TCS Daily

The Family vs. the State

By Arnold Kling - May 16, 2006 12:00 AM

"It is intelligible to say 'I love Mother Teresa' or 'I love Madonna.' It is possible to sincerely wish them well. It is even possible and intelligible to say, 'I love the poor.' I can sincerely will that the individual members of this large, impersonal class of people have good things happen to them. But I cannot invest in knowing them to the same extent that I can invest in knowing my own mother. I cannot possibly know them as well or as clearly."
-- Jennifer Roback Morse, Love and Economics, p. 181

If you think that libertarianism is incompatible with "family values" conservatism, then think again. And read Jennifer Roback Morse's book.

Single moms and the welfare state go together. Strong families and free markets go together. Morse argues that a combination of weak families and free markets is much less likely to persist.

Sources of Friction

There are a number of issues that provide sources of friction between market libertarianism and "family values" conservatism. They concern personal behavior, morality, and the law.

Should gambling, prostitution, and recreational drugs be legalized? Market libertarianism answers in the affirmative, but "family values" conservatives would disagree.

Another potential source of friction is abortion. It is not a coincidence that the abortion issue became prominent during the sexual revolution of the late 1960's and early 1970's. That was a period in which social attitudes about sex-without-consequences underwent a reversal. Prior to 1960, sex-without-consequences generally was frowned upon. By 1975, sex-without-consequences was widely applauded. In that context, abortion rights were considered a victory for sexual freedom. Libertarians tend to take the pro-choice side.

Gay marriage is another legacy of the sexual revolution. Again, it tends to divide libertarians from "family values" conservatives.

One compromise, which Morse generally endorses, is to use persuasion rather than government in the family-values struggle. That is a compromise that I would favor, although unlike Morse, I approach the issue primarily as a libertarian.

If one views a strong state and a strong family as incompatible, then a case can be made that taking the state out of issues related to prostitution or abortion or marriage actually helps serve family values. If people know that they cannot rely on the state to arbitrate these issues, then they will turn to families, religious institutions, and other associations within communities to help strengthen our values.

For example, consider the issue of cursing. One of the more dubious examples of "liberation" in the 1960's was to break the taboo against using four-letter words. I have come to believe that restraint from using curse words helps to reinforce a sense of respect for other people. By not cursing, you set limits on your expressions of anger or contempt, and that in turn makes for better human relationships.

Nonetheless, I do not favor any external restraint on cursing. Restrictions on speech lose meaning when they are imposed from the outside. Ironically, the same generation that liberated us to curse then turned around and wrote "speech codes" for universities that are every bit as counterproductive as rules against cursing. Formal prohibitions on modes of speech only lead to rebellion against the authority doing the prohibiting. Of course, any corporation, university, or other private association should have the freedom to draw up its own speech code. That is not the same thing as violating the first amendment, which only protects us from restrictions on speech imposed by government.

I would contend that other forms of morality, like speech codes, are best reinforced by nongovernmental means. When we see moral decline, we ought to try to resist turning to government as the solution. Instead, we should view moral decline as a symptom of an adverse cycle of government expansion and family breakdown.

Government vs. the Family

To see what strong government can do to families, consider Phillip Swagel's observations on China, as reported on Greg Mankiw's blog.

"You see it just walking on the street: there are just hardly any children around. It's eerie. The 1-child policy has been in place for 3 decades, and as a result China is heading into a snap demographic transition; they've created their own aging society...And their problems don't end there, since the demographic change means as well that they will soon be a society with near-vertical family trees -- no brothers or sisters means in a few generations there will be no more cousins either. So there's no formal social safety net and they are putting an end to the informal safety net of the extended family. No wonder they save so much -- it's all precautionary...who knows what all of this will do to the social fabric in China, as the family structure of 1,000+ years comes to end."

In the West, we do not use decrees to artificially break family bonds. However, Morse argues that the incentives of government programs, such as Social Security, can have the same consequences.

"It is convenient for us who are young to forget about old people if their financial needs are taken care of...But elderly people want and need attention from their children and grandchildren...This, then, is the ultimate trouble with the government spending other people's money for the support of one part of the family. Other people's money relieves us from some of the personal responsibility for the other members of our family. Parents are less accountable for instilling good work habits, encouraging work effort...Young people are less accountable for the care of particular old people, since they are forcibly taxed to support old people in general." (p. 116-117)

Most Western nations have created a cycle of dependency with respect to single motherhood. Government programs, such as welfare payments or taxpayer-funded child care, are developed to "support" single mothers. This in turn encourages more single motherhood. This enlarges the constituency for such support programs, leading politicians to broaden such programs.

The Real Compassionate Conservatism

While President Bush and other elected Republicans have won over "family values" conservatives on issue such as gay marriage or stem cell research, the legacy of this Administration and its allies has been to enlarge government. Much damage has been done by "big government conservatism," or by neoconservatism, which always troubled me (see here, also).

  • The No Child Left Behind Act fortified government schools, to the detriment of personal responsibility.
  • Entitlements were expanded, with the prescription drug benefit. A consensus is emerging that the only solution for Medicare spending is "cost controls," which means a combination of price controls on health care suppliers and bureaucratic restrictions on health care procedures. The stroke of a pen solution, that would raise the age of government dependency, is mocked by the policy apparatchiks of both parties.
  • Fueled by entitlements, the share of GDP that will go to taxes is certain to rise.

The original idea of "compassionate conservatism" was for government to achieve goals using as partners faith-based organizations and other nongovernmental associations. If that idea ever takes off, I believe it will be a disaster. My line is that "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and private-public partnerships absolutely corrupt the private sector."

There is nothing compassionate about government subcontracting out to private entities. The only real compassionate conservatism is conservatism that shrinks the role of government. Compassion should start with families and expand through voluntary associations. Government programs, everywhere and always, undermine families and weaken voluntary associations.

After observing Republican rule over the past several years, one must come to the conclusion that there is no top-down solution for the problem of big government. The Republican Party is clearly part of the problem and not part of the solution. Those who wish to be part of the solution should focus on strengthening our own families. The lesson of Morse's book is that strong families are the only antidote to the nanny state.

Arnold Kling is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute and a frequent contributor to TCSdaily. He is the author of Learning Economics and Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care.



This is my pet complaint
Government has taken out many mutual aid societies and it is now slowly replacing family, all in the name of charity. Consider: one of Social security’s effects is that though children still provide for their parents by paying the SS tax, the parents look to government and honor and show appreciation to government (politicians particularly FDR) for the SS benefit not their children. They do not see that the money is coming from their children.

Also it has become shameful to rely directly on your children in retirement but perfectly OK if the money passes through government. This is outrageous.

Even the economics of this are bad! Some if not most families would be better off providing in kind benefits (like housing) to their parents rather than money (which is what SS gives). One better house rather than 2 homes and the elderly can contribute around the house. Some of this surely would have occurred without SS as people has gotten wealthier but SS surely contributed to the current state of the family.

A point on education as related to your mention of compassionate conservatisms idea of government money going to private and religious charities.

I see school vouchers as a threat to free education. It would tend to give some control of currently private schools to government and would tend to squeeze out the growing phenomenon of home schooling. Home schooling is morphing into micro schooling where families through associations share the task of schooling. Home schooling is dynamic it is rapidly changing and improving but vouchers would be a deterrent to Home schooling.

Give a tax deduction to those who have school age children not in Government schools or start charging non-poor people on a sliding scale who send their children to Government schools. Get most people into market education.

We mostly go to for profit schools (tutors/apprenticship/one the job learning) to learn something and we go to not for profit schools (including government schools) to get credentials (degrees). Not for profits are loyal to society for profits are loyal to customers.

I believe the current school system and child labor laws contribute to delinquency and gangs. Especially among those with below average intelligence.

BTW I have a son who is a very poor student. He does not like school and he only has a 95 IQ and this has made me question the very basics of schooling as it currently exists. It seems to me that school have too much loyalty to overall society and in the name of fairness have let the testing role of schooling squeeze out teaching what children need to know to live. Testing for cleverness is exalted over teaching principles of sciences, accounting, economics and business and wisdom. Wisdom principles are simple and better than knowledge and cleverness for most people.

An Economic Valuation of "Family"
If one could evaluate the moral effectiveness of 'Family' from an economic/libertarian perspective, then the idea of a traditional family (Mother, Father, children) would lose importance -- which I care neither for nor against. Of primary importance would be a given family's total economic impact on the rest of society -- not an easy thing to measure, I grant you. Even so, a morally effective family would be one that contributes more to society than it consumes, regardless of number of parents, children, and extended relations.

economic morality
If one could evaluate moral effectiveness from an economic would not be evaluating moral effectiveness. Morals that do not rise above economics are hardly morals. Surely, economics is a big part of morality, and there is no quicker way to evaluate somebody's morals than to look at their financial decisions (Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also), but it is not the primary component. If you think that morality should be evaluated on economic grounds (instead of vice versa) you are putting the cart before the horse.

never have I read so much rot.
The author has really lost the plot now. this is simple blame shifting with a faith based world view. Blaming single mothers on SS is just the start of the silliness.

Pluralism demands Economic Valuation
The United States is a pularlistic society because the Constitution guarantees religious freedom and prohibts the establishment of state church. Thus, economics can measure everyone equally and fairly, unlike religion-based morality.

trust a liberal
to oversimplify an argument past the point of recognition, and then blast the strawman he has thus created.

equal measure?
OK, you lost me. I think agree with your last statements, but I don't see what that has to do with the supposed topic (State vs Family, or, more specifically, the negative influence of big government on families).

So, bring me back to basics. Why are we trying to "measure everyone"?

The Need for Equal Measure

My call for an fair and equal measurement stems from this point made in the article:

"There are a number of issues that provide sources of friction between market libertarianism and "family values" conservatism. They concern personal behavior, morality, and the law. Should gambling, prostitution, and recreational drugs be legalized? Market libertarianism answers in the affirmative, but "family values" conservatives would disagree."

Clearly a Pluralistic society will never have a single moral viewpoint. So to use one (which almost certainly would be religious-based) to measure us all would go against the Constitutional prohibition of an establishment of a state church. How else can we resolve "bad behavior" and its affect upon the free market without an amoral measurement like economic impact?

economic measures
OK. I see what you are getting at.

Now, back to the antagonistic, argumentative diatribe we all come here for...

Personally, I used to be squarely in the free market camp -legalize everything. As I've grown up, I've switched horses.

Well, not completely. I still believe strongly enough in the free market horse to keep one foot there. And, like our founding fathers, I don't trust the moral judgment of other men enough to climb completely on board the morality horse with them, knowing that they could make a power play to grab the reigns at any moment. Fortunately, in a decent society of moral individuals, the two horses run in the same direction, so one can straddle the two. This is, of course, the compromise our founding fathers established, knowing full well that if the individuals of a society were at heart immoral, no law (moral, amoral, or immoral) would constrain them for long. They realized that in an immoral democracy, the laws would soon reflect the low morals of the people at large. But, having seen the other end of the spectrum in Europe, where governments tried, through state religion, to enforce a morality that the people did not believe in, they decided it was a risk worth taking.

You say that a pluralistic society will never have a single moral view point. I agree. You go on to say that using one moral viewpoint to measure us all would go against separation of church and state. But clearly, our laws are a common standard that we all are measured against. We have no choice but to use one standard. We cannot have separate laws for every religion. And we cannot simply make laws void of morality.

The prohibition against murder is clearly established in religious texts. Does that make it a religious law? You might argue that murder is also economically bad, and therefore making it illegal is justifiable on economic grounds. But what if murder isn't economically bad? What about cases where murder is justifiable on economic grounds? Should murder be allowed then? This was the approach of Nazi Germany. The sick and infirm, the elderly, the lame, and the mentally handicapped - all consume more than they produce, and are economically a burden. If you use economics as your primary measuring stick, the proper thing to do is kill them off. And so they did.

This real-world example illustrates several problems with the economic measure approach. The most obvious one is that it justifies the unjustifiable, the morally reprehensible. (All men, even the sick and infirm, are made in the image of God, and murder for economic gain is still murder.) But it is also illustrates other less obvious problems: instability and unsustainability. Markets are flexible, so market-based measures of "economical" and "productive" are flexible as well. As you eliminate the uneconomical and unproductive, your standards adjust. In any society, there will always be some who create more than they consume, and some who consume more than they create. Kill off the sick and elderly, and you will find that you are still being dragged down, economically, by the unskilled and the lazy. Get rid of them, and the not-so-clever become your new economic deadweight. And on it goes. Raise the bar; eliminate the unfit stragglers who don't meet the new standard. If economics is your measure, this is great! Soon we will have nothing but highly productive, highly motivated, highly intelligent individuals! Our economy will be booming! Master Race, here we come! But if you have any sense of morality, you see this “survival of the fittest” for what it really is; the strong killing off the weak. Sure, your economy is strong, but is that really the bottom line? I, for one, am not willing to place moral standards (right and wrong) and moral values (compassion, humility, charity) in subjection to economic ones. I hope you aren’t either.

What we have is, I think, the best that we can hope for. Our laws are, by and large, morally based. Not because of religious proclamation, but because the people are a moral people. Those who complain that we should not have laws based on religion are complaining about a condition that does not exist. We have laws based on the will of the people. Those people, fortunately, are religious, moral people.

victimless crime
The author argues that market libertarianism holds that gambling, prostitution, and recreational drug use should be legal. He doesn’t say why, but I presume his thinking is the same as mine was; people should be free to choose how to live their lives without do-gooders sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Many people (especially libertarians?) think of these as "victimless" crimes. I once did too. But I like to think I've become a bit wiser as I've aged. As you watch your family and friends suffer through the fallout, and watch their families be torn apart, and children become orphans, you start to see that these crimes are not victimless. The primary victim is voluntary, but the secondary victims, who often pay a higher price than the primary victim, are not.

A market is composed of forces in equilibrium, with positive feedback encouraging good behavior, and negative feedback discouraging bad behavior. In these “victimless crime” markets, the supplier receives positive feedback (cash) from the primary customer, but the secondary customer (the victim) has no feedback to the supplier. They can try to apply pressure to the primary customer (the wife who pressures her husband not to visit prostitutes, etc.) but often they are powerless to do so (the child with a crack addict mother, or gambling father). The population at large sees the need for a feedback loop for these victims. They hire the police to provide it. If the police do not apply the force required, two things happen: 1) These markets grow, and so do the number of victims. 2) The populace, feeling that they have no non-violent options, deals with the problem themselves by whatever means they have available. In places like South America, where citizens are not allowed to own guns, and the only people who have guns are the criminals, the people just cower and suffer, while gangs fight for supremacy. In places like the US, where citizens have guns, vigilante groups and individuals will do it themselves. Those do-gooders who were once content sticking their noses in other peoples business will start sticking their guns in other peoples business. Because they realize that the lives of innocent people (victims) are at stake.

I think the best solution is to hire a strong police force to keep these markets in check. It’s not a perfect solution, and the markets will always exist. But their damaging side-effects can be mitigated. In general, those who can keep their activities "victimless" will receive very little heat. (The dude smoking pot while hiding his basement will create no secondary victims, and will get little heat, and a light punishment if caught, but the guy selling it on the corner will do time if he is caught.)

What if the market at large (society) decides, through voting and representative government, that these activities should be illegal? Is not the fact that most of the population wants these activities criminalized enough of a market force to justify criminalization? If the vast majority of the people of the country think they should be illegal, hasn't the market spoken?

trade offs
While it's true that drug use creates victims, it is also true that the drug war creates victims.

It's not hard to argue that many of the damage that is being blamed on drug use, is more properly attributed to the affects of the war on drugs.

It is the fact that drugs are illegal, that make the trade violent. When was the last time you heard of two liquor distributors shooting it out over territory? It was during prohibition.

If two players in the drug war have a disagreement, can they take it to court? Of course not, because their trade is illegal, their only recourse is to use violence on each other.

The drug war increases the price of drugs by several orders of magnitude.

Cigarette and alcohol makers have every incentive to try and keep their product out of the hands of children. Drug trafficers have every incentive to get their product into the hands of children.

Should the majority always get what it wants?
What if they want to outlaw tobacco, or alcohol again?

What if they want to outlaw junk food?

On what basis do you assume that the majority has a right to whatever it wants?

On another hand, the political realm is not analogous to the market. In the market, each person gets what they want. In the political realm, the majority gets to enforce it's preferences on everyone.

Good Points
Good points, every last one. The only one I would quibble about is your statement that cigarette and alcohol makers have every incentive to try to keep their product out of the hands of children. Financially, of course, they don't, at least not directly. I suppose you could argue that in order to keep their license, they are encouraged to do so.

The application to other drugs would be that if the drug market were legal, with government licenses, and strict controls, so that the law allowed the provider to make a profit in a very restricted market, while punishing him financially for stepping outside of that market, he would have a good incentive to control the market, and the violent black market would be undercut by a cheaper, controlled, legal supply.

I don't like big government, but I think I agree. The millions spent on drug enforcement (and housing literally millions of drug users in prison) could be diverted to market control, and the end effect would be smaller government. The potential savings in human suffering is hard to estimate.

Should the majority rule?
Tough questions, but on what grounds, practically speaking, are you going to say "No"? If the majority wants to outlaw tobacco, and they pass a law to that effect, there is little to stop them. Do you think there should be? I can think of no better control than morality, decency, and ocmpassion on the part of the majority. The minority has a few options: Address their concerns to the majority and hope to convince them to change their minds, ignore the law and do as they please, (and suffer the consequences) or obey. We live with this compromise constantly, on several fronts simultaneously. Illegal drugs, illegal immigration, illegal whatever. Every law is an attempt by some majority (those who voted for it) to impose their will on some minority (those who voted against it).

You could pass constitutional constraints, as we have, to protect minorities, but the only reason they passed is because the majority agreed to them.

On what basis do I assume that the majority has the right to whatever it wants? I don't. I just assume that, right or wrong, they have the power. And if you are going to take it away from them, who are you going to give it to? Some chosen minority? No thanks. So far, the majority has been fairly restrained, not abusing (generally) their power. (Slavery and Civil Rights being notable exceptions.) If the morality of the populace should reach such a low point that the majority feels justified in running roughshod over the minority, well, there you are. Deal with it. Politics, war, or some combination thereof. Take your choice. (Again, slavery and the Civil Rights movement being good examples.)

So, I guess my answer to your question "Should the majority always get what it wants is two-fold. 1) Yes, they should get what they want (and they will). 2) If we are going to talk about what "should" be, we need to drop the generic "Should they always get what they want?" question and ask the case-specific "Should the majority be wanting what they are wanting?" question.

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