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Can There Be Capitalism Without the Bourgeois Family?

Noah Millman takes issue with some of the excerpts I’ve given from Schumpeter. But Schumpeter’s full view of the relationship between family, individualism, and capitalism can’t be captured in a brief quotation. If I had to give a close approximation of it, though, this is probably the most apt passage from Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy:

In the preceding chapter it was observed that the capitalist order entrusts the long-run interests of society to the upper strata of the bourgeoisie. They are really entrusted to the family motive operative in those strata. The bourgeoisie worked primarily in order to invest, and it was not so much a standard of consumption as a standard of accumulation that the bourgeoisie struggled for and tried to defend against governments that took the short-run view. With the decline of the driving power supplied by the family motive, the businessman’s time-horizon shrinks, roughly, to his life expectation. And he might now be less willing than he was to fulfill that function of earning, saving and investing even if he saw no reason to fear that the results would but swell his tax bills. He drifts into an anti-saving frame of mind and accepts with an increasing readiness anti-saving theories that are indicative of a short-run philosophy.

People once accumulated capital largely for the sake of their progeny. Now that they are less inclined to think about progeny, that is one more reason (among others Schumpeter gives in his book) for greater concern with immediate satisfactions rather than long-term capital development. The motive for defending accumulation against redistribution by the state has also been weakened. These are not only changes that affect actual economic practices, but they also condition the public’s receptivity to ideas that promise to solve short-run problems such as, say, unemployment by means of some sacrifice of capital. (To what extent unemployment actually is a short-run problem is something to think about, but this is where Schumpeter is coming from.)

Schumpeter need not have delved into Keynes’s personal life at any level—whether about his lack of children or his sexual preference—to set him up as the antithesis of Schumpeter’s own thought, for Keynes was both an advocate of short-term economics, by Schumpeter’s lights, and of modifying the bourgeois family. Keynes wrote in his 1925 essay “Am I a Liberal?“:

Birth Control and the use of Contraceptives, Marriage Laws, the treatment of sexual offences and abnormalities, the economic position of women, the economic position of the family,—in all these matters the existing state of the Law and of orthodoxy is still mediaeval—altogether out of touch with civilised opinion and civilised practice and with what individuals, educated and uneducated alike, say to one another in private. Let no one deceive himself with the idea that the change of opinion on these matters is one which only affects a small educated class on the crust of the human boiling. Let no one suppose that it is the working women who are going to be shocked by ideas of Birth Control or of Divorce Reform. For them these things suggest new liberty, emancipation from the most intolerable of tyrannies. A party which would discuss these things openly and wisely at its meetings would discover a new and living interest in the electorate—because politics would be dealing once more with matters about which every one wants to know and which deeply affect every one’s own life.

These questions also interlock with economic issues which cannot be evaded. Birth Control touches on one side the liberties of women, and on the other side the duty of the State to concern itself with the size of the population just as much as with the size of the army or the amount of the Budget. The position of wage-earning women and the project of the Family Wage affect not only the status of women, the first in the performance of paid work, and the second in the performance of unpaid work, but also raise the whole question whether wages should be fixed by the forces of supply and demand in accordance with the orthodox theories of laissez-faire, or whether we should begin to limit the freedom of those forces by reference to what is “fair” and “reasonable” having regard to all the circumstances.

Schumpeter saw Keynes’s political views about sex, no less than his economic views about state intervention, as paving the way to socialism. Keynes would probably have said they were leading to a capitalism of a different kind. Certainly Keynes was well aware of the political and economic implications of what he styled the “Sex Questions.”

(Note, by the way, that Keynes proposed supporting women’s economic and political emancipation not only by making contraception available but also by supporting a family wage. This isn’t quite the neoliberal mixture one finds among centrist democrats, or libertarians, today—it’s closer to what we now think of as the Scandinavian model.)

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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