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Photo of the cast of the television program All in the Family.

Interchange – In the Name of the Family: The Moral Uses of Welfare


The “father of the modern welfare state” is said to be Lester Frank Ward, an American sociologist who published his major work in the midst of what is called the Gilded Age, 1870-1900 (which incidentally also dovetails with the end of Reconstruction and the inception of Jim Crow Laws). He believed “A sociology which intelligently and scientifically directed the social and economic development of society should institute a universal and comprehensive system of education, regulate competition, connect the people together on the basis of equal opportunities and cooperation, and promote the happiness and the freedom of everyone.” Sounds nice. But neither Ward nor the Gilded Age is our focus–though now 100 years later it appears we’ve returned to it. We’re going to look at the work of Chicago School neoliberals Milton Friedman and Gary Becker.

Now, Friedman is generally well known and recognized as influential in economic policy in the US. and has been rightfully sullied by his association with the murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet…But what about Gary Becker?

Gary Becker was an American professor of economics and sociology at the University of Chicago who has been described as “the most important social scientist in the past 50 years” by The New York Times and he, like Friedman before him, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics (1992) and received the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 under George W. Bush.

Neoliberals like Becker and Friedman oppose any form of state welfare for individuals and instead insist that the family as they describe it must serve as the primary support mechanism in a democratic and market society.

What’s so wrong with welfare? Melinda Cooper offers us a brief history of welfare and also of the Elizabethan Poor Laws.

Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism: in what follows we try to distinguish between these two political designations, but your host seems pretty thick-headed about it.

Cooper insists that the breadth and depth of our neoliberal worldview was born of a backlash to extra-parliamentary strength of the radical left in the 1970s, particularly the fear that sexual liberation was destroying the bonds (or shackles) of Family Values. Let’s first welcome, on the Right, Ronald Reagan and on the American Left, Bill Clinton…is there a difference that makes a difference?

AUDIO CLIP: the opening of a radio address by Ronald Reagan on June 16, 1984, followed by a snippet out of Bill Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union Address.

Cooper offers a specific example of how neoliberals shape policy and actually twist welfare-oriented ideas (an economics of public spending to support public well-being AND fiscal health) toward the private sector and debt-chains for families and individuals–in this case human capital theory and student loans. And we’ll close with a nod toward Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains and how James Buchanan’s Virginia School neoliberalism always seems to serve its moralism with a soupçon of economic narrative.

Melinda Cooper is a University of Sydney sociologist and political scientist whose most recent book is Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (Zone Books), Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era.

Five Minutes with Melinda Cooper (Part 1)
All in the Family Debt by Melinda Cooper
We, the Shackled: Nancy MacLean on Democracy in Chains (Interchange)
Selling Happiness: Part Five of The Way of Neoliberalism (Interchange)

“Mr. Welfare Man” by Gladys Knight and the Pips
“Welfare Mothers” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse
“Backlash Blues” by Nina Simone
“Welfare Music” by The Bottle Rockets
“Those Were the Days” performed by Caroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton

Rebekah Sheldon assisted in the editing process.

Producer & Host: Doug Storm
Assistant Producer: Rob Schoon
Studio Engineer: Bryce Martin
Executive Engineer: Wes Martin

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