970s and 80s feminism saved capitalism. If the one-income family had remained the norm in that period, market reforms would not have been able to go as far and as fast as they did, for fear that plummeting living standards would bring about a real social crisis. It is an interesting claim.

Now I am not saying that the collapse of the family was the consequence of some sort of unholy alliance or conspiracy between feminists and radical free-marketeers. But there is no doubt that in its day-to-day operations the market is interested in individuals only as workers with certain sets of skills, and not as people who may have families or who are performing work that might be inefficient, even costly but important to the wider common good.

The market is blind to these considerations. It is the role of society and government to flag these considerations as important and to make them register in the economic realm - the old basic wage is an example.

Contrary to some people's expectations, the Church is not an enemy of the market. Pope John Paul II stated the Church's approach very clearly in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. It is not a simple matter of saying that a free market economy is always and everywhere good. A great deal depends on what we mean in talking about a free market economy. If we mean "an economic system which recognises the fundamental and positive role of businesses, the market, private property, and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as human creativity in the economic sector," then the Church supports the free market. But if we mean "a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is religious and ethical," then the Church opposes it.

The relationship between economics and culture is complex, and there is no doubt that each powerfully influences the other in different ways in differing circumstances. The operation of the free market should be circumscribed by a legal order and by the interests of the common good, an important part of which is the strength and stability of the family.

It has often been said that the market relies on qualities that can only be described as moral qualities if it is to operate successfully: qualities such as truthfulness, honesty, conscientiousness, industriousness, self-discipline. We should not take it for granted that by and large business can be conducted in this country without the crippling levels of corruption endemic to other places in the world. This doesn't just happen. It is only made possible by deep moral values underlying the operation of the market.

When the free market begins to undermine the institutions which inculcate the values upon which it depends, it begins to undermine itself. If for no other reason, this is why champions of the free market should be concerned about the effects of the market on families - which is for most us the primary source of the values and standards by which we learn to live our lives. The problem comes about when the market is given pre-eminence over culture and the common good.

One indication of this problem is the emphasis that is currently placed on treating most important activities in our society as if they were businesses, or denying their economic significance altogether. The work of a woman who stays home with her children appears nowhere on any financial balance sheet. No wonder she can murmur "I'm only a housewife". Hospitals have become the health industry, and patients have become clients. Universities and schools have become the education industry and students and their parents have become consumers.

Another example is our present unwillingness or inability to address the corrosive effects of the market in the areas of entertainment, advertising and pornography. As the popularity of rap-singer Eminem shows, there are enormous markets in different forms of entertainment which are offensive, degrading, violent or obscene. Any attempt to place restrictions on the open-slather approach of the entertainment and advertising industries is greeted with outraged cries in defence of supposed artistic freedom, when in fact what is really at stake is profits. Genuine artistic merit is hardly ever a criterion.

It is only when we become a little bit like Marxists and insist that if only we can get the economics right everything else will look after itself that the blindness of the market becomes a problem. Only then do we get the situation we have in our society at the moment where the family is treated as something belonging strictly to the private sphere of life, as "a private life-style choice" with no consequences for social life more generally; and as something for which employers do not need to take responsibility.

One example is what some commentators have described as the disappearance of the eight-hour day; the greater and greater demands made on workers to put in longer hours, often driven by the implied threat or the fear that they might lose their job if they resist. This sort of thing is not always good for workers - at whatever level of responsibility, although some love it - and it is certainly not good for families or for children waiting for their parents to come home.

Other examples are the damaging effects of unemployment, and the squeezing of ordinary wage and salary earners, the decline in prosperity and numbers of the middle class, in contrast to the hyper-salaries of some top executives. To the extent these things feed into family breakdown and the de-socialisation of children (and they do), they are not good for the market either in the longer term, although the longer term is another one the market's blind spots.

Becoming risk-averse

There is no doubt that economics is important and that it influences social and cultural attitudes, especially when it is given pre-eminence.

We hear a lot of talk about risk-taking and the need to be flexible, open to change, willing to re-make oneself at a moment's notice to take advantage of new opportunities. Young people especially have been conditioned to "live with risk," but they do so, not as the fearless entrepreneurial heroes of free-market propaganda, but defensively and in a situation of more or less constant anxiety.

The irony is that for all the rhetoric of risk-taking, many or most people structure and live their lives to be risk-averse. The young woman of today, conditioned by the rhetoric of risk, ensures that she can support herself, "and given the high probability of divorce, will be careful not to put herself at the risk of dependency upon a man," even if she marries him.

These sorts of risk-averse behaviours are reinforced in other powerful ways. Double incomes provide couples with protection against job losses. Banks routinely require two incomes for a mortgage. Children at school, both boys and girls, are socialised in a way that emphasises accumulating skills, making money, attaining success as an individual: all necessary, of course, but which unbalanced by other values, emphasise their roles as workers and consumers, not as potential future parents and spouses.

Despite this, young people do not leave school and their own experience of family life hostile to family formation. Demographer Peter McDonald refers to surveys which show that in their early 20s Australians express a desire to marry and have at least two children. But by their early 30s "a high proportion are not married and their achieved fertility is considerably below an average of two children." McDonald's explanation is that in the intervening years "they learn about the market first hand. They learn to be risk-averse. They experience a system that does not value or reward those who have children. Indeed, it very obviously penalises those who have children, particularly women." And this is not just confined to the university-educated or to the professional classes. "Between 1986 and 1996, the fall in fertility was greater for women without qualifications than for those with a university degree."

It need not be this way, and saying this does not mean looking back nostalgically to the days of the basic wage. Other countries have been perhaps more successful at striking a balance between economic necessities and supporting the family.

France is sometimes sniffed at for persisting with subsidies for industry and farmers and protection of various kinds for important social institutions, and the impression is often given that as a consequence it is one of the economic sick-men of Europe. So I was surprised to read on the weekend that according to no less an authority than the OECD itself France is at present showing "robust economic growth" and "vigorous" job creation.

Michael Gove, the author of this article, a Eurosceptic editor at the Times, went on to draw a connection between the way the French have worked to preserve the traditional breadwinner role for men and the way the English have undermined this role through radical market reforms. By protecting industry and agriculture, the position of "the middle-aged, semi-skilled male worker" has also been protected. In France, such workers are more likely to have a steady income with which to provide for their family and "more likely to be engaged in the type of labour that maintains [their] dignity and prestige in the eyes of others." That is, he is less likely to be employed "flipping hamburgers [or] wearing a security guard's uniform."

An economic price has to be paid for this, of course, and despite the costs of preserving family stability, France is apparently not the basket case that some would have us believe. In fact, in terms of family breakdown and the social disruption that follows from it, it may well be England that is the basket case. Gove claims that because French men are not as frequently engaged in work that is demeaning to them as men, they are less likely to abandon their family commitments and less likely to be dumped by their wives. He supports this with the claim that while in 1960 the British divorce rate was lower than that in France, today it is now 35 percent higher. In 1998, births out of wedlock in the EU as a whole was at 26 percent, but in Britain it was almost 38 percent. Social pathology also has its costs, and both economically and socially they are much higher than the cost of encouraging and "privileging" the family.

Consider some of the consequences of high rates of family failure: large increases in psychiatric problems, both among children and single parents; large increases in physical health problems of many kinds; much higher risks of serious child abuse, including death; large rises in learning problems for children; an increase in negative attitudes about the self and others among the young; a much higher likelihood of using drugs and sexual promiscuity; and a very large proportion of criminal behaviour.

If we want to do something about this situation, we have to move to what I would call a preferential option for the family in social policy, law and our economic arrangements. There are many things this might comprise, including a re-examination of no-fault divorce.

A few years ago, Barry Maley at the Centre for Independent Studies suggested re-introducing fault, not as a ground for seeking divorce, but as one element in determining the custody of children and property settlements, and I think this is worth considering. I do not see why marriage should be the only contract people can walk away from without penalty. This is one of the reasons why there is so much bitterness attending the decisions of the Family Court. In any case, divorce should certainly be made harder and slower to get.

Divorce involving children damages the social environment. In the past, corporations were made to pay for the damage they caused the environment through special taxes, and one suggestion that has been made is that in cases involving couples with children, a divorce tax should be paid by the party found to be at fault to help defray the costs divorce forces society to pay. Whatever of this, I am strongly in favour of measures to make marriage and family financially attractive.

Parents who stick together and raise children well are doing all of us an enormous service. They should be rewarded for this, not penalised. Until the mid-1970s, families received tax deductions for a dependent spouse and children. This has been replaced by what is meant to be a more tightly targeted system of welfare payments.

The result, however, is that for an average wage-earner with a dependent spouse and three children, post-tax wages plus welfare fell by one quarter between 1950 and the early 1980s. A single income couple with two children on $30,000 a year receives a little under $4,400 in welfare; but a couple on $30,000 each with two children using childcare receives almost $8,600 in welfare!

This sort of bias against the family should be replaced with measures based on the rationale that healthy, well-adjusted children are the most important social investment for both the state and the community.

Religion and the Family

There is one more thing that remains to be said, and that concerns the role of religion in helping family life. I have mentioned the benefits that marriage and strong families bring to parents and children.

On all these indicators - health, life-satisfaction, educational success, avoidance of drugs, crime and sexual promiscuity - the benefits are even greater where the family has some sort of serious religious or spiritual orientation (measured by regular worship or participation).

The state can and should put measures in place which favour the family and support it, but it is intrinsically incapable of reversing present social trends and pathologies by itself. The primary initiative in turning things around lies with religion.

American psychologist Paul Vitz says that the "single-parent, divorced, broken or non-traditional family can be best understood as the secular family: the logical and necessary outcome of secularisation." Secularism is the philosophy of the isolated individual living in a world without transcendence.

It is a world where a crisis of meaning is inescapable, and with it, a crisis of the family. "As long as the dominant world view is modern secularism, there is little reason for any individual to choose even the restraints of marriage, much less the obligations and duties of parenthood," Vitz says.

For this reason, marriage and birth rates will continue to fall in the West for the foreseeable future. And this highlights how the weakness of the family is now at the point where it is beginning to undermine the strength of the state.

If we are concerned about the future prosperity and stability of our society, we should begin taking the failure of the family seriously. And if we seriously want to improve the situation for family life in our society, we will not only need to support it through policy measures.

We will also need to get religion.

The strong family is the religious family. True and effective love of one's children requires sacrifice, making a gift of oneself to others, and it is this sacrificial love that maximises the chance of an encounter with the transcendent.

We may not realise it yet, but the great and now rather dated experiment in radical secularism is ending. It has failed, and the failure of the family is one of the most important manifestations of this.

It is time for a radical change of outlook for all of us, and we need it to come soon - for our own good and for the good of the Australian achievement.

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