The breakdown of the family has been one of the most dispiriting changes over the past 50 years, and conservatives have rightly sought to combat it at almost every turn. That being said, in their efforts to encourage family formation and to keep families strong, conservatives have often focused on laws rather than economic policies. But it’s not an either-or. It’s a both-and.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, has rightly argued that human flourishing requires more than simply economic flourishing. He has pointed out that the conclusion from the majority of studies that have been done on this issue points to a very conservative idea: What makes us flourish is basically family, work, faith, and community — all things that conservatives value.
The family is beset by many epidemics: illegitimacy, divorce, late marriage. In the face of these tremendous challenges, conservatives have often offered little more than sermonizing.
What is more, there is a strong economic argument for a pro-family policy. Families, after all, are our incubators of human capital. As the great conservative and libertarian hero, the economist Julian Simon, famously argued, the ultimate resource is people. Unlike liberals, who believe economic growth is about stuff — about keeping people shopping and factories humming, with government spending if need be — conservatives understand that economic growth is ultimately about human creativity and human inventiveness.
Human capital is ultimately the best investment — the only investment — and the people who make that investment are parents.
Human capital is ultimately the best investment — the only investment — and the people who make that investment are parents. The evidence from a multitude of studies that children brought up in a two-parent household fare better, and are better able to acquire a host of social skills, is overwhelming. Families ought to be supported for the sake of human flourishing, but it’s also good to know that children brought up in intact families are more likely to be productive workers. (Scott Winship of the Manhattan Institute and Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have recently produced an excellent study on how to help provide greater opportunity for children brought up in poverty.)
And, although it’s impolitic to mention it these days, it used to be universally understood that population growth is key to national greatness, another important concern of conservatives.
Finally, though it shouldn’t be our main concern, we should also bear in mind that encouraging strong families is in the political interest of the conservative movement. In the short term, the Republican party suffers from the perception that it is a party that looks out only for the interests of rich people, and not the middle class; and, to a lesser extent, conservatives suffer from the perception that their talk about the family is just that: talk. A pro-family agenda with meat on its bones would be the best way to address this problem.
But a pro-family policy would be even more important over the long run. As the writer Jonathan V. Last has argued, the single most effective thing at turning a young liberal into a conservative (or, at least, a Democratic voter into a Republican voter) is family formation. It should be intuitive why starting a family would tend to give someone more conservative values. More prosaically, the family is the first safety net. People who have no such safety net tend to find themselves more likely to need, and rely on, government safety nets.
Finally, there is a philosophical point that must be made. Some have objected to the idea of pro-family policy as social engineering. Conservatives are certainly right to be deeply skeptical of all forms of social engineering. But the idea that giving tax breaks to families is social engineering, but giving tax breaks to individuals is not, presumes that the only fundamental and natural unit of society is the individual — a philosophical and, dare I say, metaphysical point that conservatives should absolutely not grant. Conservatives certainly believe in individual rights and liberty. But they also believe in family and local communities — or we say we do. While there are many commonalities, there are also differences between conservatism and libertarianism, and this is one of them. Limited government — or so we believe — ought not to yield to unfettered individualism, which would only increase the demand for liberalism, as atomized individuals are more likely to demand government assistance. Instead, there should be space for individual initiative, but also for families and communities, with government acting, not as a planner and bureaucratic director of those entities, but as their enabler.
This focus on human persons, not individuals — that is to say, people embedded in families and communities, not separate atoms — is what makes conservatism the rich philosophy it is.