For a volume written by a former Wall Street Journal editorialist, Sohrab Ahmari’s Tyranny, Inc. is exceptional. The book is relentless in its denunciation of free-market libertarianism and its more recent “neoliberal” manifestation. The core problem facing American social and economic life, it reports, is “private coercion in the workplace and the marketplace” and the consequent “obscene disparities” in class structure. State authorities and law courts have been captured by the super-rich and the great corporations, creating gross inequalities in the “distribution of liberty.” The American economic system delivers “coercion for bosses” and “submission for employees.”

Neoliberalism, in particular, has turned government into “a mere appendage of market power.” Strategies for the “privatization” of state services are fraudulent, commonly resulting in human misery. Private equity firms and hedge funds are little more than bandits wrecking the “real economy” for private gain. And Wall Street serves as “the command center of private tyranny.”

Ahmari’s book also contains highly unusual lists of enemies and friends. The historic foes of liberty identified in its pages include President Ronald Reagan, economist Milton Friedman, Justice Antonin Scalia, economist Friedrich Hayek, Congressman Paul Ryan, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The friends list includes President Grover Cleveland, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Regarding solutions, the volume is equally startling. “Politics,” Ahmari writes, has to “tame economics.” He praises the war socialism of Wilson and the New Deal of Roosevelt as examples of “socially managed capital.” He points to the democratic socialism found in modern Europe as a highly effective model for emulation. Above all, he calls for a dramatic strengthening of American labor unions as the key to a restoration of liberty.

The greater part of Tyranny, Inc. is devoted to specific examples of capitalism’s imposition of a new form of servility, and only a libertarian with a heart as cold as Ayn Rand’s would not be moved by at least some of the woes reported here. Ahmari describes the single mother crushed by inequalities of power found in the mythical “liberty-of-contract framework” of today and the “deliberate” corporate strategy to deunionize the American labor force. He dissects the corruption of arbitration courts, where well-lawyered and rich corporations crush lone employees with a grievance. He chronicles how hedge funds and “private equity” loot viable businesses through “byzantine” schemes of “levering up,” debt, and dismemberment. Using real examples, he describes how the privatization of ambulance and fire-protection services has brought poor results. He is particularly incensed when the pension funds of public-sector workers are invested in corporations eliminating public-sector jobs. While acknowledging other factors such as the rise of the internet, Ahmari blames the collapse of local newspapers and a vigilant journalism on “Silicon Valley monopolists and Wall Street looters.” And he shows how corrupt billionaires use the bankruptcy courts to evade legal and financial responsibility for their misdeeds.

There are arguments in Tyranny, Inc. that I admire. To begin with, Ahmari is correct to emphasize the innate drive of capitalism to control everything, to leave nothing alone. As he writes, neoliberalism extends “economic values, practices, and metrics into every dimension of human life.” Ahmari could have strengthened this point with reference to work by the economist Joseph Schumpeter. In his 1942 volume Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Schumpeter showed how the “creative destruction” of capitalism “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” This spirit extended into social life as well. Schumpeter argued that capitalism’s “rationalization of everything in life” and imposition of an “inarticulate system of cost accounting” exposed “the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions.” This brought on a retreat from marriage, a “decline of philoprogenitivity,” and empty homes.

I also affirm Ahmari’s turn to Roman Catholic social teachings as a corrective force to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. He properly emphasizes, for example, Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, which deplored the “changed relations between masters and workmen” and the “enormous fortunes of some few individuals and the utter poverty of the masses.” This led Leo to affirm support for morally sound associations of labor. Ahmari might have given attention here to the Distributist economic theories of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. Borrowing from the same encyclical, they proposed ways to expand property ownership so that every responsible family might own its home and a piece of productive land. He could also have shown how New Deal innovations such as the government-backed thirty-year amortized mortgage and the Federal Housing Act played major roles in transforming the United States from a land of renters in 1930 into a land of homeowners by 1970.

Ahmari usefully draws on the arguments of the economic historian Karl Polanyi from the latter’s powerful book The Great Transformation (1944). Polanyi held that there was nothing “natural” or inevitable about the triumph of the market economy. Summoning a mound of evidence, he concluded that laissez-faire “was the product of deliberate state action.” It resulted from “a conscious and often violent intervention on the part of government which imposed the market organization on society.” In this manner, Polanyi exposed how the prevailing utopian view of capitalism rested on the illusion that markets did not allow coercion.

Finally, I share the author’s admiration for a clear “glorious” time of social economy: the three decades following World War II. Ahmari admits to “looking back wistfully” to the 1950s, both in America and Western Europe. And indeed, this was a remarkable time when rising productivity fed growth in gross domestic products, when real wages steadily rose, and when millions of blue-collar households entered the middle class, complete with home ownership, health insurance, paid vacations, and secure pensions. In seeming contradiction to Schumpeter, this was also a time of “marriage booms” and “baby booms,” as family life seemed to strengthen under the benign capitalist sun.

Ahmari credits the organized labor movement in America and the social democratic parties of Western Europe for this achievement, which they brought about by regulating and placing limits on the market economy. In particular, he celebrates Galbraith’s concept of “countervailing power,” which enabled labor unions to corral capitalism’s coercive tendencies and so create a golden goose delivering prosperity and social order.

In this argument he is partially correct—but only partially. His explanation fails on what might appear, at first look, to be an odd counterpoint: the role of women in the social economy. From the beginning of the modern labor movement, a central goal was to keep “capitalism” out of the home, to preserve an autonomous sphere protecting marriage and children. Labor leaders resolved that the market economy could claim one, but only one, family member: the father, who deserved a “family wage” in return. A fine exposition of the principle came from a broadside sent to the men of the Philadelphia Trade Union back in the 1840s: “Oppose [the employment of women] with all your mind and with all your strength for it will prove our ruin. We must strive to obtain sufficient remuneration for our labor to keep the wives and daughters and sisters of our people at home. . . . That cormorant capital will have every man, woman and child to toil; but let us exert our families to oppose its designs.”

This became the guiding tenet of the American Federation of Labor (made up of skilled craftsmen including carpenters, electricians, and so on), the United Mine Workers, the industrial unions, and the railroad workers. The principle also gained support from Roman Catholic social teaching. As Oswald von Nell-Breuning, S.J.—the ghost author of Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno—explained: “It will be absolutely necessary to see to it that female labor is kept from the labor market, something that will have to be attained by prudent and clear-sighted measures. . . . Social justice puts force behind these moral arguments.”

Ahmari seems unaware that the New Deal, which he repeatedly praises, fully embraced the goal of a “family wage” economy. “Maternalists” gained control of domestic policymaking, including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, Grace Abbott and Katherine Lenroot at the U.S. Children’s Bureau, and Mary Anderson at the Women’s Bureau. As the historian Linda Gordon has summarized, all of the New Deal’s relief and welfare measures “were designed to maintain the family-wage system.” A few specifics: the Civil Works Administration paid one dollar per hour for skilled male labor, but only thirty cents per hour for women; young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps received one dollar per week for their labor, with only fifty cents going to young women; and the Social Security Amendments of 1939 created spousal pensions and survivor benefits for wives and widows that (in one feminist historian’s words) cemented “the gendered basis of social insurance and spread gender bias throughout the welfare state for the first time.” As another feminist historian has noted, women would now “have to work mighty hard” to exceed the benefits of staying at home with their children.

Ahmari also seems unaware that “equity feminism”—the ideology seeking full equality between men and women in all forms of education and employment—has always been an ally of capitalism: women should have real jobs (incidentally bringing wage rates down); the old crafts of homemaking should give way to the marketplace and aggressive consumerism; children are an encumbrance and should be avoided. This view received vivid confirmation in 1923 when the National Woman’s Party of Alice Paul (forerunner to the National Organization for Women) drafted a proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The National Association of Manufacturers enthusiastically endorsed the measure (and may have actually secretly funded the project), as did pro-business Republicans in the U.S. Congress. Maternalists in the Democratic Party were its bitter foes.

Finally, Ahmari ignores how the pro-family policies of the New Dealers combined with a still strong, if somewhat informal, family-wage system to help produce his “golden age” of the 1945–72 era. It is true that direct discrimination in wages between men and women in the same jobs was significantly less, largely due to emergency regulations implemented during World War II. Yet a fairly dramatic system of job segregation by gender more than compensated for this change. The labor unions, true to their heritage, opposed the employment of women in industrial tasks and used measures such as seniority to defend family wages. Meanwhile, an elaborate system of “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs” ruled in the professions: men were corporate chieftains, women were secretaries; men were medical doctors, women were nurses; men were lawyers, women were legal secretaries; and so on. In every case, the pay received for men’s jobs was substantially higher.

I say that Ahmari “ignores”—rather than “is unaware of”—this problem because he does at least acknowledge a glitch in his argument here. He forcefully denounces the labor unions for their past discrimination against women and also insists that he is not advocating “for the particular cultural forms that prevailed” during the otherwise sainted decades. I strongly suspect that he includes the housewives in this exclusion. On the one hand, fair enough. On the other hand, though, what if such (to borrow a phrase) gendered constructs were a vital part of the formula that worked in that “glorious” time?

He might reply that the experience of the social democrats in Europe, at least, offers a better approach for our current gender-sensitive era. Alas, if we look to the model social democracy of Sweden, we actually find during those postwar decades the very same system of a family wage demanded by the labor unions and backed by intentional gender discrimination. During the 1930s, it is true, the Swedish Socialists toyed with implementing a feminist family policy that would have put all the mothers to work, together with state-funded day care. During the next decade, though, the League of Socialist Housewives (!) gained dominance within the labor movement’s party. For them, women’s liberation meant freedom from toil in the factories, mines, and fields. They demanded, and won, cash child allowances, the mandatory training of all girls in homemaking, tax policies that favored marriage and a “one-earner” norm, and family wages for their husbands: a policy mix that would support mothers in the home.

(If you think, quite understandably, that I am making this up, I refer you to Chapter 5—“Last March of the Swedish Socialist Housewives”—of my 2007 book, Third Ways: How Bulgarian Greens, Swedish Housewives, and Beer-Swilling Englishmen Created Family-Centered Economies—and Why They Disappeared.)

Under pressure from revived equity-feminist movements, both the American family-wage regime and the Swedish “housewife era” collapsed around 1970. In the former case, a massive dispute arose within the AFL-CIO over the question of endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment, which the craft unions especially opposed; feminist arguments eventually prevailed. In parallel, the unexpected addition of the word “sex” to the list of prohibited employment discriminations in the 1964 Civil Rights Act gave the new Equal Employment Opportunities Commission the power to destroy the manifold distinctions undergirding America’s de facto “cultural” family wage. In Sweden, the battle was more open and direct, with the feminists grabbing control of the Social Democratic Party. Finding support from the radical prime minister Olof Palme, they twisted policies to make full-time mothering and homemaking impossible—in a way, even illegal.

Ahmari acknowledges that both the American and social-democratic models entered a period of crisis during the 1970s but offers only vague and anemic explanations for this phenomenon. I suggest that a substantial part of the disorder was due to a collapse of the cultural and familial infrastructures that had made the postwar decades “golden.”

In the end, then, I am unpersuaded by Tyranny, Inc. While summoning the labor unions to build anew a golden era combining liberty, equality, and prosperity, the author gives no attention to the necessary cultural and familial underpinnings that must be present for success. Above all, there must be something at least resembling old-timey marriage and a commitment to bearing and rearing children; single mothers and unattached men cannot build a viable society.

I readily acknowledge that the moral foundation of a future “great age” might not closely resemble that of the 1950s. But there must be something real and substantial in its place. I shall look for ideas on that in one of Sohrab Ahmari’s next books.