Natural Family Economics and the “Third Way” in American politics; the work of Dr. Allan Carlson

25 Mar

From Steven Wedgeworth:

I reviewed Allan Carlson’s book Third Ways back in January, and since then I have been working my way through his rather enormous catalogue of work. President of The Howard Center, professor of history at Hillsdale College, and author of ten books and countless essays, not to mention the many other distinguishing appointments he has held, Dr. Carlson is prolific and treating extremely important questions. His work deals with the intersection of faith, politics, technology, and economics, all centering around the institution of the family as seen from a traditional Christian perspective. So why have I just now heard of him, and better yet, why haven’t you?

Probably the reason for Dr. Carlson’s relative anonymity among conservative Christians, and especially Evangelicals, is that he doesn’t really publish in the mainstream Christian market, and when he does interact with the Christian market, it is typically a Catholic one. This is consistent with his interest in Distributism, as well as his principled opposition to contraception. Another reason might be his economic emphases, decidedly different from the Austrian-style libertarianism that enjoys a sort of default popularity today, towards something that might be described as Old Left, or at least an Old Left that overlaps with an Old Right. One accessible place where this has found an audience is Front Porch Republic.

Dr. Carlson’s project could be summed as “familial economics.” This means that he emphasizes the family as the most basic social formation, what he calls the “natural family” (as opposed to the nuclear family), and he emphasizes the kind of economy that is not only “compatible” with the natural family but in fact supportive of it. In doing so, he challenges modern global capitalism from both directions. He is very much old Right, really old Right, in his critique of feminism, gay marriage, individualism, and contraception. He is very much old Left in his critique of industrial capitalism, his emphasis on labor and families over capital, and his support of localism over and against large-scale corporations. This amounts to an extreme social conservativism with a local-communal economics, and this is why he calls his project a “Third Way.” Not many are going to understand him, and fewer are going to like him. That doesn’t matter. He’s on the side of the angels, and that side doesn’t win with big numbers– it wins with truth.

Predecessors and Influences

As puzzling as it may be to contemporary American readers, trapped as they are in the polemic between postmodern progressivism and market conservatism, there are many predecessors to Dr. Carlson’s thought. Frederic LePlay is one of the earliest influences, whose work Le Reform Sociale is cited in Carlson’s From Cottage to Work Station (though curiously the citation lists “Pierre Guillaume” and “Frederic LePlay” as two different authors, when in fact this is all the same person: Pierre Guillaume Frederic LePlay). LePlay was a counter-revolutionary writer, engineer, sociologist, and economist in 19th century France whose seminal studies of the working family were intended to inform State legislative support for households against the pulverizing tendencies of industrialism.

Other thinkers influential upon Carlson are Carle Zimmerman (whose 1947 work Family and Civilization was recently republished with an introduction by Dr. Carlson), Pitirim Sorokin, Karl Polanyi, and Wilhelm Röpke. More distinctively “religious” influences are Leo XIII, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and Abraham Kuyper. That last name ought to be familiar to the Reformed audience, and indeed it might well offer the best bridge into Dr. Carlson’s political persuasion. “Kuyperianism” is certainly popular even today, though it often means many wildly different things to different people. Dr. Carlson provides a brief introduction to Kuyper’s socio-economic thought here.

Natural Family Economics

While some of the terminology may sound foreign, Dr. Carlson’s “natural family economics” ought to make immediate sense to traditionally minded Christians, homeschoolers, “crunchy conservatives,” and even certain locally-minded Greens. It locates the family as the central political institution and thus the home as the center of the family’s life. It does emphasize a strong sexual complementarity, celebrating rather than apologizing for the unique ways in which the sexes contribute to the family’s life. This understanding of the family also “rests ideally on the ownership of the homestead, solid habits of work, adherence to inherited mores, internal self-reliance in crisis, and fecundity” (From Cottage to Work Station, 4).

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