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Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on education and childhood in America.Hymowitz is[…]

The author and Manhattan Institute fellow answers the question, “Does the free market corrode moral character?”

Kay Hymowitz: Kay Hymowitz, I’m a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal.


Question: Does the free market corrode the family unit?

Kay Hymowitz: The bourgeois family was extremely child-centered, and the purpose of the family was to teach the child, not just to love the child, of course there was that, but also to teach the child the kinds of habits and values that would allow them to thrive in their free market economy. So children had to learn self-discipline, they have to learn to be motivated, they have to learn to be creative and inquisitive, they have to learn to be competent. These are fairly advanced skills that require many, many years of socialization. This is why we always had this idea of a long childhood and a long protected childhood where the child would gradually learn to take on more and more responsibility, become more and more autonomous so that they could then go on to lead independent, creative, fulfilling and loving lives.

But the more a kid introduces all sorts of noise that makes this process extremely difficult; one is that the child is told to or is tempted with so many different objects of desire, food and toys, and sexual information, things that they are maybe not quite ready to process, or having trouble controlling themselves in the face of. This is… you have so much more energy that parents are forced to bring to bear on socializing a child under those circumstances. So the free market makes that process very difficult.

It also tempts adults, too. It isn’t just the kids. The free market tells us, the open market tells us that there are all sorts of desires that we can satisfy that maybe we didn’t even know we had, and makes possible lives of affluence that this is a wonderful thing, but it also means that we are capable of a kind of autonomy that people in previous ages were not.


Topic: Moral education.

Kay Hymowitz: Well, I’ve been writing for many years now about children’s development and been very aware of how difficult it is to raise children in modern America. I gather this is also true in other parts of the western world these days. And one of the things that I came up with in my early research was the problem of the media, which is an extension of the free market, and the way that the free market gets introduced to the young child, particularly through television.

And a lot of people are very much aware of how difficult television in particular, now the internet, this was not so much the case when I first started writing, complicates the job of socializing a child. So when I was presented with this question of ‘Does the free market corrode?’ Well, character, I thought to myself, well, what I do know is that it makes socializing children, makes moralizing children an extremely difficult job.


Question: Does the free market strengthen the family in any way?

Kay Hymowitz: Well, interestingly enough, despite the fact that the market has made socializing children so much more difficult, but despite the fact that it introduces your 5-year-old to Paris Hilton and “Grand Theft Auto”, it also has the effect of increasing parental supervision, shall we say.

It’s a funny thing, because there was a time in, it’s in the 1980s, when I was first starting to concern myself with the question of what it was like to raise children in a contemporary society, we were hearing a lot more about the latchkey child, the child who was really left home alone, remember that series of movies was based on a real sense in the culture, that children were indeed, home alone.

And, in fact, something different happened by the early to late ‘90s, where parents kind of redoubled their efforts to supervise their kids, despite the fact that they were spending many more hours at work, when you combine mother’s and father’s work hours. Nevertheless, they found ways, and I’m talking largely middle-class parents who had the material wealth to do this, they introduced all sorts of after-school activities, surrogate tutors surrogate supervisors like tutors, and babysitters, and so forth.

And then, of course, we got cell phones, which have provided a kind of umbilical cord between parents and children, and at this point, I find that I’m in touch with my youngest child, who is an internet and cellphone baby, all the time, far more than my parents were in touch with me, or that I was in touch with my older kids when they were growing up.

So I think that, in ways that I never could have predicted, I don’t think anybody could have, the bourgeois family has sort of reinforced its efforts to really pay attention to the socialization of the next generation. This has been a much harder thing for people with fewer resources to handle.


Question: Can we repair the moral corruption of the free market?

Kay Hymowitz: I’d like to think that we can correct the corruption of the free market. I think that in many ways we’re doing a pretty good job, as I’ve been writing for some years now, I think the middle class Americans have a lot of criticisms of hyper-parenting and parents who are not taking their children’s moral life that seriously, that sort of thing, but when we look at how those kids are doing, I think we can be pretty proud. I also have some complaints about the education system and particularly the colleges, and I’m not happy with the way their [cognitive] development is going, shall we say.

But, clearly, we’re not doing as good a job for our people with fewer resources, and whether or not we can undo that problem remains to be seen. I think that people who are blessed with middle-class lifestyles with intact families need to understand just how lucky they are and to try to think about ways to pass on the good news, because there is a real reluctance that I see in my generation, but even more in the next generation, to cast any judgment, and therefore to make any recommendations about family structure. And this reluctance to discuss this problem, it seems to me, is going to only worsen our problems within equality and poverty.


October 29, 2008