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The Road to Free-Market Family Policy


Maxine Eichner is the Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This post is part of a symposium highlighting the second issue of the Journal of Law and Political Economy. All of our posts highlighting releases of JLPE issue releases are here.

It’s well known that the United States is an outlier when it comes to how it expects families to provide the conditions, cash, and services their members need to thrive. Other wealthy democracies treat government as an integral partner in ensuring that families can provide what their members need: they guarantee paid parental leave so that parents can stay home with a new child, regular child-benefit checks to subsidize costs of raising children, and universal early childcare to ensure that kids get high-quality care. The United States provides none of these, instead requiring families to meet these needs through the market. US parents are expected to privately fund any time off work for caretaking and to pay for the goods and caretaking children and others need out of their own pockets. And while most other wealthy countries have passed laws limiting weekly work hours and mandated paid vacations to ensure that workers have adequate family time, the United States expects workers to privately negotiate both.

Why the US Preference for Markets Over Government??

What accounts for the US preference for markets over government when it comes to providing for families? Scholars have suggested a number of explanations for America’s exceptionalism on this issue.  Some have pointed to structural features of American government, others have focused on particular events in the nation’s history, and still others have targeted America’s unique history of racism. Another group, however, consisting of academics, and more often politicians and public intellectuals, suggest that the US reliance on markets and paid work over government derives from the country’s unique, longstanding economic ideology supporting free enterprise.  

In my contribution to the JLPE issue, I consider the plausibility of this last explanation, which I call the “market-veneration hypothesis,” to explain the lack of public economic support for families.  More specifically, I investigate the extent to which Americans’ economic ideology has been rooted in the expectation that families will and should rely on the market alone to meet their members’ needs, as the market-veneration hypothesis suggests. While no scholar has yet traced the extent to which this expectation has manifested over the course of the nation’s history, several eminent scholars have detailed Americans’ economic ideology vis-à-vis market and government in more limited eras. My contribution in this essay is to stitch together these historians’ work into a larger picture that captures Americans’ economic ideology over time in order to assess the validity of the market-veneration hypothesis.  

Rather than demonstrate continuous veneration of the market, this history shows that the constant in America’s mythology of economic provisioning was a commitment to ensuring that the economy, however structured, served the interests of American families

To be clear, my essay addresses the American mythology regarding how families should get the resources they need, rather than the reality of how families actually met their needs for economic resources. As mythology, the stories Americans told about this issue were and are subject to contestation. Despite this, as I show, at particular stages of US history, certain expectations about the ways families were expected to obtain resources supplanted others in public discussions— in the statements of politicians, legislators, and political activists, and the writings of journalists and public intellectuals—and these expectations shifted significantly over the course of US history.  And while this essay concerns ideas about economic provision rather than the reality, the stakes of this contest of ideas were and are real and large. After all, as President Bill Clinton put it in 1995, “America [itself] is an idea. . . . This country is an idea.” 

Is Veneration of Markets Intrinsically American?

My history of the US mythology of family provision sharply contradicts the market-veneration hypothesis. It shows that US views regarding how families should meet their needs for resources haven’t rested on an unwavering commitment to whatever the market provides—at least before this “free-market family ideology” was vigorously propounded beginning in the 1970s. Before the nineteenth century, agrarian independence rather than market provision was not only the expected norm, it was seen by the many homesteaders in the semi-subsistence culture that developed outside of the eastern seaboard, as well as by elites like Thomas Jefferson, as intrinsic to the American way. In fact, most early Americans distrusted the dependence they associated with the market and market relations. It’s true that the expectation that families should rely on markets alone eventually eclipsed the ideal of agrarian independence around the middle of the nineteenth century.  At that time, the rising comfort experienced by the nascent middle class in the expanding market economy helped lift a set of ideas, which began in the Northeast but spread broadly, that encouraged Americans to accept market society. Market provision, though, wasn’t presented in this discourse as intrinsically part of the American way, consequences be damned, as some scholars, pundits, and politicians assert today; instead, it was seen as a means to an end: ensuring that families got the resources they needed to flourish. During industrialization at the end of the nineteenth century, when it became clear that markets alone weren’t delivering on this promise of family wellbeing, a broad array of Americans—including labor advocates, muckraking journalists,  economists, and government officials—called for the government to enforce it.  The result was that, in the early twentieth century, government’s role in ensuring that families received the resources they needed to thrive became considered an intrinsic part of the nation’s social contract.

Rather than demonstrate continuous veneration of the market, this history shows that the constant in America’s pre-1970s mythology of economic provisioning was a commitment to ensuring that the economy, however structured, served the interests of American families. The free-market family ideology that began its ascendance in the last decades of the twentieth century comports with this tradition insofar as it, too, claimed that the free market best supported families’ wellbeing.  The rise of this ideology, I show, was no spontaneous outgrowth from the nation’s past respect for market; in fact, the period began with a consensus on both sides of the aisle that more needed to be done for families.

The upsurge of the belief that families needed to sink or swim in the free market was the result of a well-funded information campaign funded by wealthy libertarian billionaires, including the Koch brothers. 

Instead, the upsurge of the belief that families needed to sink or swim by themselves in the market was, in considerable part, the result of a well-funded information campaign funded by wealthy libertarian billionaires, including the Koch brothers, that sought to undermine belief in the power of government to improve lives.  To meet this end, the campaign sponsored and amplified the claim that government action, no matter how well intentioned, redounded to families’ detriment – a claim that had little valid empirical support. To increase receptiveness to this claim by the US public, the network leaned heavily on racist tropes about welfare queens and the laziness and dysfunction of single African American mothers.

Challenging Free-Market Family Ideology

The fact that the constant in US economic ideology has been the belief that the economy should support the wellbeing of families offers an opportunity to challenge free-market family ideology.  After five decades, the damage to US families that has resulted from this ideology is both large and readily apparent.  Those who seek to persuade the US public about the clear virtues of a more active role for government in family support, however, must still contend with both the large megaphone that right-wing advocacy organizations give to free-market disinformation about family wellbeing, as well as the large role that racism plays in causing Americans to accept that disinformation.