The Family Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts

21 May 2018

Economist Stefano Zamagni argues that mainstream economics is not up to the task of considering all the facets of what today constitutes a home. 

Two of the eight chapters in the recently published volume The Home: Multidisciplinary Reflections considered the home from the perspective of economics. Professor Zamagni’s view, presented in the chapter “The Family and Economic Theorizing,” is outlined here.

Economists have historically been interested in the family for two principal reasons:  how marriage controls fertility and how the family impacts its members’ standard of living. Only recently has it begun to try to explain why people form families and how they function. The principle of comparative advantage is used to explain how members optimize their contributions. For example, from an economics perspective, a mother doesn’t give up paid employment to raise children because she is any more capable than her partner but rather because her time is less valuable in the marketplace if the wages she forgoes are inferior to the wages her partner would have to renounce to stay to care for the children. 

He cites recent literature that defines “five broad sources of potential material gain [stemming] from the family visualized as a partnership for the purpose of joint product ion and joint consumption.” These are sharing of goods (children), division of labor, coordination of investment, risk pooling, and coordination of care. 

Yet, for Zamagni, this reductionist view cannot address the reality of the family as a “comprehensive union of persons.” Current policy is affected by this perception of the home as a collection of individuals rather than a unit in itself. Zamagni proposes to turn that around, re-conceptualizing the family in order to put it at the center of policymaking. He concedes that individual interests should be safeguarded BY the family, but claims that efforts to protect the interests of individual family members are sometimes against the interest of the whole, which should be taken into account. 

He decries the current lack of agreement on a substantive definition of family, claiming that we only discuss “families of choice,” which again turn the family into a derivative entity. He then goes on to offer a “genome” vision of the family as true common action.

In order to implement family policies that consider the family to be the primary source of material and personal wellbeing, Zamagni affirms, we must rethink how we measure productivity and consumption. 

He points out that calculations of national income do not take into account any of the many goods and services produced within the home. Why is caring for one’s own child not a productive activity, but paying a nanny to do so is? Why is a meal prepared in the home not a productive activity, but a meal prepared in a restaurant is? And so on….

As the home is the source of human capital that is of benefit to all of society, family matters are not entirely private. They are related to the common good. The family, he says is not “a passive recipient of society’s protection.” Therefore, “it follows that support from public authorities must take the form of compensation, rather than paternalistic assistance.”

In practical terms, Zamagni’s vision would also influence national accounting, taxation and the compatibility of labor-market and home-related work, which he calls “harmonization” policies.