“That Which is Not Seen” (Part II)

This short essay finishes my present reflections on the role of the family in the realm of political economy. For Part I of this duo, inspired by Bastiat’s famous essay by the title, “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas,” I invite you to begin here. Otherwise, read on, dear reader!


I have been blessed with incredible professors who give me interesting things to read (if you think this might be you… yes, it’s you). I am also blessed with this thing called the Internet, which provides an unimaginably huge garden of information through which I can discover more interesting things to read. The following thoughts are largely based upon a few of these readings: North’s work on institutions, Hayek’s writings on knowledge, Dr. Morse’s book Love and Economics (thank you, Acton), and a healthy dash of Josef Pieper, Adam Smith, and C.S. Lewis (surprising, I’m sure).

Permit me to begin with a speedy lesson on institutional economics.

We go about our daily business within the framework of our society’s formal and informal institutions. One side is labeled formal, since it is embodied primarily in our rule of law. The complimentary side of institutions are called informal, and they refer to the cultural, religious, and societal norms that also shape our behaviors. These both can be thought of as the “rules of the game,” and one of the many things that they provide is the incentive structure for our actions. For example, you may be more willing to invest in experimentation and invention if you know that your idea can be protected by patent law, which enables you to reap the rewards from your successful risk-taking.

Who plays this game? You and I, to be sure, and mainly through the organizations we are a part of (think civil society). These organizations are the political (parties and councils), economic (firms and unions), and educational (schools and training) bodies that were founded in order to fulfill specific purposes within our community.

North (1993) writes, “It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance” (VII). Taking enforcement as given, is there a relationship between these formal rules and informal norms? North and many others (notably going back to Smith) acknowledge this fact: Formal institutions are underpinned by the informal institutions of a society. There is much accumulated evidence (see here and here) to show that these two must fit together, otherwise the desired rule of law (one that unleashes economic prosperity) will not “stick.” In the spirit of this casual stream of consciousness, it might be fun to consider everyday examples:

  • Just because it was legal for me to watch PG-13 movies at the age of 13 did not, in fact, mean that my mother’s rules were the same, and I had to abide by her rules or suffer dreadful consequences. (And now my bookishness is beginning to make sense…)
  •  Although it would be legal to host a business meeting in a tree-house, it simply isn’t done. (A terribly inconvenient truth.)
  • There are many “forbidden fruits” in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that are still legally and socially acceptable in our society. Nevertheless, myriads of religious individuals continue to submit to the restrictions placed by their beliefs.

If informal institutions are truly the underlying determinant of formal institutions, upon which rests the fate of economic prosperity, then it becomes important that some of us specialize in shifting our gaze toward the informal institutions of culture and religion. Religious belief and cultural norms are often accepted as givens in economic analysis, but today I propose that this is no longer a valid or necessary assumption.

Enter, family.

Just as the rule of law is the embodiment of our formal institutions, the family is the manifestation of our informal institutions since religious and cultural beliefs are passed down within the sacred space of the home. To wander this small kingdom is to indeed wade into rich and deep waters, so I just want to focus on one thing that the family–above all–safeguards throughout generations: human dignity.

In this, there is no substitute for the role of the family. Organizations and institutions can treat a human being with dignity, and of course the best ones do, but they cannot possibly nourish human beings with the deep knowledge of their inherent dignity, moment to moment, like our family members do. Love and Economics contains a passage in which Morse reminds us of this hidden teaching, glimpsing into the rich love of the mother for her little one:

“People do things they do not fully understand, acting upon knowledge they truly possess but cannot fully express… [The mother] might tell you she folded laundry and did dishes. But she probably will not remember that she rewarded every little noise her baby made, by smiling at the baby, or imitating the baby’s sound, or having an imaginary conversation with him. Far more is going on between a normal mother and child than we would ever imagine…” (17).

If you are familiar with Hayek at all, the first sentence may have reminded you of his “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His main idea there, loosely paralleling the religious doctrine of human dignity, is that every single human being possesses an unique, irreplaceable knowledge of our world, equipping each to identify the best choice in surrounding situations better than anyone else. Above all, the knowledge and perspective that each of us stewards–mental models as North refers to them–have been extraordinarily shaped by our family. The understanding of our dignity or worth, and consequently that of others, can only be fully instilled by a mother and father who take it upon themselves to live out the greatness of their dignity as husband and wife and mother and father each day. And we know that dignity is the basis of institutions that support economic freedom and prosperity.

What might this mean in our current situation, when the decline of the family is hard, cold fact? In his foreword to Leisure the Basis of Culture, Fr. James Schall pulls us in with a striking sentence: “When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are.” This is my next task.

Morse travels back to the pioneers of political economy and posits that Adam Smith, and the subsequent family tree of classical liberal thinkers, held the rational assumption of close familial relationships when describing the workings of the free market with terms like “the invisible hand” and “spontaneous order.” Such close quarters with our kin inevitably grows mutual sympathy, the term Adam Smith uses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe the way that we learn to test our perceptions against the imagined or real praise or blame of others, thus cultivating our moral sentiments. The strength and prosperity of the market operating under formal institutions was rooted in this shaping of virtue.

I invite you to read “The American Family Today” at Pew Research (or just look around) to see that tightly-knit families are no longer a safe assumption in the United States. The covenantal bonds of family are rapidly dissolving all around us.

Before proceeding, however, far be it from me to claim that families will ever be perfect. For, far be it from imperfect humans to bind ourselves perfectly in covenant. Fortunately love doesn’t need perfect. It just needs patience, kindness, and all the rest. Though imperfect, the family is the single institution within which human beings are freely bound together for the purpose of love. It is the only place in the world where “do this” equates almost directly to “this is truly in your best interest.”

If families are no longer in place to perform their fundamental role in shaping moral sentiments and religious and cultural beliefs, what will happen to our formal institutions? (Or better yet: What is happening?) Speaking from her experiences as an adoptive parent, Dr. Morse points out that we are seeing a growing number of children who have never learned of their inherent dignity (and that of others), whether parental neglect, over-spoiling, or attachment disorder is to blame. My good friend C.S. Lewis vividly paints this picture better than any other:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We taught at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst” (The Abolition of Man).

If we are left only to operate under our formal institutions, we are saying that there is no prior reality, in fact, we are shifting our identity from mother and father to worker and citizen. The agora can either serve as a strong force for building community or a vulgar replacement for it; without dignity, all the power lies in the “rules of the game.”

We inherently ache to covenant ourselves to one another because it will fulfill us, and in no small way, remind us that we are more than our production and consumption capabilities. Depending on our covenants, our contracts will either make or break us.

But, materialism only robs us of our joy if we give it permission, and a healthy family is the best counterbalance to the world of labor, scarce resources, and efficiency. As Chesterton reminds us:

“Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that the home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.”

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2: The Morning After

Last night’s elections shambled on into the wee hours of the morning, as ties were loosened and un-heeled feet were stretched, but this morning has been unfolding slowly with the sweet savor of success.  Though, the celebration will not progress past the consummation of a piece of red velvet cake for breakfast, as it is time to capitalize on the fresh energy. But first, a complex poem to stimulate the mind:

Pathedy of Manners

by: Ellen Kay

At twenty she was brilliant and adored,
Phi Beta Kappa, sought for every dance;
Captured symbolic logic and the glance
Of men whose interest was their sole reward.
She learned the cultured jargon of those bred
To antique crystal and authentic pearls,
Scorned Wagner, praised the Degas dancing girls,
And when she might have thought, conversed instead.
She hung up her diploma, went abroad,
Saw catalogues of domes and tapestry,
Rejected an impoverished marquis,
And learned to tell real Wedgwood from a fraud.
Back home her breeding led her to espouse
A bright young man whose pearl cufflinks were real.
They had an ideal marriage, and ideal
But lonely children in an ideal house.
I saw her yesterday at forty-three,
Her children gone, her husband one year dead,
Toying with plots to kill time and re-wed
Illusions of lost opportunity.
But afraid to wonder what she might have know,
With all that wealth and mind had offered her,
She shuns conviction, choosing to infer
Tenets of every mind except her own.
A hundred people call, though not one friend,
To parry a hundred doubts with nimble talk.
Her meanings lost in manners, she will walk

Alone in brilliant circles to the end.

Poetry, and all language for that matter, requires interpretation. The careful reading and understanding of a poem is a silent conversation between the poet and the reader, transcending time itself. “Pathedy of Manners” is a modern twist on the relatable and classic “what might have been” story; it even serves as a cautionary tale. The language is pregnant with connotation and double meaning thus more effectively painting the linguistic portrait. The overarching meaning of the poem is to demonstrate that lack of personal conviction, simply going through the motions of your given life, makes for a long trip alone.

The title itself, “Pathedy of Manners”, is loaded with meaning. With the Greek parents of a dramatic form “comedy of manners and the prefix “path-” (think pathetic, sympathetic), the title draws upon the comical yet pitiful storyline of the poem. It sets the stage for the tone of the author, which is one of hilarity yet also empathy as the subject of the poem falls into the trap of society. The subject seems to do everything ideally in the eyes of the culture, yet “she shuns conviction,” and therefore the ending is unhappy, and we are pulled in to pity her.

There is a spring of the subject’s life story which occurs from line 1-16. One instantaneously gathers that the subject is an “it girl” or social butterfly, “brilliant and adored,/Phi Beta Kappa, sought for every dance” (2-3). “She learned the cultured jargon of those bred/To antique crystal and authentic pearls”; she was privileged with a remarkably good education and really lived for the worldly things of this life. But following the classic blueprint, we catch hints of foreboding folly: “and when she might have thought, conversed instead.” Finally, she comes back home from her international outing, and settles down for “a bright young man whose pearl cufflinks were real” who was most definitely approved of by her well-to-do parents. The second appearance of “pearl” is significant. Not only does it call to mind the previously mentioned well-breeding of her company, but additionally the pearl may act as a symbol for the bride and groom themselves who are glossed over and polished up but whose souls are naught but a humble grain of sand. Ideal, ideal, ideal and then the reader notices the “lonely children in an ideal house” (16). Not only are the parents caught up with their own social life, but the cycle of going through the motions and loneliness is passed down. The innocent children will undoubtedly be affected by their parents’ emptiness.

And then, when the perfect little showcase family is stripped away, the reader gets a first-hand account of the sad subject, “toying with plots to kill time and re-wed/ Illusions of lost opportunity.” In short, she chose the easy way. She chose to life the life that was handed to her; now “she shuns conviction”, as her meaning and purpose were lost in her manners. All that she lived for, the dances, the childish things, are long gone, making old age a burden rather than a blessing. She put all her efforts into ephemeral appearances and failed to find meaning in them. “Her meanings lost in manners, she will walk/ Alone in brilliant circles to the end,” the last part of the poem follows when all the pretty little building blocks fade away and our poor friend is left with fake, fluffy surroundings.

The poem is not about radical change, but rather about building up nice things and then peeling them away. How familiar we are with this pattern! The ironic, circular aspect of the poem is emphasized by the repetition of the word “brilliant” in the first and last lines. And yet there lives on hope in this pathetic comedy, as she may escape from her self-imposed prison yet and live to pursue a deeper life.