The Family? It´s not a stumbling block to development


By Luigino Bruni

Published on "Agorà", a column in Avvenire, on 5/02/2010

"Italy built at home" (Mondadori), by economists Alberto Alesina e Andrea Ichino, is a book full of important data, on which it would be good to reflect, perhaps to reach "policy" conclusions which are different than those proposed by the authors. The book´s thesis is that the underdevelopment of the Italian economy is mainly cultural underdevelopment. They attribute this to our tradition of family, which causes a great percentage of women to carry out domestic work, and so, work too little "outsite of the home", in the market.

This said, here´s their recipe: reduce taxes on income of working females in order to create incentives so that women will work more. It cannot be denied that today, in Italy, the assymetry of professional development opportunities is significant between men and women. It is also true that legislative, economic and social intervention that facilitate female workers to enter the market, and that therefore help balance out the weight they carry at home, are not only opportune. They are necessary and urgent. From this point of view, then, this book can play an important role in nourishing a debate about civilization that has never been more relevant. But this implies a cultural vision that sees strong ties, especially in the family and in the community, as the main social burden of Italy and Mediterranean culture compared to the more economically and civilly developed Nordic countries.

There are also affirmations that tend to tone down this radical thesis, but in general, the pitch of the paper remains coherent to its main idea: if we are capable of abandoning the model of the Italian family and imitating Norwegian and Danish social models, we´ll finally become a post-modern, democratic, richer, and perhaps happier country. This thesis is not convincing, not only because this great "Nordic" happiness does not exist, but most of all because it lacks an idea of family as a collective subject. For the authors, family is essentially the sum of separate individuals. They don´t see relationships but individuals. That´s the origin of their critique of the proposed "quoziente familiare" (literally, family quotient), which will not tax couples as individuals but as part of a family unit and while keeping in mind the number of children they have. "If we hold that the participation of women in the workplace is an important objective for our country, it is evident that the method of the family quotient distances us from this objective, and separatetaxation would be preferable". Separate taxation sees a couple as an unjoined man and woman; but family is above all a pact that makes two unjoined people a collective subject, in which decisions are discussed and then taken together, including working decisions. Raising and educating a child, especially in his or her first years of life, is not the private business of the parents or of the mother. It´s not a "good" like transportation or housekeeping that can be bought and sold efficiently only by asking for it or offering it. Today, the best economic theory recognizes this, when it considers the family as producer not only of services but also of "relational goods" (which are goods, but not merchandise), and when it shows (as does Nobel winner Heckman) that the first years of life are those on which the even the economic success of people are most based. Before any kind of economic and fiscal reform on the Italian family, the family must be recognized as a great resource and civil patrimony, and only then can its problems be addressed.

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