Bringing the Family Back In: Political Economy and the Family in Liberal Theory

In liberal society, the family is sometimes seen as a problematic-institution for its effect on individual freedom. Yet, the liberal order implicitly relies on a functioning private sphere to generate the mores that make living together under general rules possible. Both Vivana A. Zelizer and Elinor Ostrom draw attention to how alternative economic arrangements in the private sphere are enforced or facilitated by a specific institution—the family. What is at stake in this chapter is examining how focusing on the family changes our understanding of liberal political economy. The chapter suggests that the family is an institution that helps enable alternative forms of economic organization based on affective ties that are necessary for a liberal society but do not fit the typical, rational framework of liberal political economy. Much like calls to bring the passions back in to political philosophy, I argue we need to bring the family back in to political economic analysis in liberal theory. I make this intervention in three ways: First, I discuss the role of the family in Ostrom’s work, arguing that it has three roles—as an institution that facilitates social coordination, develops social norms, and enforces rules. This has been an underexplored aspect of Ostrom’s work that becomes clearer given Zelizer’s use of Ostrom. Second, the chapter demonstrates this lacuna in liberal thought, by analyzing how two key figures in the history of liberal political economic thought—Adam Smith and Alexis de Tocqueville—pay insufficient attention to the family. Third, the chapter also analyzes two thinkers—Sophie de Grouchy and Harriet Martineau—who are understudied in the liberal tradition but establish the important role of the domestic economy that is later emphasized by Ostrom and Zelizer. Grouchy and Martineau show that the family not only affects the wider marketplace, as Tocqueville and Smith saw, but also is its own site of economic interaction. I argue that they connect the norms and morals developed in the family to the laws that allow the extended order of liberal political economy to function well.

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