© 2008 F. Roger Devlin. This page © 2008 WTM
All rights reserved.
No property rights within the traditional family;
family as primal form of community
By F. ROGER DEVLIN
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Male provisioning may have arisen as an adaptation by early hominids to the more adverse climatic conditions they encountered upon migrating out of Africa. To this day, female food production remains the rule in much of Black Africa. The harsher climate of Eurasia, especially in its more northerly regions, is what requires male physical strength and foresight along with their female counterpart: more intensive nurturance of children.
According to a paper recently published in Current Anthropology, better use of the sexual division of labor may even be what gave modern humans the decisive competitive advantage over Neanderthals.  I would not wish to place too much weight upon an emergent and possibly untestable theory. But for many years, critics of feminism have been routinely dismissed as Neanderthals and Cavemen. It would be a gratifying vindication for us should it turn out that man's more primitive predecessors actually became extinct through "equality in the workplace." (It is also amusing to consider how our pampered feminists might have fared in the "hostile work environment" of the Middle Paleolithic.)
Although originating in response to difficult natural conditions, the practice of male provisioning survived into the era of diminished scarcity following the end of the last Ice Age and the rise of settled agriculture. That is what first allowed for capital accumulation, an essential precondition of civilization. We are fortunate indeed that the men of ancient Mesopotamia had no feminists around to convince them it was "sexist" to deny property rights to their wives. Those who generate wealth have a better idea of its value than those who are supported by others. It is doubtful whether civilization could have arisen with women in control of the prehistoric purse strings.
Few things generate more feminist ire than this traditional absence of female property rights within the family. Such retrospective indignation, however, is merely another example of the misunderstandings that can arise from not having to look harsh economic realities in the face.
The father, in his role as provider, had a duty to manage his family's property for
the long-term benefit of the family as a whole (including, of course, his wife). A man's
right to control the allotment of the wealth he himself produced was essentially tied to
that obligation. Feminists, as usual, perceive only the man's rights and not the
responsibilities from which they derived.
The sexes have not changed much since the Neolithic age, even if our ideas about "rights" have. Even today one can find men with six-figure salaries who cannot get out of debt. They do not live beyond their means; their wives do. In Schopenhauer's words, "Women think men are intended to earn money so that they may spend it." One of the traditional goals of rearing daughters has been precisely to disabuse them of this "natural" feminine way of thinking.
The consequences of failing to do so may be seen in certain recent developments in Europe. In 1999, a female British Labour Party politician announced plans "to compel employers to pay men's wages into their wives' bank accounts.... Wives will have sole discretion over whether or not they receive their husband's wages directly."  Meanwhile, in Germany a law has been proposed that "would require husbands to pay pocket money to their wives. Failure to pay pocket money ... could result in the offender being hauled into family court and ordered to pay." 
By contrast, the traditional housewife, besides being grateful for her husband's support and frugal with his resources, was expected to make her own contribution to the household:
She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.Such are the attributes of the good wife as described in
But that is quite different from having a career for the purpose of "self-realization." A
woman's traditional economic role is "family realization." A woman dedicated to
fulfilling that role might have been bewildered as to how she would benefit from property
rights that were legally enforceable against other members of her own
While the economic aspect of marriage is badly neglected today, we are hardly uninterested in economic matters per se. On the contrary, money may be the one thing modern man obsesses over as much as sex. Our economic concerns, however, are concentrated on success and consumption in the market rather than on providing for home and children. That is remarkable, because the primary reason men have traditionally pursued wealth in the first place is that they have families to support (or wish to have them).
Elementary economics textbooks dutifully inform students that the word economy comes from the Greek term for household management. But no significance is attributed to that bit of information, and it may be the last time a student of economics ever hears households mentioned. "Economy" can still be found employed in its original domestic sense by Samuel Johnson and other 18th-century writers. Only gradually was its meaning extended metaphorically into "political economy," the household management of the entire state, as it were. Once political economy had become a recognized discipline, "political" was dropped from the name as cumbersome and unnecessary to make the speaker's meaning clear. Subsequently, the original sense faded from men's minds. Factories and banks, not homes, came to be thought of as the principal settings of "economic" activity. Today we see journalists sloppily referring to the securities market as "the economy." So completely has the market driven out consideration of the household that one economist, Gary Becker, has recently used marginal-utility theory in attempting to reinterpret the natural family itself as being the result of economically rational calculation.
There is something quite odd about trying to explain the primary and natural fact of procreation by means of the secondary and derivative behavior of the market. Consider, for example, the observable fact that many parents willingly risk their lives to protect their offspring. Such self-sacrificial behavior might be called transeconomic. People will not do that sort of thing for merely economic goods. (The stories of men jumping from hotel windows following the 1929 stock-market crash, by the way, originated in a comedy routine of the time.) While people "value" both resources and children, the two classes of goods seem to be incommensurable. Families are a large part of the purpose of wealth.
The sale of children, indeed, is not unknown among the desperately poor. But the
difficult question for any exclusively economic analysis would be to explain why such a practice is not normal and universal; children most certainly consume enough resources to raise issues of "cost effectiveness." The present writer hopes human beings never become that rational. 
The economy of the home differs qualitatively as well as quantitatively from that of commercial enterprises or nations. The family actually does operate roughly according to the principle "from each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs." This communist slogan is not, in other words, intrinsically utopian; it is only utopian to extend the principle universally, in defiance of the ineliminable qualitative differences between the natural family and political society. (Many socialist writers lose sight of the familial inspiration of their ideal, but in the original socialist utopia described in Plato's Republic, Socrates explicitly recognizes that he is extending the preexisting familial principle to the polis.)
A second difference is that the home does not have a money economy. When the housewife of old spun wool to make clothing for her family, she was creating wealth adding human value to raw materials but the wealth found no monetary or numerical expression. So she could not calculate inputs and outputs, or the return on her invested labor. For that reason, muddle-headed feminists refer to the premodern woman's domestic labor as "unpaid."
Clearly, the traditional domestic economy was not "capitalist." But what was it?
The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936) famously distinguished two fundamental types of human connectedness: society and community.  Of these, community is both conceptually and historically prior. It is characterized by ascribed (i.e., unchosen) statuses, affective attachments to persons and places, strong habits and traditions, and a common worship. Work within a community is understood in the Aristotelian sense of energeia, as the realization of a natural potency, the carrying out of a meaningful task or vocation. The family is the prototype of all community.
Society is characterized by chosen or achieved statuses, self-interest, individualism, impersonality, contract, and competition. Work is understood not as a calling but as a job, an unpleasantness to be endured for the sake of extrinsic rewards such as money and status. The particular nature of the enterprise in which one competes may be a matter of indifference (e.g., dope-dealing being as good as agriculture). The commercial enterprise is the textbook example of a society understood by way of contrast to a community.
Communities such as families, family-based small businesses, villages, and religious congregations are the natural nurseries of larger and looser societies such as cities and large-scale business corporations: societies presuppose communities in a way communities do not presuppose societies. But even as society arises out of community, it has an inherent tendency to erode the natural soil from which it grew. Advanced societies are often marked by a nostalgic "quest for community," in Robert Nisbet's phrase, but members of such societies often fail to appreciate that a return to community would necessarily entail a sacrifice in freedom of personal action and possibly in material standard of living as well. These are the waters in which cult leaders and demagogues fish. Prominent among such false prophets in recent times have been feminists, calling the duties of married life "slavery" when they are in reality the indispensable basis for the family, and therefore of all real community.
Tönnies himself saw that his typological distinction is not sexually neutral: men can thrive in loose, competitive societies; women generally do not, or, if they do, they lose their femininity in the process. In prefeminist America, we may note, comfortably supported women with time on their hands often did volunteer work in their communities. Nothing is more foreign and terrible to a woman's original inborn nature, observed Tönnies, than trade, than independence as a contracting party and possessor of money. (Supporting a wife need not, be it noted, involve giving her money.) Conversely, nothing has been a greater factor in the modern encroachment of society upon community than the emancipation of women from communal bonds and pursuits.
My citation of a 19th-century sociologist to clarify the nature of the family, by the way, would probably have bewildered Tönnies himself. He could safely assume his readers already knew what a family was, and he used the concept to clarify the nature of other communities. But today, after several decades of a state-sponsored cult of individual gratification, Western Man might just require a course in sociology to grasp matters that the rest of the world has always considered too natural and obvious for explanation.
July 20, 2008
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