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.