Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sowell, Sandel, and Neil Gilbert: A Mother's Work

Paul Adams

Sowell, Sandel, and A Mother’s Work
In A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, the Market, and Policy Shape Family Life, Neil Gilbert (2008) examines how capitalism, feminism, and the state influence lifestyle choices and the changing role of motherhood. They do so, he argues, by generating norms, values, and hence social pressures that subordinate motherhood to the market. Gilbert, the social policy professor for whom I worked as a graduate student at the School of Social Welfare, U.C. Berkeley, thirty-six years ago, argues that the main policy approaches to harmonizing work and family—“family-friendly” and gender-neutralizing policies—both subordinate family to work. They assume and support the male model in which paid work starts early and is continuous. The traditional model of a father who provides and protects and a woman who manages the home and nurtures the children has given way to one in which both parents give priority of time and effort to the labor market. Periods in which the mother absents herself from work in order to have children are seen as “interruptions” and the aim of policymakers and feminist pundits—is to get mothers, whether they are on welfare or pursuing high-powered careers—back into the labor market as early as possible.

Gilbert shares the general view that “something must be done” to harmonize work and family life. But what? There are, he says, two common policy approaches to this challenge:
1) So-called family-friendly policies; and
2) Gender-neutralizing policies.

1) “Family-friendly” measures to allow mothers with young children to work include, for example,
a. Early child care
b. Paid parental leave
c. Part-time work
d. Such voluntary measures as flexible hours, special family leave, telephone access.

Gilbert illustrates this approach with the example of the University of California system, which provides its tenure-track faculty with day care for toddlers; two years’ leave from the tenure track; a part-time option; paid maternity leave; and paid relief from teaching for two semesters (p.161).

2) Gender-neutralizing policies aim at modifying traditional gender roles in relation to both work and family life by such measures as:
a. Parental leave reform (so that the full benefit requires fathers to take some of the leave).

This second approach is a remarkable case of what Sowell calls the unconstrained vision. Here “surrogates”--policy-makers and “gender feminists”--differ markedly from the mass of the population—in Sweden, the pioneer of such policies, as in the U.S. In both countries less than half of parents think that men and women should participate equally in paid employment and child care. Swedish men take a small percentage of the leave they are entitled to and the men who take such parental leave are concentrated among highly educated men in the public sector. There is a common notion that such fathers as do take the leaves, time them to coincide with major sporting events like the Winter Olympics. But the truth seems to be that they are taken in the summer and around Christmas as a way to extend vacation time.

The views of those who developed and passed such policies into law are in stark contrast to the views of most married parents now as in the past. Women as well as men find substantial benefits for the family in a degree of specialization and division of labor. That, as Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher (2000) argue, is an important advantage of marriage in the first place (The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially). In Sowell’s terms Waite and Gallagher respect the collective, historical wisdom implicit in the ways millions of people over many generations have shaped the institution of marriage through living out their lives and passing on to their children what they have learned from experience and the experience of earlier generations. The policy elites see the masses as lagging behind the views of the enlightened. Their policies are based, not on what women actually want, but on what enlightened elites think they should want. This divergence does not seem explicable in terms of the masses of women lagging behind their more advanced leaders but all moving in the same direction. “From 1997 to 2007,” according to a Pew Research Center study that Gilbert cites, “the percentage of both employed and at-home mothers who considered full-time work to be their ideal situation declined by one-third” (p.170).

Most important from Gilbert’s perspective, both the “family-friendly” and gender-neutralizing approaches to harmonizing work and family life do so by subordinating the latter to the former. The aim is to increase and maintain female labor force participation by moving mothers with young children into paid employment on the male model. (Hence the quotes around “family-friendly” since these policies seek to increase women’s paid work by easing the competing demands and “interruptions” of children. Thus gender feminists, in particular, favor for women an early start on their careers and continuous work to retirement with minimal or no interruption for raising even young children.

In contrast to these work-oriented policies that promote mother-child separation in order to promote lifelong paid work on the male model, Gilbert proposes an alternative. He does not seek to scrap these separationist policies (Eberstadt’s term) that ease female labor force participation, but proposes increasing the options for women in ways that allow for them to choose to give higher priority to their children.

This alternative to the male model Gilbert calls the sequential pattern of labor force participation and parenting at home. In line with the constrained vision, he does not offer either a comprehensive list of policy options or a blueprint for any particular initiative. Rather, he says, “My purpose is to broaden public perceptions of the choices and help reframe the debate...” (p.165).

Possibilities for policy that supports the sequential pattern and widens the lifestyle options for mothers of young children are:

3) Sequential pattern
a. Home care allowance (but for families without a breadwinner, this would require alternatives to employment-based health insurance)
b. Credit-sharing—e.g., community property laws and credit splitting for Social Security and pension benefits, dividing equally the rights to such assets acquired since marriage.

Here I do not plan to describe or critique Gilbert’s evidence and arguments, though I find them persuasive. (Gilbert has braved much controversy and hostility in the politically correct world of social work and social welfare to follow the evidence and the logic of his argument.) Rather, I want to look at his position through the lenses of Sowell’s and Sandel’s dichotomies as discussed in earlier posts here.

Two aspects of Sandel’s argument are especially pertinent. The first is the voluntarist conception of the unencumbered self implicit in current liberal theory. The other is the notion of a procedural republic that is neutral about matters of morals and religion, values and the good life. In this conception of the procedural republic, citizens are not formed, as a matter of policy or practice, with the capacity to deliberate well on such things, but are expected to bracket them off and treat them as irrelevant and inadmissible to political debate in the public square.

The unencumbered self

In the republican theory of Aristotle and the Founding Fathers, as well as modern communitarians like Sandel, liberty depends on sharing in self-governance, which in turn “means deliberating with fellow citizens about the common good and helping to shape the destiny of the political community.” The habits of the heart required for and developed by self-governing members of a particular family, community, and nation are those of a situated, encumbered self. In this narrative conception of personhood, we develop in “reciprocal indebtedness” (MacIntyre, 1999), from total dependence to a degree of autonomy through ties to family and community, culture and tradition.

In contrast, the liberalism of recent years “conceives persons as free and independent selves, unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen.” This conception of rights and individual autonomy “assumes that freedom consists in the capacity of persons to choose their values and ends.” One key practical expression of this shift in liberalism is the subordination of the rights and needs of children to the freedoms of adults. (On the extensiveness and significance of this shift, see Elizabeth Marquardt’s The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash between Adult Rights and Children’s Needs.)

In her book Home Alone America, Mary Eberstadt argues that children have been the major victims of the absence of adults from their own families—fathers, mothers, and extended family. The adoption of the male model of work life—early entry and continuous employment—by mothers has been in part a result of the rise in divorce and illegitimacy. With the absence of a father to provide for his family and share the work of parenting and domestic life, many women have had no alternative but to enter the workforce full-time. But for others it has been a freer choice, an expression of the new increased options for meaningful careers outside the home and the arguments of feminists for women with higher education to Get to Work, as Linda Hirshman’s polemic puts it. In her view, women should not waste their educations raising kids. As Eberstadt observes, a large literature about this unprecedented social experiment in parent-child separation, whether enthusiastic or critical, has been focused on “grown women and what they want and need.”

Gilbert’s book, unlike Eberstadt’s, does not seek as its primary purpose to address this imbalance by illuminating the impact of absent mothers and fathers on children, young people, and society. Rather, it seeks to show how feminism, the market, and social policy shape family life. In different ways, these material and ideological pressures all work together to push women into the male career model, prioritizing work over family life from the earliest years of motherhood. Eberstadt notes that the adverse consequences of millions of individual decisions were unintended by the individuals making those choices. While Sowell emphasizes the aggregate wisdom of millions of choices made for self-interested reasons--as compared with the comprehensive-rational planning of enlightened officials--Eberstadt asks whether in this case the multiplication of millions of individual decisions results in an outcome that no-one intended. Among the outcomes, “Time in front of the screen is up; exercise and outdoor play of any kind is down; and kids, in the United States and almost all comparable countries, are fatter than ever.”

Gilbert examines the forces that shape those millions of individual decisions—feminism, capitalism, and policy. All, he argues, seek to harmonize work and family at the expense of family. They are not neutral about the matter, seeking only to expand women’s options. Like Hirshman, they all prioritize mothers’ labor force participation on the male model—work early and work continuously.

Gilbert’s book implicitly casts doubt on the notion that the market is a process whereby millions of individual choices are aggregated in such a way as to result in the common good. This in two ways. First the individual choices are shaped not only by the market, but also by ideology and policy in interaction with the knowledge and wisdom that arise from relations of reciprocal indebtedness within networks of family, community, and culture.

Second, the aggregate of such individual choices, even if made for millions of individually defensible reasons, may result in aggregate results that no-one wants. For example, the March 4, 2010 Economist article on “Gendercide: The War on Baby Girls” points to three main causes of the 100 million missing baby girls as the ancient preference for boys, the modern preference for smaller families, and the modern technology of ultrasound and abortion. Even without a government one-child policy, millions of individual decisions to abort baby girls, impelled in part by the subordination of family to work on the male model as driven by market and ideological (feminist) forces, results in an unbalanced sex ratio, with the prospect of millions of “surplus” young men roaming a country untamed by the traditional lifescript of settling down, marriage, and family.

The millions of individual choices are thus 1) not the acts of autonomous unencumbered selves, and 2) result in the aggregate in a situation that no rational person could consider an expression of the collective wisdom or common good.

With admirable restraint, Gilbert does not respond to this “market failure” with the unconstrained vision of the enlightened policy analyst who proposes a comprehensive policy to provide mothers and women in general what he thinks they should want. Instead, he modestly suggests ways to widen our thinking about policy options that would widen the range of choice for women who want to have both motherhood and careers, if not all at the same time. He offers modest suggestions for bringing policy more closely into line with the preferences of the large majority of women who want to spend time with their children and who are not in any case on the fast track to brilliant and fulfilling careers, as well as the wants and needs of their children (see, e.g., Eberstadt, 2004).

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