The Invisible Order of the Black Family: Some Observations on Carol Stack’s All Our Kin

Part I: The Household, The Family, and the State

Carol Stack’s All Our Kin is a classic ethnography from the late 1960s. The context for the book was the Moynihan Report on the state of the Black family produced by the U.S. government in 1965. The report’s conclusion was that the Black family was dysfunctional and in disarray. Stack and others explored the validity of that conclusion and examined the question of whether the official data used in the report had missed aspects of the lived lives of Black families, particularly poor ones. Stack’s strategy adopted a radical approach: she engaged in participant-observer research by living in a poor, urban, Black community in the American Midwest, which she refers to as “The Flats.” She spent several years there, integrating herself into the community to the extent possible. This enabled her to see the workings of family structure from the inside in a way not possible when one looks only at the statistical data and similar forms of evidence. The conclusion of All Our Kin is that even though poor Black families were not functioning ideally, they were not nearly as dysfunctional as portrayed in the Moynihan Report.

I first read All Our Kin in the context of teaching about the family. One of the key insights of the book is that we have to disentangle function and form when we analyze the family, as well as other social institutions. Too often we assume that only one kind of form can provide the function we expect from an institution. With the family, we tend to treat the two-parent nuclear family this way. But we also see this with various structures of property rights, as Elinor Ostrom’s work on community responses to commons problems has shown us. If we treat one particular form as a proxy for function, we can miss the creative ways in which humans develop other practices and norms that can perform the same function. Understanding how particular social structures attempt to solve specific problems will require the kind of up close work that Stack did in this book, and that Ostrom did in her research as well. If we base policy on the assumption that there’s only one set of social practices that can solve a particular problem, we are highly likely to overlook the invisible order-generating processes that both Stack and Ostrom observed. Even if these alternative institutions do not perform ideally, they may be the comparatively best option we have, or they may point us in a different direction in the search for changes in policy or other institutions that would improve outcomes. Stack’s book shows that family policy needs to take account of the actual bottom-up sources of social order, particularly in the context of families of color or immigrant families, where histories of poverty, current discrimination, and the legacy of slavery have produced a wider variety of functional family structures.

Stack’s book is of interest to Econlib readers in particular for several reasons. (I have a more extensive treatment of Stack in my chapter “Reciprocity, Calculation, and Non-Market Exchange,” in  Commerce and Community: Ecologies of Social Cooperation, Robert F. Garnett Jr., Paul Lewis, and Lenore T. Ealy, eds., New York: Routledge, 2015.) The first reason is that it represents a challenge to the way governments collect data and use them to make policy. In that way, Stack’s book anticipates some of the themes in James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, written three decades later. The Moynihan report approached its subject matter with a framework that was based on a particular view of the family and that wanted to organize what it found in ways that were amenable to public policy, particularly the policies from the era of President Johnson’s Great Society programs. In choosing that approach, it could not see the way people “on the ground” actually organized their family life and how that structure enabled them to respond to poverty and discrimination in reasonably effective ways. All Our Kin is a great story about human adaptability and the importance of bottom-up social coordination, both of which are frequently overlooked by the state.

The specific ways in which families in “The Flats” responded to poverty are also relevant to classical liberals. The Moynihan Report noted the frequency of fatherless families and portrayed them as evidence of the black family’s dysfunctionality. Many non-resident fathers did take on varying degrees of responsibility for their children, but this did not always, or even often, involve legal marriage. Unlike the standard model of the family held up as the ideal by the Moynihan Report, the families of “The Flats” (like other poor families, both historically and globally today) relied on persons outside the nuclear family and physical household to provide income and various forms of household production such as child care. For poor, Black families of this era, the “family” and the “household” were not coterminous in the way they tended to be for white observers.

What observers term as “extended family” was crucial to this adaptability. Mothers relied on their relatives, especially other women, to provide both physical resources and time. In addition, if the father stepped up and took responsibility for his child, even outside of a legal marriage, his extended family was brought into the kin network of the mother and child and could be drawn upon for various kinds of resources. Of additional importance is that the biological mother need not be the de facto mother for purposes of identifying whose extended family will be drawn upon. Motherhood, as well as a variety of other familial relationships, were defined within the community through a long-standing system of evolved norms. Stack argues: “The system of rights and duties should not be confused with the official, written statutory law of the state,” and that these rights and duties are “enforced only by sanctions within the community” (1974, 46). The evolution of norms and the social coordination that results, though pressed upon these families by poverty, are very much a Hayekian spontaneous order process, and one that was hidden from the official view of the state.


Part II coming next week.

*Steven Horwitz is the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise and Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy in the Department of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He is also an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute of Canada, and the economics editor at the Cato Institute’s He is the author of four books, including most recently Austrian Economics: An Introduction. He is also the 2020 recipient of the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

For more articles by Steven Horwitz, see the Archive.


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Governing the Prisons

David Skarbek’s provocative new book The Puzzle of Prison Order could just as easily have been named Governing the Prisons after Elinor Ostrom’s classic book Governing the Commons.  In the introduction, Skarbek states that his work is based on Ostrom’s own lifelong obsession with comparative institutional analysis, and that he seeks to emulate her approach.  The book is a success on that front.  Drawing on case studies throughout the world and from the past, Skarbek presents a remarkable variety of ways in which order has been achieved within prisons.  It’s a fascinating book to read for the cases themselves, the range of alternatives in governance that exist, and how different prison orders emerge depending on the context.


Much like Ostrom, Skarbek makes a much broader case for the amazing frequency with which humans solve collective action problems.  Ostrom was interested in testing Garrett Hardin’s claim about the “tragedy of the commons” – that common pool resources would inevitably be over-exploited without central control.  She showed convincingly this didn’t have to be the case.  Skarbek’s target seems to be Thomas Hobbes who famously said in Leviathan that life without strong central authority was “cruel, nasty, brutish and short”.  Yet in this book we see several astonishing examples of self organization without central authority even among a group of individuals who have much higher costs to establish order – criminals.


To summarize Skarbek’s argument, he argues that the form of order in a prison depends first and foremost on how much oversight and administration the prison authorities provide to the inmates.  When an effective order is provided by the staff and guards, prisoners themselves have no reason to establish self-governance.  However, in prisons where the administration is either limited or incompetent/non-existent, the prisoners can develop institutions to govern themselves rather than live in the anarchy, violence, and uncertainty that Hobbes predicts.


Prisoner-run orders of self-governance emerge much more easily and effectively when there are pre-existing social networks that the prisoners can draw upon for information about their fellow inmates.  Additionally, the prisons need to be small enough to be self-governed.  Therefore, Skarbek recommends that prisons be kept smaller and they be filled with prisoners from the local area so that the “costs” of establishing trust and social networks are lower since the prisoners can more easily get information about their fellow inmates.


So what do prisons look like when the inmates run things?  Surprisingly better than the old joke suggests.  In two Brazilian prisons Skarbek studied  prisoners, selected by the staff and the inmates, helped to coordinate administration and even security.  They distributed goods to those in need and helped set rules and practices along with enforcement of those rules.  At one prison these so-called “trustees”, not prison guards, did nighttime head counts, cell checks and lock-ups.  The trustees were actually in charge of the prison when the prison director wasn’t onsite.


The most interesting example of self-governance he documents is that of San Pedro prison in Bolivia.  Here the guards only monitor the entrance to maintain a separation between the inside and outside.  The prisoners have developed an amazing variety of institutions to manage life on the inside.  First off, the prisoners “own” their cells.  There is a robust market, with a tracking system of property rights for cells.  Prices vary based on size, amenities, and location.  How do the prisoners afford cells?  There are markets in food production, retail sales, services, as well as things like illegal drugs, alcohol, and prostitutes.  The basic food provided by the prison authorities is a foul gruel that virtually none of the population eats, so there are grocery stores and various eating options, but again all require money.  Surprisingly, the population is partially composed of families.  Some of the inmates are husbands and providers, and their families can choose to live with the prisoners rather than on the streets.  This obviously creates some potential for problems, but the prison even has a self-organizing group who look after the children, albeit imperfectly, as some of the girls and boys get caught up in criminal activities and sex trafficking.


In contrast are prisons in Nordic countries, which have high levels of very competent, professionally trained staff.  In these prisons, where the staff can outnumber prisoners, inmates rarely self-organize because the authorities do it for them.  There is no need to spend time or effort self-governing.  However, even in these “efficiently” run prisons, inmates develop mechanisms for obtaining drugs.  Since developing and enforcing property rights is too costly, instead the prisoners engage in what Skarbek calls “sharing,” where those prisoners who are administered narcotics share them with others and develop a network of expectations to share back during times of scarcity.  While not as robust as property rights, the emergence of this practice is still notable.


Two other cases are worth mentioning, although more for the questions they raise.  The first is the horrendous and tragic example of the Andersonville prisoner of war camp during the American Civil War.  This is an example where only after tremendous suffering and loss of life did the prisoners self organize to ward off bands of secretive killers and thieves who were ravaging the prison population at night.  Skarbek struggles to clearly explain this lack of self organization, particularly since the prisoners were soldiers, who in theory would have been more likely than criminals to create an order.  Finally, one prisoner goes to the Confederate warden and asks permission to organize a group of inmates to catch and subdue the gangs.  The warden agrees, and the group is eliminated.  But this raises the question of entrepreneurship.  It would have been interesting if Skarbek had explored this topic in the other cases and incorporated it into his theory.


The second case  is a special wing of the Los Angeles County jail dedicated to gay and transgender prisoners.  Here Skarbek discusses how the group has a particularly strong social network because they interact in and out of prison, but also because many return to the system frequently.  Recidivism is another factor that could merit more attention.  While I find it compelling that placing prisoners in smaller prisons near their homes helps to lower the costs for self-governance, and probably makes prison life more bearable, it seems to me equally likely that high rates of recidivism also would have an impact on the ability of prisoners to organize, not only with personal ties, but also a knowledge of the rules and norms or prison life.


But these are small complaints.  Skarbek has written an elegant and interesting book about the various ways prisons are organized and self-govern.  The range of institutional diversity is very interesting, and his conclusions are useful in many areas of the social sciences.  Even for those of us who, hopefully, never spend real time in a prison, the book is an interesting addition to our understanding of incarceration specifically and political economy generally.


G. Patrick Lynch is a Senior Fellow at Liberty Fund.

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Five Essential Books on Public Choice

Earlier this pandemic year, I shared a post on five great books to read first if you want to start learning about public choice economics. Looking back at that list, I’m still pleased with those selections, and think they hold up as “must-reads” for anybody with an interest in public choice. Now, I’d like to build on that list by sharing five contenders for most defining, most impactful, most essential books in public choice economics.

My focus here is on works that I’ve personally found most useful in being able to use public choice as a framework for conducting applied research. There is of course much that gets left out here, and no doubt I have colleagues working in the field of public choice who would come up with completely different lists. Those more influenced by the Rochester than the Virginia or Bloomington approaches to public choice would come up with the most different set of selections. While the Virginia and Bloomington approaches are closely linked in that they are both embedded within political economy and heavily invested in questions of constitution-building and rule formation, the Rochester approach tends to place more emphasis on modeling political coalitions and voting behavior. But that’s an over-simplification; for those interested in more detail on the relationship between these three approaches, I highly recommend William C. Mitchell’s article “Virginia, Rochester, and Bloomington: Twenty-five years of public choice and political science.”

So, with caveats in place, here are five essential books in public choice economics that belong in every library:


Calculus of Consent: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy

James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock

The theory at the core of this book is about why people form governments and how particular decisions and areas of life are deemed either in or out of the bounds of public influence. Although the dividing lines between public and private can be easily taken for granted at any particular moment in time, the answers to these questions are actually quite varied across societies and can change radically over time. The book’s approach to these fundamental questions is deeply democratic in that it roots collective action in individuals pursuing their plans and interests while remaining keenly aware of the limits of large scale collective action. This balancing act between optimism about the coordinative power of rules and skepticism about the high potential for abuse and misuse of political power, which can be traced back to the constitutional debates at the time of the American founding, is still a defining feature in public choice today. The importance of this book to the development of the field is a big part of why Buchanan won the Nobel Prize in Economics, and why Richard Wagner called Calculus of Consent the “Ur-text” of the Virginia political economy approach to public choice.



Gordon Tullock

This volume is actually a mash-up of two books by Tullock, The Politics of Bureaucracy and Economic Hierarchies, Organization and the Structure of Production. The vision that brings them together is the desire to understand behavior within political organizations from the perspective of those on the inside. By providing a framework for understanding political behavior as a function of what it takes to advance within a particular system, Tullock offers a way forward for those seeking to better understand the incentives and constraints facing decision makers within bureaucracies.


The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups

Mancur Olson

Olson’s enduring contribution to public choice economics is perhaps best remembered for its presentation of the free rider problem, and the implied difficulties that any group of significant size will face when trying to work together. Seeming to have a shared goal is not always enough—differences in strategy, priorities, and the trade-offs faced by individuals raise the possibility of shirking and conflict. By exploring the internal politics of groups, Olson’s Logic of Collective Action gives us another useful way to look under the surface of collective action in order to really understand the ways that what people want out of their associations—governments, unions, lobbies, corporations, NGOs, clubs—might differ from what they are likely to get.


Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action

Elinor Ostrom

This book is the culminating presentation of the first thirty years of theoretical and applied research into local public goods and community problem solving by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues in the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis. The big idea here, in a sense, is to turn Olson on his head. Instead of focusing on the ways groups might fail, Ostrom’s emphasis in this book is on the ways groups might succeed. (Though admittedly the contrast is overblown, because both find cooperation among groups to be most successful when power is scaled down to the level of local actors with the most relevant information and incentives.) In additional to providing a theoretical framework, the book catalogs extensive case studies of local populations working together to resolve seemingly insurmountable problems and analyzes them for common threads.


The Political Theory of a Compound Republic: Designing the American Experiment

Vincent Ostrom

This may be the least orthodox choice on the list, but in my view, Vincent Ostrom’s work here is an integral part of the big picture of public choice. In this book, Ostrom engages in a careful analysis of Alexander Hamilton’s and James Madison’s contributions to The Federalist in a return to the great question of the American founding: is it possible to design a better government through reflection and choice? Or are we doomed to the vagaries of history and tyranny? All the books above can be seen as addressing versions of this question. And it is a critically important one. Understanding what can and cannot be accomplished in a political setting is critical to avoiding missed opportunities, yes, but also the excesses of power (and the abuse, oppression, and waste that accompany them) that are the greater problem in the modern world.



These five books are essential reads for anyone wanting to get the full picture of public choice. Taken together, they represent a holistic and adaptable approach to understanding political and economic systems that takes seriously the great power of working together—for better and for worse. There are many more works that deserve a place on this list, too many more to even name here. Share your picks in the comments below and we’ll all get to reading.



Jayme Lemke is a Senior Research Fellow and Associate Director of Academic and Student Programs at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Senior Fellow in the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.


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