The greatest difference between a familist society and an individualist society might concern whether to respond to growing income by seeking more consumption or more leisure. In the individualist society, once basic manufactured goods were available to all, most people might nevertheless choose to continue to work long hours away from their families in order to afford either high-status versions of standard, widespread manufactured goods—Maseratis instead of Hyundais—or high-status luxury services like those provided by personal shoppers, pedicurists, or plastic surgeons.
But interpersonal arms races for trophy goods and trophy services are unlikely to incentivize investment in productivity growth in standardized, mass-produced consumption goods or home appliances that augment unpaid domestic labor. In a familist society, such wasteful and frivolous competition for high-status consumption would be kept in check by high consumption taxes which would fall on luxuries but exempt necessities. To influence the trade-off between buying a luxury car and having a second child, a familist government would make raising children cheaper and owning luxury cars more expensive.
What about the welfare state? Here a familist society might depart radically from the individualist model, by making the nuclear or extended family—not the individual—the unit for purposes of welfare policy and taxation. Tax credits for childcare and eldercare should go not to individuals but to the family unit, including perhaps the grandparents or siblings or other relatives. Multigenerational families, not the government, should decide on the division of caregiving labor within the family.
Property taxes on homes should be lower for families with children than for individuals, and perhaps eliminated altogether for multigenerational and extended families under one roof. Purchases of machinery to be used in home production with unpaid domestic labor, like microwave ovens, washer-dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, home office printers, and perhaps 3-d printers, should be treated by tax authorities as capital investments by the “Family, Inc.,” not as consumption.
Potentially eternal tax-exempt family trusts, with contributions from different family members over time, could be set up for multigenerational families of limited means. Money could be withdrawn without penalty for a variety of purposes approved by the family as a whole. Modest family trusts could be designed so that they will not be depleted by means tests for certain public benefits, like the individual asset test for Medicaid-funded nursing home care. In a familist economy, even the poorest families could have entailed estates.
We need a Copernican revolution in the way we think about the economy. Our Ptolemaic economists and economic policymakers treat the market as the center of the social system, orbited by family, state, and civil society. Where is the Copernicus who will provide a vision of a society in which the state, the market, and the nonprofit sector are properly understood to be satellites of the family?
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor