Practically since the beginning of the modern conservative movement (roughly from the 1950s to the present), there has been a tension among the more religious, who tend to emphasize what are called social issues, and the less religious or irreligious, who stress fiscal issues. I think we may be seeing the beginning of this artificial wall coming down because of an effect of the welfare state which both sides of the movement understand as requiring urgent attention: the decline of the family has been a disaster.
This is increasingly making conservatives of all stripes into more effective co-belligerents against the statist left. It is a prominent case in which fiscal and social conservatives reach the same conclusion.
The sociological evidence of the negative consequences of family breakdown is clear, and these include very real economic ramifications. Although we should legally allow and personal respect alternative family arrangements, the evidence clearly shows that the most successful form of family is the traditional one: a married father and mother and their children.
Regardless of what we might wish the facts to show, the evidence indicates that the traditional family arrangement maximizes the health and well-being, including the economic well-being, of family members. Although each family, like each human being, is unique, and families of all sorts can thrive or lead to disaster, the overall numbers confirm that the traditional family has come into existence and remained the norm simply because it works best for the most people. As our friend Jonah Goldberg says, reality is conservative.
This is of critical importance because government policies that hurt the traditional family will therefore have deleterious consequences. One can oppose government favoritism toward traditional families without supporting policies that are known to make such families more difficult to form and sustain. That is what the welfare state has done to the nation’s poorer families, especially among African-Americans, and the the fact that this government action has resulted in enormous pathologies is a national disgrace.
All of which brings me to a very encouraging article by someone who is not known to be a rabid social conservative, Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation. Moore is an economics guy, but he clearly realizes that our personal choices have economic implications. This is important for both economic conservatives and fiscal conservatives to bear in mind because a people’s morality will have implications for the size and scope of the state and the policies it pursues, and the size and scope of the state and its policies will have a huge influence on the people’s morality (a function of the economic principle of moral hazard).
The first part of the article’s title is axiomatic for those of us at the Liberty21 Institute: “It’s the Culture, stupid.” The rest follows logically: “Welfare Programs Can’t Solve Economic Gap Created by Marriage Decline.” The correlation is obvious: where the marriage culture is weak, government steps in to try to clean up the mess, which it simply cannot do and which its very efforts aggravate. Moore writes:
[T]he best anti-poverty program in America may not be tax cuts, debt reduction or regulatory relief, but rather that old-fashioned institution called marriage. It turns out that poverty rates are very low among intact families and prevalent among homes without a father. Children who grow up in single-parent households are much more likely to face economic trouble as adults.
[W]hat is irrefutable is that marriage with a devoted husband and wife in the home is a far better social program than food stamps, Medicaid, public housing or even all of them combined.
As Moore notes, government programs actually make the problems worse. The family as traditionally understood may well be a lifestyle choice, but it is also more than that. Family structure has immense implications for the health of a society.
It certainly looks and feels compassionate to say that people should be allowed to live however they choose. There are two problems with that sentiment, however. One, neither the government (including, quite egregiously, public schools across the nation) nor the culture has any desire to allow people to live how they choose. Which leads to the other problem: government actively undermines the family through its managing of the welfare state—and it hardly matters whether the process is deliberate or not, as the result is nonetheless catastrophic for those caught in such a culture.
To be truly compassionate is to want what is best for others, not to impose one’s values on strangers. The real moral high ground, then, belongs to those who acknowledge that our best-intentioned efforts may in fact be the most disastrous things we do.
Libertarians and conservatives alike have come to realize this, and it is is not at all moralistic or oppressive to acknowledge that morality matters and different family structures have varying effects. Moore’s conclusion may be a bit startling, but it is one that increasing numbers of people are coming to see as true, as the dreadful consequences of the welfare state work their way through both the culture and the economy:
We economists bury ourselves in the data and formulas to try to devise policy solutions to raise the living standards of workers and families. It’s humbling to realize how much of our nation’s economic success is based on a culture of virtue. Do the right thing, as Spike Lee would put it. To save our economy from a path of decline, we need to start with a personal and national commitment to sturdy families, strong parents and a re-emergence of the Protestant work ethic. That shouldn’t be so hard.
Interesting discussion here Mike. I agree that the family unit is the wetland of liberty and fiscal responsibility, but I think you are too quick to judge that the family unit “as traditionally understood” is the *only* way to achieve such ends. There is certainly a long history to show that the traditional family unit is, indeed, effective in serving as the wetlands of liberty and fiscal responsibility, but there is no history yet available for analysis when it comes to alternative family arrangements (i.e. same-sex marriages). It is important to consider the possibility that same-sex marriages will be be as effective as traditional marriages on this matter. Only time will tell.
Thanks, Ross. I didn’t mean to imply *only* and I as re-read the piece I don’t think I said that either. I believe, and I think the sociological evidence of the last 50 years shows, that the ideal environment in which to raise children is what we’ve come to call the traditional family. But ideal doesn’t imply only, just best. And I do think that history is very clear in this regard. You may remember, actually you’re too young to remember, but in 1992 Dan Quayle was pilloried by the media for saying the sitcom character Murphy Brown having a baby out of wedlock was a bad thing. The Atlantic magazine in April of 1993 put on its cover the astounding assertion that Dan Quayle was right! I say astounding because the mainstream media back then just didn’t admit such things. Twenty plus years of evidence makes it even harder to deny today.
Of course this doesn’t mean that every alternative family structure will produce disasters. They are what they are and people very often make do and kids turn out fine, but that should not stop us from affirming the ideal.
As for gender and marriage, history and experience tells me that gender matters to the development of children. I would argue that having a mother and a father is critical to the well being and development of children, and that the experiment to redefine marriage will not turn out well. Time will indeed tell.
Frankly, I think it would be best to just get government out of marriage.
Ross, I’m curious if this is even possible. The only reason the state ever got involved in marriage is because men and women can have children. If divorce happens the state via the courts has to determine who will get custody, or alimony or how property is divided. And the state must be involved to assure children are taken care of even if there is no divorce. I know some libertarians think the idea that getting government out of marriage will solve the current debate over redefining marriage, but I don’t think it’s that easy.
I agree that it is necessary for the state to play a role in marriage from a legal standpoint, particularly in the event of divorce and/or issues with children. But it should not be up to the state to decide which marriages are legitimate/recognized and which are not. It’s no different from the state’s potential involvement with the free market system: allow people to conduct their business, and when a dispute arrises, a court system is in place to settle the matter. The state can become involved with marriage to settle disputes, but they should not fiddle with things on the “front end.”
I’m not quite sure, Ross, this is so simple and neat as you seem to try to make it. At what point does the state get involved in a “marriage” if not at the “front end”? Only in conflicts? Since the word marriage has effectively been defined out of existence, which relationships would require state intervention? Why would a relationship people decide they want to be called a “marriage” be any different than two people who just want to live together? Polygamy can certainly no longer be outlawed. If gender isn’t essential to marriage I don’t see why the number of the participants should be, and if the state cannot fiddle with things on the “front end” then marriage can be anything and nothing. With your analogy to the free market, maybe all relationships where any property is at issue will simply be contractual?
A society’s laws reflect the moral compass of its people because law is moral enforcement. In fact, it both shapes and reflects. I’ve heard people say “you can’t legislate morality,” but that’s what law is, legislated morality. As I said in my piece and comments, I believe that what we’ve traditionally called marriage is an ideal form of familiar relationship, and I have no problem with the state (not the Federal state) via it’s laws affirming that. What’s so great about the American system of government originally conceived is that such matters can be determined by the peoples of the individual states, and if different sates come to different conclusions, so be it.
It’s old news. And unfortunately, impossible to attain. Yes, family values have changed as well as the “occupants” of the home. Single parent, step moms snd dads, same sex partners, and other “non- traditional” homes are now becoming the norm. To think it will suddenly change back to one marriage forever together leave it to beaver home life is just ludicrous. What needs to be changed is the atmosphere in these new “homes.” We need to support them and encourage them to take responsibility and be positive role models for out children. Condemning and shaming them is exactly why this problem hasn’t improved. I do have faith in the upcoming generation though, as i do not see our current leaders being able to do anything for anyone else but themselves.
James, who said anything about “suddenly”? And pointing out that there is an ideal, in anything, doesn’t imply condemnation or shaming.
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