Renowned US author and founder of the World Congress of Families Dr Allan Carlson has long advocated establishing an economy based on the family and on widespread ownership of property. He recently visited Australia as guest of the Australian Family Association. News Weekly editor John Ballantyne interviewed him when he was in Melbourne.
JB: Dr. Carlson, who were some of your early intellectual influences?
AC: One person who deeply impressed me was American sociologist Robert Nisbet, who became a mentor and a friend. I was also impressed by people like Carle Zimmerman and Pitirim Sorokin. Their whole focus was that there was a model of family life that worked. Well, at a certain point, that model would fall apart for a variety of reasons, an atomistic period would set in, but then a reaction would occur and a new civilisation would build on the same common family model that had been successful in various cultures in various times and places.
I learned to think about family policy from someone on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, Gunnar Myrdal, and his wife Alva. They were socialists, and they were wrong about a lot of things, certainly in terms of what to do, what kind of policy to make. I think they were grievously wrong in some areas. On the other hand, they were quite brilliant in understanding and dissecting the family problem, and separating what I would call social and material influences from ideological influences. They were very honest in that, which is unusual among sociologists of the left.
Another influence who opened up some real insights was Nobel Prize-winning Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. I bought his book The Constitution of Liberty (1960). Well, again, there were a lot of things about it I disagreed with – some things I agreed with.
Unlike Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, the German-Swiss economist and author of A Humane Economy: The Social Framework of the Free Market (1960), understood that the family had to be at the centre of any economic analysis. He deserved a Nobel Prize, but died too young unfortunately.
JB: Why is it so difficult for societies today to agree to uphold the traditional definition of marriage?
AC: Well, borrowing from Carle Zimmerman’s work Family and Civilization (1947), we are now in an atomistic period in which our family system is indeed, on balance, breaking down. And it’s hard when that happens, and it’s happened before at other times – it’s even happened within our civilisation before. At those times it’s hard to call people back to common sense.
Honest social science – the overwhelming work of social science dealing with family issues over the last 30 to 40 years – has pointed to one compelling and absolutely true assertion: children do best when they grow up with their two natural parents who are married and who have committed to marriage for life. Any variation from that and children are going to face problems, predictably – whether that variation is step-parenting in second marriages, whether it’s gay parenting, as it’s now called, whether it’s single-parenting or sole-parenting – all of those other variations predictably do not do as well – not even anywhere near as close to doing well – as children growing up with their two natural parents.
Again, that’s not a statement of prejudice; it’s just a statement of fact. But the fact is just rejected today. Facts and reason have given way to sentiment, and the overwhelming sway of sentiment, particularly misleading sentiment, is the hallmark of an atomistic society, or what Pitirim Sorokin called a sensate culture.
JB: How should governments support families financially? In your writings you’ve contrasted the European way of assisting families via state child allowances, and the United States alternative of giving tax relief to families. Which works better?
AC: In America, I think the tax policy system works much better. We relieve parents raising children of most of at least their income tax burden, by carefully targeted credits, and tax exemptions or tax deductions tied to family size. I think that works better because it’s got a different psychology – it’s not the state giving you money, as a state child allowance does, but rather, you’re being allowed to keep more of what you’ve earned while you’re raising children.
I think that creates a much more positive dynamic than the European style, which is government allowances, government-paid childcare, government this, government that. Also the tax benefit model allows you to make more choices.
The Swedish model focuses – in effect, actually almost mandates – that young children will be placed in substitute day-care centres. I’m not going to quarrel with people who want to do that. My only quarrel is if the state mandates it to the deficiency of also supplying a similar support to parents with their children at home. Again, a tax policy model is neutral on that question. It lets parents in a sense spend the money they’re not spending on taxes, and decide how to do it, either to keep one parent at home, or find a way for maybe one of the parents to just work part-time, to do job-sharing, to balance their schedules in such a way, or in fact they can also buy childcare. But the point is it has to be equal – the state shouldn’t be favouring one or the other.
JB: How would you apply a family-centred approach to schooling? People like (the late) Milton and Rose Friedman advocated government-funded vouchers for schools. Others prefer government tax relief for non-government school fees.
AC: Well, ideally, again I would favour tax relief, or tax credits, over vouchers. The problem with vouchers is that they tend to lead to greater government control. At first, it may simply be that a school – a private school – will not be allowed discriminate on the basis of race or something. And I would say, okay, that’s reasonable. But pretty soon it’s going to be, “Well then, you really can’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.” Pretty soon the government slowly will creep in and expand the things you can and can’t do.
Home-schooling is an innovation that is spreading quite widely in America. There are ways for government to support that as well.
More broadly, for state schooling, my model would be community schools, but I think they should be radically decentralised. Each school, every community, every neighbourhood, village, township, whatever the unit is, should have a school. And in fact I’m not against tax-support for that school, as long as the taxes are raised just in the community, as long as the community itself is able to elect its own school board for that single district.
If a parent wants to send their children there for a full school day, that’s fine; but if they would prefer to send them there for just a couple of classes and teach them at home for the other courses, that would be fine. But again, keep it entirely flexible, keep it locally controlled, and keep central bureaucracies completely out of it, and make it open to all, mandated for none. I think that would be a true, free state school system.
JB: How can families protect their children from the toxic mass culture that surrounds us?
AC: The modern world keeps throwing up new things which complicate family life – automobiles, radios, televisions, the internet, video-games and so on – it’s a race. Yet to some degree I think every family needs to try itself to become a centre of real activity once again.
The family should not just be a shared place where you sleep at night, and once-in-a-while maybe have a meal together, of frozen food thawed out, but in fact becomes a real place of activity where in fact you matter to each other not just because of whatever affections and love you might have, and your history together, but because you’re supporting each other and helping each other, and doing things together of a truly productive nature. And in a way that means, yes, you keep the children busy enough so that they’re not sucked into the whole video-game culture. If I let myself go, I probably would be hooked on video-games if I ever let myself get into it; but fortunately I don’t have time. I think that’s the key: children have time.
JB: Alberta Siegel, an American professor of psychology, once said that every society is only 20 years away from barbarism. What can families and society do today to ensure that civilised Christian values are successfully reproduced in the younger generation?
AC: Well, to some degree I think, for example, most churches have not done a very good job of adapting to the new realities. They have not found ways in which to take things that used to work – old catechismal procedures and so on, which worked maybe 100 years ago, maybe even 50 years ago, particularly within, say, immigrant communities in America or Australia, places where there was still some residue of the older culture and the old affections, and the old attachments.
The old mechanisms of using state schools as a way of integrating people into the culture of a nation, certainly in the United States – well, most public schools do a dismal job of this, partly due to the tyranny of a certain kind of political correctness among the teachers’ unions. About the last thing they worry about is teaching American history in any way that they would want a child to be a part of it. What tends to get taught is all the bad things, whereas the ideals, the heroes and the good things have trouble breaking through…
JB: In Australia, we call that the “black armband” view of history.
AC: So the old systems have broken down. To some degree, parents have to take that upon themselves. Even if you’re not a home-schooling family, you should be a home-educating family, and you should be taking children to visit historic sites, taking them to see places where interesting things happened in the history of their country – or their community. Something like regular visits to family graveyards and family cemeteries, and little lectures, even though they’re going to roll their eyes at your telling them about great-grandma so-and-so, or great-uncle so-and-so, and what they did, the sacrifices they made. But begin to take that on yourself now. I think, though, it can still be effectively done. Again if family understands that it still is – that it needs to be – in fact must be the child’s primary educator – it’s one of the things that’s broken down in this world.
JB: Your latest book is called Third Ways: Family-Centred Economies – and Why They Disappeared. Many political figures, such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, have used the term “third way” to describe their political philosophy. How is yours different from theirs?
AC: I think what I would reject is probably the term “middle way” – that somehow you can find a “middle way” between classical liberal capitalism and some form of socialism, and that there’s somehow a middle way that kind of blends the two. That’s what I think Blair and Clinton and others have said. Marquis Childs wrote a book Sweden: The Middle Way (1936) about the Swedish model. That I don’t think is possible. In fact, I think the real problem is that there is a middle way, but it’s a blending together of the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism into something much worse.
A “third way” says it’s not trying to find itself in between the other two, but is based on other principles, the most fundamental principle being that you judge the health of the economy by the health of the families within it. Measures such as marital fertility rate, divorce – a low divorce rate – these would be the kinds of things you’d be looking for to say, “Ah, I think we’re succeeding”, instead of some random something like a gross national product, which simply measures goods and services.
But your real measures of economic health are the health of families, and even the happiness of families, and there are even ways that you can get some sense of how that’s working out. So, successful “third way” economies have included at various times and places societies that are focused on sustaining small-scale agriculture, societies premised on the concept of a family-wage model which protects the home autonomy, which protects parental child-bearing.
The distributist economy, which is focussed on small-scale property, is looking for measures and mechanisms to put productive private property – particularly the home and a little bit of land – in the hands of every family. And those have been “third way” experiments, some of which have been tried, some of which have succeeded for a time in various times and places. Those again are premised on a different measure of economic success.
JB: Most people have a rough idea of what free-market liberalism and state socialism mean, but would be unfamiliar with the concept of distributism. How would you explain the idea to people?
AC: Well, again, the fundamental premise of distributism is that private property is so important that everybody should have some. The problem has been that the modern economies – and I hesitate to call them free-market economies, because in many ways they are really not – still tend towards concentration. And in capitalism itself, even in its raw form, it has a tendency to do that, a tendency to consolidate.
A distributist economy is focused constantly on making sure property is moving downward, that is instead of upward, instead of being consolidated. It favours de-consolidation. It favours the small independent shop over the mega-chain. It favours the small family-farm over the mega-corporate farm, or the collectivised farm. And it does this through policies that focus on breaking up monopolies, or preventing their formation, and on favouring – through tax policies and other ways – on favouring the distribution of land and housing downwards, but in responsible ways. It’s not just randomly giving this stuff out, but in responsible ways, trying to create a class of owners who want to be owners, who want the independence that comes with being an owner.
JB: Why don’t our major parties offer voters these sensible, workable and attractive policies?
AC: Well, on the one hand it runs up against powerful forces which prefer the other way. The great corporations are not going to willingly go down this path. Those who own vast amounts of property and land will not willingly give it up on unfavourable terms, and they will in fact buy political power to protect themselves. That’s the modern political problem: politicians, to be frank – many of them at least – are for sale.
There’s another factor though too – and this may be the more difficult one. Hilaire Belloc, the French-born English writer and distributist thinker who wrote The Servile State (1912), talked about this. He wasn’t sure how many modern people really wanted to be free. He worried that they were comfortable falling into what he called the “servile state” where their basic needs, and their security at a very basic level, through welfare benefits in particular, would be enough to keep them content. He called it a new kind of slavery, but it was one where you were content.
Because, as he indicated, ownership of property, real ownership, is work. It comprises an investment of time, psychic energy, some risk, and … it’s work! He worried that modern society had so stripped people of the desire for real freedom and independence, they may be unwilling to make the reinvestment to become owners, to become a true owner.
JB: The political left has its favourite authors like Marx, Gramsci and Foucault. The free-market right has Ayn Rand, Hayek and Friedman. Which writers do you recommend for your distributist “third way”?
AC: Well, among Australians, B.A. Santamaria would be one to look at, particularly some early work he did on agrarian policy, and agrarian questions, when he was a fire-breathing distributist. But of course he learned from G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and other great British authors and writers.
Among contemporary American writers there is a wonderful fellow by the name of Wendell Berry, a poet, novelist and essayist. Among his works, the one that I would very much recommend is a brilliant book called Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays (1993). Other American works on these themes include Herbert Agar’s Land of the Free (1935) and a book by a group of American southerners called I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930). Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization (1947) is back in print again.
Among Catholic writers is the great American priest-activist, Fr Luigi Ligutti, whose book, Rural Roads to Security: America’s Third Struggle for Freedom (1940), is full of rich and brilliant ideas.
– Dr Allan Carlson, founder of the World Congress of Families, directs the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society. He was a special international guest speaker at the Australian Family Association’s national conference in Perth on October 18-19, 2008.