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“Ideals,” says G.K. Chesterton, “are the most practical thing in the world.” This is why we still defend the family. This is why we insist on the ideal of marriage as a permanent union between one man and one woman, which creates the only proper setting for bringing new souls into the world, and that this purely natural act should not be interfered with.

The social trends have steadily moved in the opposite direction from this ideal in the last century. It is no longer a matter of a few loud critics getting a little testy at our quaint ideas of morality; we have gone past being attacked to being brazenly ignored. But if the society at large does not understand the moral arguments for the family, perhaps it will gain some appreciation for the practical arguments. And the recent bad news has been good news in this regard. Our arguments have been given a huge boost with the collapse of the world financial markets and the continuing economic fallout.

An economy built on massive lending and spending cannot be sustained. But the reason it cannot be sustained is not merely economic, it is moral. It regards material wealth as the ultimate goal, and people as merely a commodity to achieve that goal. It is selfish and therefore self-destructive.

An economy based on the family is self-sustaining. Its focus is on the nurturing and training of children and not on the mere acquisition of goods. The family ideal as defended by Chesterton is something quite different than the industrialized consumer family, where the family members leave the house each morning by the clock and on a strict schedule to pursue work and recreation and the majority of life outside the home. Chesterton’s ideal was the productive home with its creative kitchen, its busy workshop, its fruitful garden, and its central role in entertainment, education, and livelihood. Unlike the industrial home, life in a productive household is not amenable to scheduling and anything but predictable.

The only thing surprising about this ideal is that it was once shared by almost everyone. Children used to be considered an asset; at some point they began to be seen as a liability.

Chesterton saw the beginning of this problem when he noticed people preferring to buy amusements for themselves rather than to have children. He pointed out prophetically that children are a far better form of entertainment than electrical gadgets. The irony today is that the retailers that sell the electronic amusements are going out of business because there are not enough people to buy this merchandise.

But there is another worse problem why children are now considered a liability. They don’t merely make other material desires cost-prohibitive, they are cost-prohibitive themselves. They must be educated. The cost of educating them is obscene. A college education is the most overpriced product on the planet, and over-rated as well. Parents have the privilege of sacrificing nearly everything to send their children to college, only to have them get their heads filled with doubts and destructive ideas, undermining everything their parents have taught them.

But there are fewer parents because there are fewer children.

When social security was instituted, each retiree was supported by 15 workers. Now each retiree is supported by only three workers. Those of us who are still working spend 15% of our income to support those who aren’t working.

Our lack of domestic life is reflected in the fact that we don’t have a domestic economy. We don’t produce anything. We are suddenly watching massive layoffs, but the people being laying off (no offense to them) were not producing anything. They were either selling things, or sitting at desks and computer terminals, being paid with borrowed money, so that they could also go into debt. Now the financial center of the country has moved from New York to Washington, DC, as Gudge has passed the baton to Hudge, who has promised that all the problems that were caused by too much borrowing will all be solved by even more borrowing.

But the younger generation cannot pay the older generation because we have committed demographic suicide. We are paying a high price not only for slaughtering our unborn children but for contracepting them. In fact, we have demonstrated that we cannot afford the high price.

We have seen the natural consequences of unnatural acts. We have witnessed a monumental economic disaster that is not the result of inflation or recession but of the devaluation of children.

Chesterton says that every high civilization decays by forgetting obvious things. The obvious things are the ordinary things, and we have forgotten them. The modern world that we have created has brought with it great strain and stress so that even the things that normal men have normally desired are no longer desirable: “marriage and fair ownership and worship and the mysterious worth of man.” Those are the normal and ordinary things. Those are the things we have lost, and we need to recover them.

“The disintegration of rational society,” says Chesterton, “started in the drift from the hearth and the family; the solution must be a drift back.”


About the author: Dale Ahlquist


Dale Ahlquist is the president of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense" on EWTN. Dale is the author of three books, including Common Sense 101: Lessons From G.K. Chesterton, the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and co-founder of Chesterton Academy, a new high school in Minneapolis. He and his wife have six children.


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  1. Fantastic summary of the Western world’s present dilemma.

    As I read this blog during my lunch and as I go deeper into the foundational Distributist texts (I read The Servile State for the first time last summer). My growing concern has been that while it is all well and good to know the evils at work – to know that the seizure of the monastic lands by Henry VIII began our precipitous fall into capitalism, that the beginning of legalized usury led to competitive immorality and race to see who could exploit the common man the most, that my grandpa nearly ruined his children and theirs by selling his land and taking the regular wages offered at GM. I wonder, what practical steps should we take?

    How do we go from being debt-ridden wage-slaves to independent people again? I know it begins with moral choices regarding family life(I’m newly married and have my first child on the way). But where to go from here? I have student loans and a car loan. Do I avoid further debt? Do I avoid the usury system by avoiding purchasing property unless I am able to do so with cash, which is not likely to happen on a teacher’s salary?

    It seems that the son of a third-generation mortgager has to choose between supporting usurious practices and acquiring property.

    What practical steps, practiced on a large scale, do you think could save the property-less from their present position as aiders and abettors of the system which is destroying them?

  2. You are spot on the mark. Our best times are the times with our children, just being together with no TV or other electronic devices. It is as God created it to be, a foretaste of Heaven.

  3. “An economy based on the family is self-sustaining.”

    Almost self-sustaining, because nothing is ever truly self-sustaining. And children-centered economies have collapsed.

    “The irony today is that the retailers that sell the electronic amusements are going out of business because there are not enough people to buy this merchandise.”

    Actually, the irony is the Internet. More businesses are going online. More people have more knowledge of how to build, fix, and otherwise create things, all for free, while before it took hiring someone or buying a “how-to” book. So businesses not online are failing.

    “Parents have the privilege of sacrificing nearly everything to send their children to college, only to have them get their heads filled with doubts and destructive ideas, undermining everything their parents have taught them.”

    And some parents are poor. By the way, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening.

    “We don’t produce anything. We are suddenly watching massive layoffs, but the people being laying off (no offense to them) were not producing anything. They were either selling things, or sitting at desks and computer terminals, being paid with borrowed money, so that they could also go into debt.”

    Production hasn’t stopped because there are people at home, behind desks, in classrooms, in cubicles, and other workplaces working and getting paid for work.

    Don’t make hasty generalizations.

  4. Sane and beautiful, as is your custom, Mr. Ahlquist.

  5. Pingback: Our civilization is decaying because it has forgotten obvious things... - Christian Forums

  6. FYI, big box electronic stores are going out of business because they can’t compete with the prices of Amazon and other e-stores, as well as the Apple store phenomenon. The number of people isn’t really the issue as plenty of product is moved given the consumer “refresh” rate.

  7. In the USA, the first generation that failed to have enough babies to exceed their numbers (the contraceptive baby boomers) will be the generation that must suffer from “reforms” to Social Security, because there will be too few people of working ages to support the retired boomers. The boomers sought various forms of fun and recreation rather than having children; so they will have to work longer. What goes around, comes around.

  8. As a one-time academic, I couldn’t agree more about the obscene costs of college (especially versus the return), and the sad non-sense that is normative theorizing. The fields of ethics and political philosophy have gone the way of Babel. Even leaving aside all the methodological and more “technical” disagreements (meta-ethical distinctions, for example), you might have to read: liberal feminists, Marxist feminists, post-modern feminists, queer theorists (with their tiny sub-groups), green theorists,old guard materialist Marxists, cultural or “idealist” Marxists, post-modern Marxists, classical liberals, Kantian liberals, Rawlsian liberals, social democrat liberals, various communitarians, Humean neo-conservatives, Burkean conservatives, natural law theorists, and on and on.

    Even before my Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion, I knew that normative theorizing was a bankrupt project. For undergrads, this Babel outcome has the practical effect of reinforcing their easy slide into sexual pleasure and materialism. Even for an old tramp like me (a veteran of the 90s West Coast club scene), the promiscuity on campuses is stunning.

  9. Was there ever a golden age for the family? Certainly we can pin point periods of the past when it seemed to be so. The productive family sounds good but I have seen these close up in practice and I would be very careful in idolizing it. Certainly, pruductive family or not, a family should do whatever is in the realm of the possible to keep Mom at home and we deed to reform our economics, politics, and shrink the burden of entitlement programs. Apart from that we need to neutralize the influence of the entertainment sector. And finally, we need to become a people of faith.

  10. Nick raises good points.

    Allow me to raise questions and issues too.

    I’m sure that medieval farmers didn’t have particularly dignified lives. Let’s look at disease, illiteracy, lack of sanitation, and lack of education and training. We see that in much of the today’s world too. People today don’t care much for that and want to get away from that. I’ve detected an awful lot of romanticism towards Middle-Ages Europe in Chesterton’s writings.

    Are people supposed to live in totally isolated farm-houses or villages and never contact the outside world in any way, shape, or form? Are people supposed to never do anything outside the home or village?

    Am I just wildly misinterpreting the article’s message? If I am, what are the article really saying?

    In all fairness, I’d like to add this. Have you read the recent article in the Economist about third-dimensional printers? Those might help with local productivity once the prices go down far enough.

  11. Well said Mr. Alquist. Our society is morally bankrupt and on the verge of financial collapse because too many of us have failed to realize the importance of children and family. When these are re-established as the foundation for our society and economy, will we then be able to pull ourselves out of this hole we have dug.

  12. I just remembered something else too!

    I don’t know a single person who says, “We would rather have amusements than children.” Indeed, many people believe that they need to be able to actually provide decent livelihoods for their families and they believe that they can’t afford large families. Indeed, not every family can be so large for whatever reason.

    Moreover, many people are wary of turning women into brood-sows. I know that would be a crude characterization of self-appointed defenders of family, but there really are Islamic fundamentalists and other people who turn women into brood-sows. Nazis and fascist have turned women into brood-sows too. People are wary of anything remotely resembling that mentality.

    Finally, if everything revolves around hearth and family and “generalists”, where are people supposed to gain technical knowledge and skills?

  13. Marion (Mael Muire)

    Another commenter inquired, “Was there ever a golden age for the family? . . . The productive family sounds good but I have seen these close up in practice and I would be very careful in idolizing it.”

    I grew up the eldest daughter of five children. Both my parents suffered significant illnesses throughout my growing up years, and so it was often up to the older ones to help look after the younger. Even though they learned that my mother was expecting twins, my parents took the somewhat unfortunate decision to accept a career promotion for my father that meant moving 3,000 miles away from our extended families, and so we were on our own. At a very early age – 9 or 10, I decided I did not want to be “a burden” to my parents, but to become “a para-parent” myself. My own childhood was effectively over. Yes, I had friends and after-school activities of my own, and did well in school, but much of my free time was devoted to bottles, diapers (disposables were just coming on the market, and were prohibitively expensive. We used cloth diapers laundered at home . . . LOOK OUT!), bathing babies, changing babies, helping with laundry . . . and when I was watching them, never letting them out of my sight. (Even at 10 or 11, an eldest daughter can learn what it means not to let a toddler or a 3-year-old out of your sight for ONE MOMENT!)

    From a contemporary perspective, such a situation is a disaster for a young girl. For me, it was difficult and costly – it was hard for me to relate to children my own age, since I already felt like an adult. So there was loneliness, which I eased by devoting myself to the babies.

    A large-ish family in which the parents face significant health and/or financial problems (and by no means are large families exempt from these) can mean that the youngsters face more hard work and responsibility than our culture would agree is healthy for youngsters’ development. And these conditions, while inculcating strong values and character, by no means foster a “Sound of Music” atmosphere of shiny happy love ‘n’ laughter. Although at times things can be happy and loving, often things can be grim, tempers can be irritable, resentments and jealousies can smolder; there can be squabbling, surreptitious bullying, cliques, factions, rivalries, and plenty of downright nastiness within large families. I know – I was not only subjected to this, but was certainly an instigator of some of this bad stuff as a kid myself. The pressure is on, and only genuinely saintly kids would not exhibit plenty of such bad behavior. Even though they “know better.” Even though they are “raised right.” Knowing better and being raised right does not always equal the results parents hope for and expect in developing kids. . . until much, much later in life, if at all.

    An early heroine of mine was Saint Maria Goretti, an eldest daughter of a large family, whose earthly life was ended when she was attacked by a neighbor, Alessandro Serenelli. Serenelli had been harassing Maria out of earshot of his father and her mother for some time. At last, enraged by Maria’s continued resistance to his sinful advances, Serenelli murdered the saint. As she lay dying in the hospital, the 12-year-old forgave her murderer, and confided that she had not complained to any adult of Serenelli’s earlier advances because she did not wish to add to her impoverished and widowed mother’s worries and burdens.

    A 19th century twice-great-uncle of ours, an eldest son of a large, hard-working family, was, as a young teenager, severely injured during a baseball game. Took a line drive right in the gut, and the injury led to peritonitis, for which, in those days, there wasn’t much that could be done. He died at home in agony, begging his younger brother to shield the truth of the gravity of his illness from “Ma and Pa”, because he “didn’t want to worry the

    Eldest children of large families learn early to be self-sacrificing, but perhaps, like that of any young person, their conception of just where self-sacrifice becomes no longer just or prudent or desirable, but undue, can be fallible, often with tragic results. If I could give any advice to parents of large families, it would be to impress upon your children, especially the older ones, that they are forbidden to face their perplexing troubles alone, but are enjoined to come immediately to their parents and share whatever difficulties they may face.

    So, from a human and natural perspective, there can be some advantages, but also major disadvantages to growing up in a large family, and some of these disadvantages may be almost impossible to surmount. It may be, however, that God’s view of these so-called advantages and disadvantages is quite different than our own. Some conditions that are genuinely trying and difficult for us to endure may come to bear eternal fruit that may be impossible to cultivate in any other way than by such trials. He knows best. We don’t.

    Growing up in a large family, you learn to take things as they come. My husband and I married later in life, and both of us faced significant health issues of our own. Meanwhile, we would have welcomed children had God sent them, however, He did not, which made us feel sad for a time, but we (surprisingly) quickly came to be OK with His decision, so much so that, under the guidance of our very wise and holy priest spiritual director, we prayerfully considered – but ultimately did not pursue – going out and bringing children into our home. I adore seeing and playing with other peoples’ precious babies, but my arms have never really ached for any of my own. A few of my friends have quipped, “you already raised your share of babies, Marion, when you were a girl.” And, in a way, I suppose they may have a point, but I don’t pretend to know for certain about such things. Again, you take it as it comes. Our parents have passed on, and some of us have not remained terribly close to the rest of the family, but I believe there will always be a special affection and tenderness between me and “the babies” – my youngest siblings, one of whom is now a successful corporate executive, and the other, a wife and mother with children of her own.

    To “idolize” any human institution or human condition for its own sake, solely for its own perceived merits, will, I believe, always ultimately lead us into error. God alone is our sole true good. It is He who showers His blessings of life upon us, who brings good out of trials, light out of darkness, love out of despair. Whether we speak of the created goods of “freedom,” of “democracy,” of “marriage,” and of “the family” – large or small . . . whether of personal wealth, personal health and happiness, or of any created good, the essential advantages and disadvantages of these amount to nothing if God Himself is not at the center of our lives. Many of the most illustrious saints – heroes and heroines of the Church – spent many of their earthly years in circumstances that we would consider unfortunate, even undesirable. Some were only children, like Saint Margaret of Castello. Some were orphans (Saint Germaine). Some had siblings who died (Saint Alphonsus). Some were very poor and educated (Saint Bernadette); some lived some of their years in slavery (Saint Patrick). God brought good out of all these unfortunate circumstances, and He can bring good out of ours. God alone – not our circumstances, whether favorable or unfavorable – is our answer and our hope.

  14. Interesting that so many have defeatist attitudes, a “well things are bad and we can do nothing about it”.
    Thankfully, Dale and others are trying to offer solutions and plans to get us out of this mess we have created, based on solid Catholic truth and the minds of great Catholics, including popes.
    God rewards efforts, He is in charge of the results, not us-He does not play games and strategies. We are to put forth effort, He to harvest. Jean Ouseet’s book is clear in this, God rewards efforts and if the enemy is winning, we have only ourselves to blame.
    No one is saying 1000 yrs ago, everything was perfect, but with record problems today-one recent survey notes that 40 million Americans have work related anxiety and that majority hate their job, should we not try?
    Too bad so many are so apathetic and not willing to even try to do or think outside the box. This mess we are in-not going away and the “solutions” as always short sighted and working less and less.
    I could waste a lot of time going point point refuting the negatives above, but, why bother-it is always minorities that change things and have the gumption to try. Thanks to Dale for being one of those people. met him 9/2009 and still cherishing that conference to this day! Nice to be around doers….

  15. oops, another thought-with most manufacturing now in marxist China and other areas, how can a nation be self sufficient? it cannot. USA is able on its own to grow food, make things,etc to fulfill most needs and a few wants….
    Sadly, we do not now, not because we cannot (some nations lack this ability), but Big Biz has decided to go on the cheap to make things overseas, casting out the worker-your neighbors mind you!-who is usually the bigest consumer of his own labors…
    China tomorrow cold seize and nationalize every factory in their communistic command economy, yes it would hurt them, but would hurt us worse-our supplies of most things would dry up quickly! Couple that with other factory nations if they team up with China, dump the USA dollar and turn on us.
    Then what? eventually, I predict with this scenario or others, we will all have to “root, hog or die”, meaning, become self sufficient distribs or suffer.
    It is coming, just watch it!
    Fellow Trads-recall the 3DD and the Warning, Miracle,etc….the after effects, predicted, will be a return to the land, small communities,etc…Yves Dupont made several comments to this in his book, as did ABL,etc..

  16. Mr.Shea-may I second your comments!?

  17. Some practical solutions (writers I think are affiliated with Catholic Worker):


  18. Brian asked the following:

    “Are people supposed to live in totally isolated farm-houses or villages and never contact the outside world in any way, shape, or form?”

    I haven’t read anything in distributist political thought that suggests such a ridiculous idea. This is an assumption that has been injected in the question.

    “Are people supposed to never do anything outside the home or village?”

    Again, this is nothing but a reductionist interpretation of the distributist political thinking. Distributist believe in community, the family business, guilds, and such. All of these activities are conducted outside the home. However, the family should not be sacrificed to the money grabbing corporatists who have no allegiance to anything save the almighty dollar.

    “Am I just wildly misinterpreting the article’s message?”

    Yes. . .I am sorry, Brian, but you are indeed wildly misinterpreting the article.

    “If I am, what are the article really saying?”

    It is saying that putting the pursuit of individual pleasure (wealth) over the pursuit of the good of the communnity is destroying society. I recommend you read Alasdair MacIntyre’s book “After Virtue” for a modern understanding of the deeper philosophical positions of Distributism.

  19. What is the original source of the opening quote? I cannot find it to place it in context with GKC’s writing. “Ideals are the …etc.”

  20. Hi Brian,

    For an exhaustively researched book on Medieval agricultural villages, you might want to take a look at “Life in a Medieval Village” by Frances and Joseph Gies. Medieval farmers did suffer from disease due to the lack of certain nutrients in their diets. But their villages were far cleaner then cities of the same time. They may have been illiterate, but that does not mean that they were uneducated. Running a self-sufficient community is incredibly complicated and the villagers had to learn their jobs well. Amazon has the book for $9.00, but I found it at my local library.


  21. A raise please, for Dale!