Public policy affecting families—or “family-friendly”
policy—is a distinct form of policymaking, with special ends and means. It is also a “necessity” [as I explain in a
recent paper, “The Necessity of Family Policy,” published as the July 2005
issue of The Family in America].
In my few minutes, I will briefly explore the three reasons for the
necessity of family-friendly policy and then offer several additional comments
about its nature and value.
We need “family-friendly” policy:
First, to protect the family as an
institution in the context of the centralizing state.
The American Republic took form in the
late 18th Century as a political entity rooted in independent, or autonomous
families. As political historian Barry
Shain explains in his book, The Myth of American Individualism,
the American Revolution had more to do with the defense of “family
independence” from state intrusion that it did with quests for personal
liberation. Americans of the founding
era, Shain insists, were rooted in religious, family-centered communities,
which were necessary to free governance, the ultimate bulwark of liberty.
A century and a quarter later, the
English writer G.K. Chesterton expressed a broader, but similar idea. Modern governments, he wrote, seek to
isolate individuals from their families, the better to control them; to divide
in order to weaken. However, the family
grounded in marriage is self-renewing.
As Chesterton explained: “The ideal for which [the family] stands in the
state is liberty.” It stands for
liberty because it is “at once necessary and voluntary. It is the only check on the state that is
bound to renew itself as eternally as the state, and more naturally than the
Put another way, the family is the
only institution able to raise up citizens capable of “ordered liberty,” and it
so requires legal protections…indeed, legal privilege. This role played by the family becomes all
the more urgent as local, state, and federal governments now squeeze into every
aspect of our lives and claim nearly 40 percent of national income.
The second reason that we need “family-friendly”
policy is to shelter the integrity and necessary functions of the family from
excessive intrusion by what is called “modernity.”
For virtually all of our history as
distinctive creatures on earth, we humans have usually lived and worked
in the same place. Since the dawn of
the Neolithic Age, thousands of years ago, the vast majority of each generation
resided on small farmsteads, in small villages, in fishing cottages, in nomadic
camps, or in family-scale artisan shops.
In all these forms of co-living, there was a unity of work and
family. Children were welcomed as
little economic assets. Wives and
husbands never quarreled over “gender roles.”
They were too busy cooperating in their common family enterprises,
employing their complementary strengths and skills.
Over the last two centuries, though,
the rise of “modernity” tore through this settled world. “The Great Transformation,” cultural
anthropologist Karl Polanyi calls it.
The new urban-industrial order shattered the unity of home and
work. The family household ceased to be
the center of productive labor.
Mothers, fathers, and children alike were pulled out of their homes,
into factories. Family bonds such as
marriage became obstacles to the efficient allocation of labor. Infants, toddlers and non-working children
became economic burdens. Marriages grew
more fragile. Divorce rates
soared. Fertility plummeted. As demographers Kingsley Davis and John
Caldwell summarize: “The family is not
indefinitely adaptable to modern society, and this explains the declining birth
rate.” In short, the common products of
urban-industrial “modernity”—weakened marriages, widespread divorce, and low
fertility—are another reason for crafting family-friendly policies, so
restoring a social-political balance to protect the vital tasks of family life.
The third reason is to respond to
the “anti-family” ideologies that dominated policymaking from the mid-1960’s
into the 1980’s. Neo-Malthusians
seeking “population control;” playboy philosophers seeking sex without
commitment or babies; feminists committed to rooting out “patriarchy;” “New
Left” socialists seeking to crush the autonomous family; atheists angered by
deference to God’s created order: all could agree on a common foe, the
so-called “traditional American family.”
During the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s, they won policy victories: from
“no fault” divorce to programs of population control to “day
care” rather than “home care” subsidies to marriage penalties in the tax
code. Much damage was done, which now
must be undone, for the sake of the children.
These are the reasons, then, why we
need to craft family-friendly policy. I
will end with three additional comments about its nature.
First, any coherent family-friendly
policy must rest on a clear
definition of “family”: the ideal toward which policy aims. I recommend: “The natural family is the
union of a man and a woman through marriage for the purposes of sharing love
and joy, propagating children, providing their moral education, building a
vital home economy, offering security, and binding the generations.” [Source: The Natural Family: A Manifesto.] Any deviation from this ideal model
predictably results in higher levels of social pathology.
Second, family policy making cannot
be avoided. Key choices face
policymakers, where neutrality is not possible. Consider income taxation.
Here, policymakers must decide whether children are merely a consumption
choice (that is, some people have poodle dogs, others have children), or is
the creation, rearing, and protection of children the central purpose of
common civic life? If the former, just
ignore the children and “modernity” and the centralizing state will conspire to
sharply reduce their number. If the
latter, wise public policy will encourage marital childbearing, committed
parenting, and autonomous homes. Even
seemingly simple choices can bear huge consequences here. For example, policymakers must decide: What
should be the unit of taxation? The
married-couple household? Or in all
cases the individual? In 1971, the
nation of Sweden abandoned the joint-income-tax return for married couples, in
favor of mandatory individual taxation.
All analysts agree that this seemingly simple, innocuous change was the
most radical reform of a very radical decade there, for it “more or less
eradicated the traditional family” in Sweden (that phrase comes from analyst
Finally, policies favoring business
do not necessarily favor families.
It is true that, in the long run, a free economy needs strong and
capable families, who will raise intelligent, able, and responsible children
(what economists call “human capital”).
The businesses that best understand this lesson are those closely-held
family companies that are also tied to their communities by bonds of history,
residence, and responsibility. These
companies are the glory of capitalism.
All the same, it is also true that, in
the short-run, business can prosper from family weakness and decline.
Divorce, for example,
can provide a short-term economic boon. Consider a hypothetical town with 1000
married-couple homes. If all of these
families simultaneously sought divorce, the economic stimulus would be
fantastic. Twice as many
dwellings would be needed; twice as many refrigerators; twice as many living
room sets; and so on. Manufacturers and
merchants and lawyers all would gain.
The terrible social costs—poorer health among adults and children,
greater delinquency and crime, more suicide, more school drop outs, more
illegal drug use and alcoholism—these would only come later.
Working mothers are
also a great short-term boon to the economy. In place of home cooked meals,
these households now buy fast food.
Instead of the home care of small children, they buy day care. The negative effects of these changes on
children—in forms of physical and emotional health—only show up in the long
run. These examples do point to a
common rule: as families lose functions, the Gross National Product goes up…for
have clear short-term interests in cheap labor and disloyalty to communities. When a
multi-national corporation abandons a factory or office in Utah, and moves the
jobs to—say—China or India where wages are substantially lower, the company
gains; so, too, may the broad class of global consumers. However, the Utah families involved face at
least temporary unemployment and—as recent experience suggests—lower wages over
the long run. The state of Utah is
hurt, as well. And the company abandons
human and community loyalties in favor of an elusive bottom line.
I repeat, “pro-business” legislation is not
necessarily “pro-family.” Capitalism
itself needs true “family friendly” policy to protect its own long term