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Wednesday, August 1, 2001

There’s No Place Like Work by Brian C. Robertson

A Willingness to Coerce Undermines the Book's Message

Spence Publishing Company · 2000 · 206 pages · $24.95

Reviewed by Robert Batemarco

This book is about the choices American parents struggle to make regarding the balance between work and home life. The author, Brian C. Robertson, a research fellow at the New Economy Information Service, has found those choices, over the past four decades, reflective of an increasingly shallow materialism that shortchanges the children who are parents’ prime responsibility. There’s No Place Like Work is at once both an explanation of the origin of this state of affairs and an appeal to alter both our individual choices and the government policies that influence them.

As is so often the case with drastic changes in the way people order their priorities, new ideologies served as the catalyst.

Specifically, Robertson points the finger at the transformation of feminism from a movement that sought to assist women in the exercise of their maternal responsibilities to one that demonizes women who opt to care for their own children in preference to earning money outside the home. One reason this ideology was so readily accepted, especially among the educated classes, was that it justified sacrificing the welfare of one’s children for greater material comforts.

The change also proved congenial to the ambitions of the business and government sectors. The wholesale movement of mothers of young children into the paid labor force satisfied the desire of businesses to tap into a theretofore unavailable source of labor. The weakening of maternal bonds occasioned by employment outside the home provided another opportunity for the government to achieve one of its priorities—to expand its power.

Government had already usurped the role of fathers for a large segment of the population through various welfare programs, and now saw the chance to provide day care to preschoolers as an opening to assume one of the traditional roles of mothers. Noting that the family is one of the mediating institutions between the individual and the state, the author shows how dangerous these trends are. This is particularly so when the combination of ideology and interests makes the trend in that direction seem unstoppable.

Some would argue that if people choose to pursue the fruits of a further extension of the division of labor, who is Robertson to say them nay? However, the care provided by mothers is not like making pins, since who provides the care is of vital importance. The author marshals a formidable body of evidence to show why. His research faults daycare centers for their inability to provide stability and continuity, their regimentation (the better to prepare children for a socialist future?), and the higher rates of pathological behaviors among those raised in such settings. No wonder the author agrees with child psychologist John Bowlby that “a home must be very bad before it is bettered by a good institution.”

While the argument presented here accords the prime responsibility for greater use of institutional day care to feminist ideology, the author does not dismiss the role of economic necessity. He cites polls showing over half of working mothers saying they would prefer to stay home with their children if it were economically feasible. The Dependent Care Tax Credit (available only to those with children in commercial day care) and the erosion of personal exemptions by inflation are but two of the ways government has increased the burden of mothers who do stay home with their children.

Not content with ending government subsidies to behavior that he sees as harmful in the long run, however, Robertson wants to use government to subsidize his preferred behaviors. This desire is manifest most clearly in his nostalgia for the “family wage” and other “protective” policies of the earlier part of the twentieth century. Robertson’s seeming acceptance of “pro-family” coercion betrays a lack of understanding of the economics of wage determination. Indeed, economics is the Achilles’ heel of the book. For example, the author erroneously states that higher consumption leads to greater economic growth.

Its lack of economic sophistication and its willingness to use state power to further a pro-family agenda undermine the important message of this book, namely, that children who don’t receive care from their mothers often suffer harmful long-term consequences.

  • Robert Batemarco teaches economics on an adjunct basis at Fordham University and Manhattan College. He was formerly book review editor of The Freeman. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.