Few even had wallets

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

A century ago the market economy was important, but a lot of economic activity still took place within the family, Peter Frost notes, especially in rural areas:

In the late 1980s I interviewed elderly French Canadians in a small rural community, and I was struck by how little the market economy mattered in their youth. At that time none of them had bank accounts. Few even had wallets. Coins and bills were kept at home in a small wooden box for special occasions, like the yearly trip to Quebec City. The rest of the time these people grew their own food and made their own clothes and furniture. Farms did produce food for local markets, but this surplus was of secondary importance and could just as often be bartered with neighbors or donated to the priest. Farm families were also large and typically brought together many people from three or four generations.

By the 1980s things had changed considerably. Many of my interviewees were living in circumstances of extreme social isolation, with only occasional visits from family or friends. Even among middle-aged members of the community there were many who lived alone, either because of divorce or because of relationships that had never gone anywhere. This is a major cultural change, and it has occurred in the absence of any underlying changes to the way people think and feel.

Whenever I raise this point I’m usually told we’re nonetheless better off today, not only materially but also in terms of enjoying varied and more interesting lives. That argument made sense back in the 1980s — in the wake of a long economic boom that had doubled incomes, increased life expectancy, and improved our lives through labor-saving devices, new forms of home entertainment, and stimulating interactions with a broader range of people.

Today, that argument seems less convincing. Median income has stagnated since the 1970s and may even be decreasing if we adjust for monetization of activities, like child care, that were previously nonmonetized. Life expectancy too has leveled off and is now declining in the U.S. because of rising suicide rates among people who live alone. Finally, cultural diversity is having the perverse effect of reducing intellectual diversity. More and more topics are considered off-limits in public discourse and, increasingly, in private conversation.

Liberalism is no longer delivering the goods — not only material goods but also the goods of long-term relationships and rewarding social interaction.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    My own personal experience leads me to feel that family is vastly overrated. There are far worse things than being alone. I’ve seen some of these things.

    But if you’re going to be alone, a rural area with a harsh climate is certainly not the place for it.

    Actually, it’s not that great a place to raise a family either. How about just go live somewhere else instead?

  2. Kirk says:

    Adaptation in culture lags social condition, technology, and economic changes by generations, and that adaptation rate takes place very unevenly. It’s not at all consistent, either–Some individuals and populations can easily adapt to some changes in circumstance, and others are never really accommodated at all.

    To a degree, I think that there are simply some changes that some people cannot accept or adapt to; these are populations that are never going to be able to work with those changes, and whose only means of coping with them is to wait for more changes that they can accept and adapt to, or to die out entirely. The other option is to simply become socially dysfunctional, and cease contributing in some or all aspects of the community.

    It would not surprise me to discover that some of this is down to hard-coded behavioral traits in the genes, either. Some people simply may not be able to adapt, and we’re not going to know that until we can begin to unravel all the little things in the genes that make people behave as they do. To add even more complexity, there may be subtle interactions with our internal biome that play a role, given the influence that things like gut bacteria seem to have.

  3. Bomag says:

    …family is vastly overrated

    Certainly there is plenty of dysfunction in the institution, but it beats the next best alternative by a factor of ten.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    Family is inter-dependency. To be interdependent is to be dependent on a social construct. I don’t trust social constructs.

    I rely on myself because I always have my own best interests at heart, and I know myself better than anyone else knows me.

    Society is at best a resource and at worst an obstacle. Western civilization prospered by putting society in its place beneath the individual. Collectivist societies put society above the individual, an abstraction above actual people. That generally ends badly.

    A collective must justify its existence to the individuals involved. An individual need justify his existence only to God.

    A family is a collective. It’s socialism on a small scale. And socialism is simply family on a monstrous scale.

  5. Graham says:

    Western civilization definitely made a larger place for the individual, on many levels, than probably any other civilization ever did. Even the classical world, pace Frazer, was not immune to it, although the Greco-Roman mindset was vastly more collectivist than ours.

    From the basic matter of sensing and valorizing [to a point] an individual identity and conscience to property and politics and the market, all good things.

    And I agree that was a very good thing and I have benefited from it. It is a danger we all face now that we are so used to it that we can look back on more traditional societies and, not seeing state socialism or anything like modern socialism, underestimate the demands it placed on the individual.

    Still I’m not at all convinced that Western Civ ever actually put society in its place beneath the individual. It was the only civ that furnished the intellectual material from which that idea could be constructed, and that’s not nothing. It created societal architectures that made a larger place for the individual [granted, often only relative to its time and place until the advent of America...] but it’s not clear to me that this dream ever quite caught hold of a majority or became the dominant structure of society itself.

    At minimum, people largely seemed willing to sacrifice a lot, and saw an obligation to do so, for kin, neighbours, town, [state, at times] and country. Few seemed to see these purely in utilitarian terms.

    I always figured I was glad not to have lived in an intrusive extended family and/or small town, since I take the view that literally nothing about me is anyone else’s business, and I hold pretty fast to that line at 48 as I did at 20. Still, there’s pluses and minuses to everything. Every once in a while someone who knows me well enough demonstrates that they actually do know me better than I know myself, or at least have noticed something I have not processed well enough. And there’s something I think of value lost with kinship, community and people.

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