The Invisible hand is crushing the social heart

When John Howard and Peter Costello were pushing their new laws on industrial relations through parliament, they discovered they had an unlikely opponent. Senator Steve Fielding of the conservative Family First party told parliament that he opposed the new laws because they undermined the family. The new laws, he said, were market friendly, not family friendly. Senator Fielding was like the boy in Hans Christian Anderson's moral fable who punctures the Emperor's vanity by pointing out that he has no clothes.

Fielding's stance highlighted a deep rift in conservative politics between support for free market liberalism and support for family values. By choosing to probe this vulnerability in recent days, Labor's Kevin Rudd is driving a painful wedge into the ideological underpinning that has allowed conservatives to dominate politics for a decade.

In his Sir John Latham Memorial lecture, Keith Windschuttle denied this rift. The Left, not the free market, is responsible for family breakdown, he claims. This debate is not merely philosophical. It touches on the daily lives of many Australians who have difficulty juggling work and family responsibilities. These difficulties will be exacerbated by the deregulation of the 'labour market' and will feature in the next federal election.

Adverse effects on family time are clearly shown by recent evidence. In the first months of the operation of the new IR laws, individual work contracts reduced public holidays, leave loadings and penalty rates, according to reports in this newspaper. More and more workers will be expected to work at anti-social hours undermining a stable family life and the shared meals and leisure that once accompanied it.

As Professor Barbara Pocock has shown in her latest book, The labour market ate my babies, Australian family life is already increasingly dominated by work to the detriment of children. The number of Australians working longer than 50 hours a week rose from 15 percent 1979 to 20 per cent 2003. More workers work at night than ever before -- from 56 percent in 1986 to 64 per cent in 2000.

Not surprisingly children feel the effects of parents whose lives are dominated by work. A US survey in 2003 showed that 69 per cent would like to spend more time with their parents, especially unstructured fun time, according to Pocock. A Swedish study in 2003 established the common sense conclusion that irregular and long hours caused greatest stress. A Canadian study, indicated that unsocial working hours had measurable effects on child welfare. The children of parents who work non-standard hours are more likely to have 'emotional or behavioural difficulties indicative of child stress', it said.

All of this is relevant to the debate on Australian values. We have an economy which rewards the values of competitiveness, individualism and personal advancement. Yet our society depends on opposite values in families and communities. These rely on care for others, co-operation and altruism. In the end, we live in a society, not an economy.

Yet increasingly we are industrialising our social and family lives. Our families outsource family production. We downsize our emotional need for time. We rush to the child care centre and work using Taylorised time management to gain utility maximisation. The values promoted by a hyper-commercialized culture are slowly crushing the values of an earlier, less commercialized culture.

Prime Minister John Howard once recognised this conflict and described juggling work and family as 'the barbecue stopper' although his government now exacerbates the conflict. In his book Faultlines, George Megalogenis points out that 'having raised the expectations of most women by giving them a career before motherhood, society has yet to work out how to facilitate their divergent demands once babies arrive.'.

Megalogenis has put his finger on the right spot. The formal economy of commerce sits atop a parallel economy of care provided, until recent times, largely by women. Economist Professor Nancy Folbre dubs this economy of care 'the invisible heart', a play on words of Adam Smith's invisible hand of the market. The two need to be balanced, she says, but this is not taken seriously by free market economists. 'They have generally assumed that God, nature, the family and "Super Mom" - or some combination thereof - would automatically provide whatever care was needed,' Folbre said.

But this assumption is failing. The invisible heart is being squashed by the invisible hand.

That is, the market supplants the meals, childcare and care of aged parents once carried out by the family. All of this costs money driving the work-spend cycle of two income families which in turn means more work time and less family time. The answer is not for women to retreat to the kitchen but to more generously support caring by parents in a child's early years.

This will help avoid what Anne Manne in her recent book on motherhood calls the McDonaldisation of childhood. The principles of efficiency, fast turn around, and cost effectiveness are ideal for the mass production but are dehumanising when applied generally to caring, she says. While community-run centres were once the rule for child-care, child-care corporations with attention fixed on the bottom line have become the symbol of the neo-liberal future.

Even if we disregard the quality of childrens' lives and think in narrow economic terms we find that market fundamentalism damages the formation of 'human capital' itself. Falling birth rates are the starkest evidence of this and the Howard Government's rejection of even minimal maternity leave is further evidence of it ideological obsession.

In a 1999 speech, as Kevin Rudd points out, John Howard acknowledged there were two tendencies in modern conservatism, economic liberalisation and traditional social conservatism. Howard asserted that they complemented each other. The truth is they pull in opposite directions. It is time the Left rethought its attitude to the family and focused its ideological cross hairs on this gaping vulnerability of the Right.

This article was published in The Australian, 5 January 2007 and is based in part on Chapter 8 of Beyond Right and Left, New Politics and the Culture War (Allen & Unwin).