Nuclear Powers

Economics, Autonomy, and Legal Threats to the Family

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped a nuclear atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing up to 90,000 people. Modern scientists had discovered how to split the nucleus of the atom and destroy a city.

I was born six years later into a nuclear family in Detroit, Michigan. I first lived with my parents and two older siblings in a bedroom of my grandparents’ house. They were immigrants from Scotland.

A 1940 census of our neighborhood shows that our neighbors were immigrants from Czechoslovakia, French Canada, Greece, Italy, Poland, Russia, and Scotland. My father’s parents lived nearby. His father emigrated from the Russian Empire, and his mother from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

What brought all these people to Detroit from around the world? Many would say, economics. There were plentiful well-paying jobs in the factories of American automakers Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler, the Dodge Brothers, and William Durant (founder of General Motors). The demand for automobiles was explosive. Detroit grew quickly. In 1900, it had 285,700 people. By 1930 it had 1,568,700. It had grown more than five-fold in just 30 years!

Home Economics

The Age of Enlightenment appears successful because its science produced the industrial revolution, modern medicine, atomic power, and computers. However, the Enlightenment failed to understand economics.

John D. Mueller argues in Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element that modern views of economics suffer from the omission of factors that previously had been considered central. Basically, there are four activities key to classical human economics, as developed by Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle and Augustine: Humans produce, exchange, distribute, and consume goods. However, in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, credited as a founder of modern economics, eliminated two of the four elements: distribution and consumption.

Mueller also presents economics on the personal, domestic, and political levels. All three are necessary because we are, as Aristotle put it, “rational, matrimonial, and political animals.”[1] The matrimonial is also the domestic level, the bedrock of economics, a word derived from the Greek oikos-nomos or “the law of the house.” Economics was originally and primarily the household economy.

A household does not follow the same rules as the production and exchange of goods in the modern industrialized and commercial marketplace. Therefore, Mueller insists, economics cannot be restricted to production and exchange, to the marketplace: “economics is essentially a theory of providence. It mostly concerns human providence, describing how we provide for ourselves and other persons we love, using scarce means that have alternate uses.”[2]

What is, after all, the modern economic theory that explains the decisions of Chiara Corbella Petrillo, who gave up her life so that her third child would live?[3] Such decisions flow from love and are offered as gifts for the sake of others.

Now Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was written at the dawn of the industrial revolution. He was addressing new economic forces that were poised to rapidly expand in manufacturing, banking, and mercantile activity. His book was about this revolutionary international capitalist economy, not about the older household economy. Ever since, economists have forgotten household economics.

Nevertheless, Smith was very aware of the crucial importance of the family. After analyzing Smith’s earlier work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Sebastiano Nerozzi and Pierluigi Nuti in a Working Paper on “Adam Smith and the Family,” conclude: “Given the crucial role assigned to family affection in [Smith’s] system of moral philosophy we can better appreciate Smith’s own concern for the possible menaces which life in commercial societies may impose on family life and parental bonds.

Smith saw that aspects of commercial societies could potentially threaten “family life and parental bonds.” More from the paper:

The need to reinforce these bonds by a proper education and the need to trace out a protected space where the seek[ing] of profit and market mechanisms are not allowed to enter, shows how far Smith was aware not only of the advantages but also of the risks associated with the rapid process of social transformation which was underway.

The family needed to be protected from the exterior forces and power of the rapidly growing economy. The paper concludes:

While he decidedly favored the development of capitalistic and commercial society, he was convinced that this new form of social organization could survive itself only if supported by a system of public morality and of non-market social relationships which had their foundation in family life and affection.[4]

If Smith was correct, then an essential element for any society must be family life and affection, without which “this new form of social organization”—modern commercial economies—will collapse.

Smith saw two economies: commercial and household. One is outside the house and the other inside it. Outside is banking, supply, demand, price, trade, markets, etc. Inside the matrimonial economy, we find spousal love, procreation, care and education of children, sacrifice, care of the sick and elderly—these make up “family life and parental bonds.”

But modern economic theory views the household as just a smaller unit of the larger economy, a collection of consumers to be targeted by advertising, by “commercials,” something Smith saw as a menace to the family.

Family Fundamental

What is true of modern economics is also true of the modern state: Governments increasingly view families as mere collections of individual units of the state and write laws reflecting that reductionist view. This is true in America, where radical abortion laws refer to the “autonomous” rights of individuals to kill their own children in the womb. But the family remains the fundamental basis of society, a view espoused even by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.”[5]

The family is of a deeper order than social, commercial, and political relationships. Societies, like chemical compounds, come in many varieties. You can have a tribal society, for example, or a communist, capitalist, socialist, totalitarian, imperial, feudal, theocratic, or democratic society. In each case, you must explain to an outsider how your society works. Its essence cannot be assumed.

But the family is universal. Individuals encountering each other from different cultures do not have to explain to each other what a family is. Mother, father, son, daughter, and grandparents are generational aspects of humanity and of all societies. Marriage and family lie at the nuclear or quantum level of all human life.

You can build compounds from various atoms, but if you split the nucleus of the atom itself, you no longer have anything with which to build. The force binding men and women in matrimony are nuclear forces. Marriage makes the state possible, not the other way around.

Case Study: Detroit’s Demise

In my hometown of Detroit our international neighborhood was not made up of individual consumers but of families inspired by dynamic familial goals. Couples and individuals arrived from all over the world.They desired to marry, create families, and provide a life for them.

But as in Hiroshima in 1945, the atom was split, unleashing the power holding all things together, and destroyed a city.

Likewise, the family nucleus is tampered with at our peril. If you disintegrate the nuclear atom of the family, you could destroy a city. The modern state may legally threaten the nuclear family. In Detroit, a state-sanctioned threat to the family helped set off a slow-motion American nuclear bomb.

Here’s the story. By 1940 Detroit was the fourth largest city in America with 1.6 million residents. Detroit’s auto factories were converted to war production.

After World War II, Detroit factories returned to peacetime manufacturing. America, spared the military destruction suffered by Europe, experienced economic prosperity and became a superpower. By 1950, Detroit’s population stood at over 1.85 million residents.

Detroit was proud of its manufacturing, consumer economy, and  of its financial health: It boasted the highest per capita income in the U.S. This view of economics took family economics for granted, counting families as mere consumers.

After Detroit’s violent race riots of 1967, social activists aided by courts tried to integrate Detroit to promote racial harmony. The court ordered the integration of black and white children through compulsory school busing. This ruling meant removing children from their local neighborhood schools, and busing them to schools across the city. An integrated society was a reasonable goal, but the government ended up disintegrating Detroit. Both African-American and white families were harmed by this unnecessary and coercive court ruling.

Because parents were concerned for the welfare of their children, many sold their homes in Detroit and migrated to the suburbs, even at a financial loss. Detroit lost workers, businesses, and taxpayers. Its population declined by more than 300,000 in the 1970s. A deadly cycle of dissolution set in. By 2017 Detroit’s population had plummeted to 673,000, a loss of over one million since 1960.

After the court’s legal attack on its nuclear families, Detroit slowly came to resemble 1945 Hiroshima. Immigrant families, not individuals, had built Detroit; when the families were threatened, they left, and Detroit died. Other American cities saw and learned and avoided this outcome. Threatening the family economy, which was legal, cost Detroit its commercial economy, just as Adam Smith predicted.


Today, if you want to rebuild Detroit, you need families to do it. A city or nation is not built by autonomous individuals. If you want a stable economy, build and protect your households. (Quicken Loans, now Detroit’s largest employer, is doing just that: Building homes through home mortgages.)

We can build automobiles and spaceships, but we can never completely master the family. At its best, the family shapes and builds us in virtue and love. Family is a force of life that cannot be manufactured, even if the state pretends otherwise. Our lives are deeply rooted in a beautiful mystery we do not fully understand. We are made in families and are not autonomous.

Against individual autonomy, Jesus repeated the teaching of the Old Testament: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Who is my neighbor? The behavior of the Good Samaritan does not follow the laws of economics. Your neighbor is another self. And no one is more another self than your own child.

State-sponsored autonomy means pretending we have no obligation or duty to love. But love is the very thing we are made for. God is love and made us in love. Love makes no marketplace calculation of return on investment. Modern economics cannot explain the life and labor of Verona’s Saint Giovanni Calabria in caring for orphans.

With our advanced technological abilities—produced, yes, by the larger economy—we should, with familial love, assist the orphan, the disabled, the handicapped, and not eliminate them in the womb. It is not genuine love that aborts a child.

There should be no war between the state and the family. States and families must cooperate in synergy. The state may regulate public health, defense, and the economy of its marketplace. Legal aggressions of the state against the nuclear family are dangerous to society, undermining it.

The laws, the courts, the government, and the media must welcome, respect, and protect the inner life of the family. The family is the nursery of the future, the kindergarten of society.

The household is a sacred space with its own dynamism, a power that, rightly ordered and at its best, is a sign of the eternal love of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a love by which and for which we were created. The state and its laws must respect it for what it is: foundational.

James M. Kushiner is the Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.

[1]     John D. Mueller, Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2010), 5. 

[2]     Ibid., 3-4.

[3]     Maggie Maslak, “‘A saint for our times’—the inspiring story of Chiara Corbella Petrillo,” Catholic News Agency (December 24, 2017), available at

[4]     Sebastiano Nerozzi and Pierliugi Nuti, “Adam Smith and the Family,” Working Papers—Economics wp2008 04, Universita’ degli Studi di Firenze, Dipartimento di Scienze per l’Economia e l’Impresa (2008), available at Emphasis mine.

[5]     The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 16 (December 10, 1948), available at Emphasis mine.