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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An 18th-Century Revolution, With Current Examples

One of the greatest discoveries of the 18th century did not come from physics or astronomy but from the nascent science of economics. It is the theory that if individuals independently and freely pursue their ordinary self-interest, the resulting social order will be efficient, that is, will allow virtually all these individuals—or at least their vast majority, given their starting points in life—to better satisfy their own preferences.

Adam Smith is, among the first modern economists, the one who, in his 1776 The Wealth of Nations, best formulated the idea:

The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often incumbers its operations; though the effect of these obstructions is always more or less either to encroach upon its freedom, or to diminish its security.

Most schools of economics, with notable exceptions (orthodox Marxian and Keynesian beliefs, for instance), have carried this idea to our days.

The 18th-century idea of an autoregulating society was deeply revolutionary as it had been unknown all along the previous 500,000 years of mankind. It would make it possible to understand, during the following three centuries, the escape of ordinary people from hunger and poverty through the multiplication of real goods and services (GDP) in countries where political authorities stopped trying to control everything. Between 1775 and 2018, it is estimated that the British GDP per capita was multiplied by 13 (see the Maddison Project).

Among many illustrations of the power of the idea of autoregulation, consider a story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal: Leslie Scism, “Car Insurance Prices Fell in 2020 as Pandemic Reduced Driving.” Why did car insurance prices decrease by an average of 4% last year? Is it because the shareholders of property-casualty insurance companies started being altruistic? It would be a complex and unrealistic hypothesis to entertain. Nor would it be a credible hypothesis that altruistic governments across all American states forced the insurance companies to cut their prices. It is true that car insurance rates are monitored or controlled by many state governments (not everybody understands Adam Smith!) but only a minority of them require prior approval—which could probably not have worked so rapidly after Covid-19 hit in 2020. (See Marianne Bonner, “How Insurance Rates are Regulated,” December 14, 2028.)

The explanation of the price reductions lies in the simple fact that that the several hundreds of car insurance companies in America are in competition and cannot avoid cutting their prices if only one of them does it to gain a competitive advantage. So if reduced driving pushes down automobile accidents and their cost during a pandemic, the price of insurance will automatically decrease.

This is a general feature of free markets. Suppliers try to get the highest prices while buyers try to pay as little as possible. It would be vain to blame individuals in either group. On the contrary, it is because they act this way that prices are autoregulated towards the lowest possible prices for consumers consistent with suppliers’ costs.

The drama is that many people still don’t understand the autoregulating character of free interindividual relations. A well-known story is that of the Russian official who, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, asked British economist Paul Seabright, “Who is in charge of the supply of bread to the population of London?”

There are many examples of the persistent ignorance of the autoregulating character of free interindividual relations, and one does not need to look at poor countries laboring under tyranny to find them.

Consider the vice mayor of Long Beach in California who defended the imposition of a $15 per hour minimum wage for grocery workers. Two grocery stores just announced they were closing: see Havley Munguia, “Long Beach’s Grocery-Worker Wage Bump Spurs Closure of Ralphs, Food 4 Less Sites in City,” Press-Telegram, February 1, 2021 (H/T: Andrea Mays). “Our job is to keep providing for the residents,” he declared, not realizing that providing for the resident grocery workers means not providing for the residents who eat food, as food prices will rise if only through shopping travel. More fundamentally, the vice mayor does not understand that the most efficient way to determine wages is to let the market do it.

Another exquisite example is the postal inspector who opined on the conduct of a convenience store owner who sold Covid-19 supplies at a price the politicians and bureaucrats considered too high (see the Department of Justice’s press release):

Unfortunately, Mr. Singh allegedly chose to use this opportunity to make money by hoarding and price gouging PPE [personal protection equipment]. The conduct charged in the complaint is reprehensible and against our most fundamental American values.

Singh later entered into a deferred prosecution agreement and agreed to “donate” $450,000 of PPE, to be distributed by politicians and bureaucrats instead of being sold on the market to ordinary individuals who needed it urgently. If he thought he was in the “country of free enterprise,” he was obviously mistaken.

There are quite probably exceptions to, and within, the theory that individual liberty generates an autoregulating social order—a “spontaneous order” as contemporary economists like F.A. Hayek call it. Justifications exist for governments acting under a realistic presumption of unanimous consent—for example around the goal of not settling conflicts by open violence and organizing protection against that or, more controversially, around other preferences for public goods. But to be credible, these justifications must be built up from an understanding of the general efficiency of the spontaneous order, not handed down from the millennial ideal of a shepherd or some political authority protecting his flock to better exploit it.

A good question is why the 18th-century monumental discovery is still ignored by so many people. Public choice theory suggests many answers, which revolve around the idea that it is in some individuals’ interests to make sure it is ignored. Think of shareholders and executives of steel companies and the bosses of their trade unions. But there are also purely intellectual reasons: after all, many people—despite, or because of, public schools—still believe that the earth is flat.


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Epistemology, Economics, and Conspiracies

Epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge) is important because it underlies the problem of truth in economics and in all other area of rational research and discourse. Epistemology is also relevant to conspiracies theories. As philosopher Robert Nozick pointed out, in the social sciences, invisible-hand explanations are always preferable because otherwise the conclusion is planted in the premises–a vindication of Adam Smith and classical-liberal economics!

The Ptolemaic system of astronomy also faced an epistemological trap in explaining the movement of planets and stars with the help of epicycles (cycles moving on other circles). When an empirical observation contradicted the system’s predictions, the astronomer only needed to add an epicycle to make the theory fit the fact. Similarly, adding one new conspirator or a new conspiratorial component can always explain away, ad infinitum, any objection to a given conspiracy. Only much later, with the work of mathematician Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier in the 18th century, did we start understanding that any smooth curve or movement in space can be approximated with a sufficient number of epicycles.

Ptolemy’s theory was more complicated than needed to understand, and to better understand, the movement of planets and stars. Just like Ptolemaic astronomy, conspiracy theories (at least complex ones) violate Occam’s razor, that is, the principle that “pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate,” or “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” In other words, of two explanatory theories, the simplest one should be preferred ceteris paribus. Granted that it is not always clear what “the simplest” means.

Conspiracies are not impossible, but the more complex and the less incentive-compatible they are, the lower their probability. (See my post “Why a Vast Election Fraud is Highly Implausible” and its complement, “Implausible Conspiracy and Unfair Election.)

The shaky epistemological status of conspiracy theories can be illustrated by a recent Facebook post of mine and the comment of Professor Sinclair Davidson, an economist at RMIT University in Australia. I posted:

Here is another [I should have written: “the correct”] conspiracy theory: The Deep State approached Trump around 2015 and asked him to run for president, assuring him of their support. “We know how to run elections,” they told him. The Deep State needed some puppet or clown who would make individual liberty (including the 1st and 2nd Amendments) look totally cranky, thereby preparing the terrain for a future dictator. They told Trump that only he, with his genius, his legendary honesty, and his golf game, could play this important role. Alas, Trump fell in love with the job (as he did with the North Korean dictator), the tweets, the honors, the constant attention, and broke with his Deep State handlers. We saw the consequence on November 3.

Sinclair Davidson brillantly commented:

I have a different theory: Deep state approached Trump exactly like you said but lost control of the 2016 election. He was the patsy meant to lose. Now we see 2020.

Conspiracies can explain any event (even in the physical world if the gods, like Greek gods, engage in conspiracies), and a large number of different conspiracies can explain the same event. Hence conspiracy theories are generally useless, at best.


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