Home' Policy Magazine : Policy Vol 32 - No 2 Contents BOOK REVIEWS
POLICY • Vol. 32 No. 2 • Winter 2016
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the primary
function of marriage was social. It was a way to build
families and, consequently, trust—the foundation
of a functioning society. Subsistence and sometimes
income were generated within the household by all
family members. These families were not strictly
nuclear either: multi-generational households
were common and extended families exerted
influence over the marital choices of individuals.
Economic changes driven by the Industrial
Revolution saw the growth of wage labour,
urbanisation, and the increasing tendency for
political and economic power to be vested in
individuals rather than households. Horwitz refers
to this process as ‘privatising the commons’ (p. 85).
Rather than marital choices being subject to eking
out a living, Horwitz writes that ‘the decision to
marry could be based on other elements of human
behaviour’ (p. 84); namely, love.
As the concept of contract gained a foothold in the
economic sphere as the means for doing business,
a similar shift took place in interpersonal relationships
whereby both parties were considered to contribute
to the household in some capacity. The first iteration
was the Victorian notion of ‘separate spheres’, but
the concept has persisted well into the 21st century,
where gender equality has added to love and
commitment as major characteristics of marriage
and the foundation of family life.
Horwitz is unabashed in what he credits for the
evolution of marriage and the family: capitalism.
By creating wealth (as opposed to mere subsistence)
outside the household, individuals were better
empowered to realise their own preferences when it
came to decisions surrounding marriage and family.
By declaring it ‘nearly impossible to create some kind
of firewall between economic change and cultural
change’ (p. 52), he implicitly rebuts conservatives
and progressives who want one kind of change
without the other.
Horwitz does not spend much time critiquing
conservative and progressive views of the family in
any great depth, preferring instead to put a positive
case for a classical liberal understanding of the family.
But this approach also reduces the book’s power as
a complete, alternative philosophy of the family
because common objections are left unaddressed.
One of the key insights on the topic of divorce is
that the costs of family breakdown must take into
account the happiness and well-being of the parents
as well as that of the children. This makes perfect
sense for those who believe, as Horwitz does, that the
function of the family (not just its form) has evolved
in response to the changes he explores. But for
those who continue to assert that the only function
of the family that matters vis-à-vis society is the
successful raising of children, it cannot be a compelling
argument. Hence there remains an unbridgeable
gulf between family traditionalists (as ahistorical
as their views might be) and classical liberals.
Likewise, the evolution of the institution of
marriage in the face of loosely-termed ‘market
forces’ is something for which Horwitz makes a
compelling case. The changes in the family Horwitz
explores could fairly be termed as organic—the
result of restrictions on human freedoms being
lifted through economic and political empowerment
Being a liberal and an optimist, the subsequent
changes in family functions and forms (such as step
and blended families, and same-sex marriage and
parenting) are not something I am inclined to fear
for their own sake. The trouble arises when the
economic incentives that individuals face are no longer
organic, but are instead constructed by governments
with tools such as the tax-and-transfer welfare state.
The welfare state and its manifold benefits, safety
nets, supplements and special assistance across the
Western world do constitute incentives. This is
the main reason why conservatives object to the
development of liberal attitudes to marriage and family
structure: it drives growth in the size of government,
which reduces the autonomy of the family from the
state. And the reverse can also be true: the welfare
state contributes to family breakdown by providing
an existence that relies neither on one’s own
production nor that within a household.
The classical liberal can fairly respond that it is
possible to dispense with the welfare state and have
the same pattern persist. The welfare state represents
a political challenge on which classical liberals and
conservatives can be united.
More interesting, however, is the book’s
contribution to academic and social debates on
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