Reflections on The Autonomy Myth: Explanations, Justifications, and Vulnerabilities
The response of
Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs
Institute for Research on Poverty Affiliate
University of Wisconsin–Madison
to the October 19, 2006, IRP Seminar:
The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency
By Martha Albertson Fineman
Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law, Emory Law School
Director of the Feminism and Legal Theory Project
The Autonomy Myth fits neatly into two kinds of conversations that we’ve been having at IRP for a long time:
- What, if anything, justifies the use of public policy to ameliorate
social needs and problems? (Why should we, or should we not, take action?)
- What explains the social needs and problems we observe, and what course of action does this explanation point us toward?
I’m going to start with the first of these two questions—by addressing the book as a project of justification. To clarify Fineman’s contribution here, I think it’s helpful to point out how her argument departs from some other liberal defenses of provision that we’ve encountered in IRP seminars.
- Fineman is not arguing for a blanket “right
to receive care” either as
an entitlement of citizenship itself or as an outgrowth of
structural disadvantage. Likewise, she is not arguing that caretakers—as
mere members of society or as disadvantaged members of society—have
a right to be supported. In this sense, her argument is not just an
extension of those traditionally used to argue, for example, for a
basic income guarantee.
- Her argument does not begin from the goal
of promoting gender equality in the distribution of care work. In
this sense, her position can be contrasted with the argument that
Marcia Meyers made here last year. Fineman rejects the focus on gender
neutrality as a “fetish” that
keeps our attention focused on the division of care labor within the
family. Her argument is about the division of care labor (and its costs)
across family, state, and market—not between men and women in
- She is not justifying provision based on
the civic contributions of motherhood and the socialization of new
citizens (as Chris Beem did last year—see Beem’s “Child
Welfare and the Civic Minimum”), nor is she arguing that
social supports are necessary to make the promise of democracy meaningful
(as T. H. Marshall famously did).
- Finally, she is not making a public goods argument. She does not begin from the assumption that market mechanisms are the optimal means for distributing care work, and she does not build her argument on a demonstration that market mechanisms fail. She writes about common interests and obligations, and her story is somewhat tragic. But she is not making a classic tragedy-of-the-commons case for state intervention.
The Autonomy Myth weaves together three kinds of arguments to justify asking state and market institutions to absorb a greater share of the costs associated with caretaking work. (All of which rely on the concept of distributive justice within a social contract framework.)
(1) Fineman argues that caretaking work is a collective, society-preserving good, the costs of which are distributed in an unjust manner.
- Periods of dependency are inevitable in the human life course. And
because we are all dependent at some point, caretaking labor is something
we all eventually benefit from.
- We also all benefit from the major institutions
in our society. And to function adequately, these institutions—all of them—require
that care be provided to people during the inevitable periods in which
they experience dependency.
- Indeed, Fineman argues that our market and state institutions work
as well as they do only because they are subsidized by the
provision of unpaid caretaking labor by the family and, within the
family, by women as wives, mothers, and daughters. This subsidy has
been hidden by our understanding of the family as a
private realm—a natural site of caring relations that
has little do with the institutions of state and market.
- This analysis supports a claim of obligation, on one side, and a
claim of entitlement, on the other.
- Those of us who enjoy the fruits of the state and market owe a social
debt to the caretakers who make the smooth functioning
of these institutions possible.
- On the other side, Fineman makes a quintessentially American argument for deservingness—not on the basis of membership as a citizen but rather on the basis of earned reward. Like those who serve in the military, she argues that caretakers contribute to the collective good in a way that earns them an entitlement to opportunity and support.
(2) Fineman’s second line of argument concerns societal change.
Historically, the provision of care work through the family has been sustained by a set of norms and laws that together left women with little ability to pursue paid labor, to forego or exit marriage, or to opt out of primary responsibility for caretaking in family relations. This arrangement fell apart, of course, as women entered the paid labor market and as the norms and practices surrounding marriage and family changed.
In the wake of these developments, the old terms of our social contract now turn out to be unworkable and unjust.
- They are unworkable because, aside from heroic
exceptions, individuals in families now find it virtually impossible
to absorb the full burdens of caretaking labor and the full burdens
of labor market participation.
- They are unjust because caretakers are now required to shoulder the burdens of the market, while market institutions are, for the most part, not asked to shoulder the burdens of caretaking.
Changes in gender and family norms have made it unworkable and unjust to continue treating caretaking labor as a special “private” responsibility of individuals in families—an arrangement that was only possible in the first place because of the systematic suppression of women’s life chances.
Thus, it is both reasonable and just to redistribute some of the costs of care work to market and state institutions.
(3) Finally, Fineman’s third—and less fully developed—line of argument focuses on our collective commitments to equality and autonomy.
In essence, she argues this: To the extent that we truly value autonomy, as opposed to merely celebrating it as a myth, we should want caretakers—who are, after all, serving the rest of society—to exercise autonomous choice on terms roughly equal to those enjoyed by others.
- In practice, this means providing the state supports and market accommodations
needed for caretakers to compete as equals in the labor market.
- It also means supporting people who choose to shoulder the burdens of care work in a way that does not impose social stigma or dire material consequences.
I’ll return to these arguments for provision at the end of my comments, to suggest some objections that might be reasonable to consider.
For now, though, I want to turn to Fineman’s argument about how we should understand the sorts of social needs and problems that many of us at IRP study—and what this understanding implies for effective action.
As an explanatory project, The Autonomy Myth asks: “What are the consequences of societal arrangements that hide the costs of caretaking labor in the ‘private realm’ of the family and use this unpaid labor to subsidize state and market institutions?”
- What social processes are set in motion, and what constraints are put in place? How do these arrangements matter for the kinds of behaviors, outcomes, and policy effects we study at IRP?
When the burdens of care work are treated as primarily a family obligation, the inevitable dependencies we all experience produce a kind of “ripple effect” that has at least three kinds of far-reaching consequences.
- Care labor in the family places the individuals
who do it in an extremely vulnerable position of “derivative dependency.” Their own
well-being and their ability to perform care work depend on resources
supplied by others—not just because their work is unpaid
but also because their caretaking activities place them at a sharp
disadvantage in the market.
- Care labor purchased in the market is under-compensated because it
is positioned as a secondary substitute for familial care. The people
who provide this care labor—disproportionately poor women
of color and immigrants—are very poorly paid because their
wages must be a fraction of families’ abilities to pay
from their own modest incomes.
- State support for care labor becomes seen as an intervention taken because the family is not operating as it should. We get stigmatizing and paternalistic policies organized around the idea that adult family members have failed as market actors, as caretakers, or both. As a result, our policies are too meager to substantially improve the opportunities and life conditions available to caretakers.
Fineman’s explanatory project raises challenging questions for researchers in the IRP community . . . questions that I think deserve our attention.
In some cases, her analysis suggests that we are focusing on the wrong research questions and entering into the wrong policy debates.
- Child support, for example, is clearly important
to individual caretakers. But as a matter of policy, Fineman suggests
it is largely a diversion from the underlying sources of poverty
for children and their caretakers. What’s more, when we focus
on child support, we reinforce and naturalize the idea that the family is primarily responsible
for the costs of care.
- Similarly, we ask the wrong question when we ask, “What form of family best meets needs?” Under the current distribution of the care burden, some family forms will have systematically better outcomes than others. But this variation is explained as much by the social structure as by the family structure. In asking “which family forms do better,” we are ignoring the more fundamental arrangements that place all family caretakers at an unjust disadvantage.
This understanding of the nature of our problem leads Fineman to two kinds of prescriptions for people who design and research social policy.
- Most obviously, from what I’ve said
already: Caretakers have been placed in a position that is untenable,
and there is no way to square this circle unless we redistribute
some of the costs of care onto state and market institutions.
- By focusing on “the family,” we may be designing our policies and our research around the wrong unit of analysis. What matters is not the family as a form but rather the caretaking functions that have traditionally been performed by families. What we should be thinking about and designing policy to support are caretaker-dependent relationships in whatever forms they take. By redirecting our attention in this way, we focus more directly on what really matters, and we escape from an ideological trap in which inherited concepts of “family” obscure the public nature of the care problem.
I want to close by returning to Fineman’s project of justification, to ask about three kinds of objections to her social-contract argument.
- Could one grant Fineman’s premises that we all benefit from
care work (both directly and through institutions), but argue that
this implies a different set of obligations than the ones she asserts?
Could someone with a less collectivist and redistributive orientation
agree to the premises but respond: “That’s why we each
have an obligation to care for others. We don’t deny our social
debt, we pay directly and personally. (For example, taking care of
our parents in their later years.)”
In other words, are we compelled to accept a collectivist redistribution of resources merely by the fact of acknowledging that we all need care, benefit from care, and owe something as a result? Why can’t our debt be paid more individually? In the absence of additional arguments grounded in additional values--say, efficiency, effectiveness, and security--it’s not clear why we need to respond to this obligation in a collective way.
- Could one grant Fineman’s assertion that state and market institutions
are subsidized by the unpaid labor of caretakers, yet dispute that
this creates an unjust distribution? Could someone less narrowly focused
on the issue of care demand a broader accounting of what states, markets,
and families supply to one another?
A fuller accounting might reveal that markets and states provide many “society-preserving” goods that families rely on. To the extent that this is the case, a critic might respond that Fineman has not identified a case of free riding, she has isolated one dimension of distribution in a broader division of labor.
Looking across multiple dimensions, perhaps we would find more overall balance in the “social debts” owed by the three institutions.
- Finally, my last question is mostly a call for elaboration and extension.
As a political scientist, I could not help but notice an imbalance
in Fineman’s treatment of her three societal institutions. The
changing conditions of markets and families are examined closely and
theorized in illuminating ways.
By contrast, the state is never really interrogated and seems to be brought in only as a neutral agent of justice--like a judge asked to deliver compensation in a violation-of-contract dispute. We hear little about power, social control, or the quality of democracy that underpins the state.
If the state is just a neutral adjudicator with the authority to deliver equitable compensation, then we might follow Fineman in viewing a stronger and more active state as an unalloyed good.
But in the context of an anemic democracy, a strong and active state--acting to extensively reorder market institutions and care relations--may be cause for greater concern.
Many democratic theorists have argued that questions of self-rule (individual autonomy) and questions of self-government (collective democratic relations) are always intimately entwined.
I tend to agree. And so I think the very important project that Martha Fineman has begun here could be built on in fruitful and potentially complicating ways by a deeper analysis of states and politics.