Lew Rockwell, CA
April 3 2004
The Abolition of Grandparents
by Gary North
A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children: and the
wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just (Proverbs 13:22).
In this report, I’m going to give you some history (yawn), some
sociological analysis (snore), and a suggestion on how to generate a
stream of income that will keep you from starving on Social Security
and the devalued dollar that it will lead to politically.
The plight of America’s grandparents is on my mind today because
Thursday, I became one for the first time. I won’t tell you that my
grandson is cuter than yours was. That would be bragging. I will tell
you that he is larger: 10 lbs., 11 oz. If your first thought is, “I’m
glad I’m a man,” you get the idea.
Thirty years ago, my father-in-law, who was a remarkable scholar
(30,000 books in his library, one of which he read every day for 60
years), mentioned a social factor in Communist countries that he
believed was a major factor that was hampering the advent of
Communism’s New Man: grandmothers. This was especially true, he said,
in the Soviet Union. Both parents worked outside the home. Because
there was so little housing space under Communism, it was common for
grandparents to live in the same small apartment. So, when the
children came home from school, grandma was there to tell them
stories and thereby transfer part of the pre-revolution culture to
them. The Soviet economy was so bad that the Communists could not
afford to separate grandchildren from grandparents. This undermined
the attempt of the Communist Party and the school system to
indoctrinate the children in pure Marxism-Leninism. There was a
conservative factor at the heart of Communist society that could not
My father-in-law was alert to this factor because he was an Armenian.
He was the seventh in a line of sons in his family who served the
community as their minister. There was never any other occupation
that his father had wanted for him. Until the Turkish genocide of a
million Armenians in 1915-16, his family had stayed in the same town:
Van. He told me that it was possible to trace his family back to the
13th century in the church graveyard. In the church Bible that had
been left behind in the exodus in 1915, his father had told him that
there was a notation in the margin: “Today, the Mongols came
through.” That is what I would call cultural continuity.
That family continuity was shattered the day his family got off the
boat in New York City in 1916, where he was born. America does what
the Communists could not do: remove the grandparent factor. The
nuclear family, inside which grandparents do not live, is the norm
here. In Armenia, there were sometimes four generations living under
the same roof – a very large roof. That tradition does not survive in
America, although “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” shows that some Greek
communities come close.
In my father-in-law’s family, all of the three children went through
divorces. (A fourth child had died in the family’s exodus across the
border into Russia.) America has this effect on families.
Paul Johnson is my favorite contemporary historian. He writes better
than the rest of them, and he writes smarter. His book, The Birth of
the Modern (1991), is 1,100 pages long, yet it covers only 15 years:
1815 to 1830. My favorite chapter is Chapter 3, “The End of the
Wilderness.” All over the world, cheap land was opening up: in
Russia, in Argentina, in Brazil, and above all, in the United States.
Perhaps the most potent of all American virtues, in European eyes,
had nothing directly to do with good government. It was the price of
land. In the early decades of the 19th century, good land – land that
was accessible and secure, ready to be cleared and worked by an
industrious family with a small capital – was cheaper than at any
time in history, before or since. It was a unique moment, which could
never conceivably happen again (p. 209).
So, Europeans came here. By the millions, they came. The birth rate
had been very high in America, but the survival rate was the highest
on earth. Ben Franklin had noted this fact half a century earlier. If
anything, the survival rate accelerated.
In America, from the beginning, community bonds had little power
because of cheap land. In his 1963 book, Puritan Village, Sumner
Chilton Powell describes the break-up of Sudbury, Massachusetts,
because the town fathers wanted to control land sales and allocation.
The sons walked out in protest and started another town, Marlboro.
This became the American way. Never in man’s recorded history has
there been geographical mobility to match America’s.
This is still true. Families in America move, on average, once every
The Westward movement in the 19th century was immense. The invention
of the steam-powered boat in the era covered in the early pages of
Johnson’s book was followed by the invention of the steam railroad at
the end. The railroad accelerated geographical mobility as no
invention ever had in history. It became possible to go 40 miles an
hour or faster, sitting in a bump-free compartment, reading a book.
With a covered wagon, 30 miles a day was making good time. In a
train, 30 miles an hour was nothing special, and the train traveled
In America, a man could take his wife and children and head west.
>From 1800 until the 1870s, this probably meant that the grandparents
would not see their grandchildren again. Saying goodbye was not a
formality. It was a permanent break in family continuity. Of course,
most people stayed close to home, but the westward movement was so
great a factor that Americans learned to shape their local
institutions in terms of it. We were the first society in history to
do this. Nomads had always moved, but they moved as communities. Not
in America. Families moved, and they kept on moving. It was cheap to
relocate. As economics tells us, when the price of anything falls,
more of it will be demanded.
CHEAP LAND, HIGH WAGES
When one factor of production is cheap, the complementary factors of
production become more valuable. In Western Europe, land has been
costly ever since the 15th century. It was relatively cheap only
after the bubonic plague of 1348-50, when a third of the population
died in three years. Families in Europe still keep the rural
homestead in the family for three or four centuries.
In a society that has high land costs, labor is not paid well.
Mobility is too costly. People stay put. Opportunities are few. In a
society with cheap but productive land, labor is paid very well. Why?
Because labor is mobile. A man can move somewhere else, where the
cost of living space is lower. Local employers must bid against the
opportunities that beckon. The grass is always greener on the other
side of the river. Dreams lure productive men to distant locations,
where their talents face less competition.
Americans have a 350-year tradition of pulling up stakes, as we put
it, and heading for greener pastures. This is considered normal. It
is even considered desirable. In Europe, in Great Britain, both
English and Scottish, young men moved to the colonies. In Asia, only
China has a tradition of moving away, and only in a few provinces. I
don’t know how long this tradition has operated. The offshore Chinese
have been a major phenomenon, which is one reason why China is a
formidable competitor today.
The willingness to move for the sake of economic opportunity is
fundamental in most entrepreneurial societies. Think of the “movers
and shakers” economically: the British, the Dutch, the Jews, the
Armenians, and the Chinese. They are all noted for their willingness
to move. Only the Japanese seem to break the rule. Instead, they have
imported culture, though not immigrants.
No society has ever been greener-pasture-motivated to the degree that
America has. Geographical mobility is a fundamental aspect of the
American way of life. “Your papers, please” is not a phrase that
Americans have been willing to tolerate. The government is slowly
infringing on this. If you fly on a commercial airliner, an industry
heavily regulated, you must present identification with a photo. But
you can always get on a bus, get on a train, or get in your car. You
can even thumb a ride. If you want to get from here to there, you can
do it cheaply in America.
GRANDPARENTS IN THE WILDERNESS
This has led to the isolation of American grandparents. Geographical
mobility of sons and sons-in-law has always loosened the ties of
grandparents to grandchildren in America. Now the rising divorce rate
has made these emotional ties high-risk between paternal generations.
Fathers lose custody of their children. If they get two weeks in
summer, the grandparents may get a few days of this. That is about
all they can expect. They become distant appendages in the lives of
The positive aspect of social and geographical mobility is obvious to
most Americans: more freedom to choose and more choices. Our society
is the envy of the world. Almost every other society on earth wants
to imitate us. This is a worldwide social revolution in a way that
Communists dreamed of but could not attain through force. But the
acids of modernity do eat away at the foundations of every social
order, including ours. There are no free lunches in life. There are
trade-offs. There are winners and losers. The great losers in America
are grandparents. In second place are grandchildren, especially those
ages three to ten.
Society’s link to the past has always been maintained by
grandparents. In America, we have replaced this link with tax-funded
schools. The yellow school busses that pick up children are the
visible sign of this transfer of social authority. Now that the
public schools are disintegrating, and have been for four decades,
Americans who fear the effects of the school system are pulling their
children out. But home schooling is done by mothers, not
This had left grandparents with more free time, but less meaningful
work. They have more money and more political clout than oldsters
have ever possessed, but the price has been a social segregation that
is not much discussed. A friend of mine 35 years ago once described
Sun City as “the elephant burial grounds for the white middle class.”
This was accurate, except it is for the upper middle class. Sun City
and similar communities keep out children of school age in order to
keep property taxes low: no public schools. I understand the logic,
but I also recognize the price: a world without family ties.
Parents say, “I never want to move in with my kids. I don’t want to
be a burden.” Then they vote for Social Security and Medicare, i.e.,
stick it to everyone else’s kids. They substitute the State for the
family as the legal caregiver. This does to oldsters what the same
political process does to parents: it makes them socially irrelevant.
While there are no visible marks of this transfer of power that match
the yellow school bus, the transfer is equally powerful. Americans
have voted for a State run by bureaucrats with their tax money.
Americans have transferred to tax-funded bureaucrats the social
function of preserving society’s links to the past.
Then the television set breaks what few links survive this two-fold
severing: parents from children, grandparents from children and
grandchildren. Children today are being shaped mainly by the public
school and the television set. Parental influence is slipping away.
Grandparental influence no longer exists as a meaningful social
The war for our children, and therefore for the future of American
society, is being fought between the public school and the TV script
writers and their associates on Madison Avenue. Parents are becoming
bystanders. Grandparents are not even bystanders.
WHO WILL TEACH CHILDREN TO PRODUCE?
Schools teach children to obey. Television teaches viewers to spend.
Who teaches youngsters to produce?
Parents used to. They knew that they would become dependent on their
children in their old age. Their children were their capital. This is
still true in rural India and rural China, but it is fading fast even
Grandparents have always provided positive sanctions. They have
rarely provided negative sanctions. Parents concentrate on pulling up
weeds. Grandparents are allowed to water flowers. Parents discipline
children. Grandparents spoil grandchildren.
In the old days, this spoiling process had a side-effect: linking the
child to the past. They went to visit grandmother, and grandfather
was allowed to impart general wisdom to the grandson, while
grandmother taught the granddaughter to make cookies. (I am not
speaking of Hillary Clinton’s grandmother, I suppose.)
We learn by seeing, then by doing. This is not bureaucratic
education. Bureaucratic education for the average student is learning
by reading and – when young – by reciting. The education of the rich
and powerful in prep schools concentrates on writing and public
speaking: rhetoric. But public school teachers are hard-pressed just
to maintain order. They don’t like to grade papers. They prefer to
give objective tests: true/false, multiple choice. In junior college,
a machine grades these tests.
Who will teach our children the skills that are necessary to become
economically productive? Bureaucrats reproduce themselves in the
classroom: obedience counts far more than creativity. Teachers are
paid to maintain order. If there is actual teaching going on, no one
cares too much, one way or the other, unless the teaching is superb.
Then envy takes over on the faculty. Pressures are applied. The
creative teachers eventually leave. If you want evidence, go to
Google and search for “John Taylor Gatto.”
Grandparents for thousands of years watered the flowers. Their
unofficial job was to discover what a child did well and encourage
the child to do it even better. It was the parents’ task to maintain
order. Uprooting weeds was the parents’ task. The grandparent could
concentrate on more productive matters.
“Grandma, look what I made!” was followed by, “That’s wonderful!”
Then, “Would you like me to show you how I made those when I was a
little girl?” In every society I have ever read about, there is some
version of this crucial verbal exchange. We can mark the decline of a
society by the departure of this verbal exchange.
THE DAY CARE
In our day, grandma is distant. Mom works outside the home. The
children are farmed out – an ancient phrase that has little economic
relevance today – to day care centers. Then, when the yellow buses
roll, they are farmed out to the public schools. The latch-key child
is the result.
Mom works because the State extracts 40% of most families’ incomes.
This is the result of voting patterns of grandma’s generation and her
parents’ generation. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets . .
. worse. Social Security/Medicare is going to take an ever-larger
percentage of working parents’ income.
The day care is therefore as sure a business venture as the home for
I am a grandparent. I am not planning to become dependent on Social
Security/Medicare. I also do not plan to move in with my children. I
am mostly hoping none of them moves back in with me. So, I plan to
open a day care. I have looked at the economics of day care. I know
of no more obvious way to make a lot of money. I have written about
this in the past.
Most people my age won’t do this. There is too much hassle. This is
not true of home-based day cares. If they started a home-based day
care, they could easily pull in an extra $30,000 a year. In Alabama,
which allows 12 children in a home, it’s closer to $60,000 a year.
The economics are astounding: $100/week/child, 50 weeks a year.
That’s $5,000. Multiply this by 5 or 6 children — 12 in Alabama.
Then do what grandparents have done for millennia: teach.
Teach them phonics. Read to them. Let then do show and tell. (They
love show and tell.) Let them run around in your fenced back yard.
Teach them songs. Teach them manners.
Pay attention to them. “Watch me!” may be the second most popular
phrase for pre-schoolers. “Why?” is the most popular phrase. Put both
phrases to good use.
If your grandchildren are far away, let local parents pay you $30,000
a year to rent your professional grandparent services.
If you don’t think you are capable of doing this, start a free day
care for two or three children for three months. You’re just
entertaining a few children for the day, with their parents’ written
permission. Since it’s not a business, you don’t need to get the
business zoned. You don’t need licensing. You may not need insurance
beyond what you’ve already got. Try it. See if you like it. Then, if
you like it, go through whatever zoning hoops are in place to open a
home-based day care. There are few licensing rules.
Have mothers pack the lunches and snacks. Don’t get into the
meal-preparation business. But you can bake cookies with a little
help from your friends. Think of it as a treat. Think of it as
educational. Think of it as enraging Hillary.
If you want a free manual on the basics of running a full day care
program, which is a lot harder than running a home-based day care,
I have encouraged the author to write a shorter version for home day
cares. He says he will. But don’t wait. Skip the chapters on
licensing and similar barriers to entry that do not apply to home
based day cares. Just read the chapters on teaching, curriculum, and
discipline. Also read the chapter on Social Security. That ought to