Why “Family Values” Matter

Arnold Kling has an excellent piece on why the traditional family is a necessary bulwark for personal freedom:

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.

That’s the main reason I don’t regard libertarianism as a complete political philosophy. Personal autonomy isn’t in itself sufficient for a healthy society – it has to be balanced by a sense of communal morality. That can’t be enforced by government, and Kling makes it a point to show that government regulation in such matters actually undermine social values. They have to come organically from society as a whole – Congress can’t (and shouldn’t) pass a law mandating that people be nice to each other. However, a healthy society is one in which those acts are expected of every member, and boorish, rude, contemptible behavior is actively shunned.

The problem in America isn’t a paucity of government regulation, it’s a culture that has lost its moorings. Bad behavior isn’t looked down upon, it’s become commonplace, accepted, and sometimes even encouraged. As the ever-astute Megan McArdle notes, sometimes shame is good:

Arnold’s essential argument is that since welfare subsidizes bad behavior (single motherhood, unemployment etc.) the state encourages that behavior and you get more of it than you would otherwise, even though everyone agrees that that behavior is bad and creating more of it was not anyone’s intention.

He then disses “compassionate conservatism” and the notion that partnering with NGOs and churches to deliver welfare services is a disastrous idea because such flows of money will corrupt the entities it travels through.

You get corruption whenever other people’s money is coercively redistributed and I don’t know why Arnold thinks churches and NGOs will do worse than the agencies currently involved with such distribution, or worse than those organizations do currently. The central economic insight is that subsidizing bad behavior produces more of it, so if you want to dole out money to those who have made bad decisions, it stands to reason that some non-monetary force would also be useful — namely nagging.

A Mormon buddy of mine told me about how the Church takes care of those who lose their jobs, giving them monetary assistance etc., but how it also expects them to look for a new job seriously. If the community feels that the person is not working hard enough, they let him know, and may give him odd jobs that he has to do to keep getting his allowance. Essentially, social expectations and nagging work against the bad behavior encouraged by the monetary subsidy.

If the welfare state is here to stay, which it looks like it is, then perhaps one way to reduce its pernicious effects is to channel the money through nagging, paternalistic Church groups and NGOs.

I think she’s right here. Government can’t solve things like poverty, single motherhood, and the breakdown of the American family because those aren’t political problems. Trying to fix such social problems with political solutions is like trying to eat soup with a fork – it just doesn’t work.

A society that values hard work will have less poverty. A society that values the family will have fewer single mothers (and also less poverty). A society that values marriage will have fewer divorces. A society in which women are treated with respect will have fewer rapes and sexual assaults. A society in which charity is cultured as an individual virtue and a personal mandate will need less welfare and show more compassion.

President Bush is right to recognize that the “armies of compassion” in America – but ultimately his vision of “compassionate conservative” relies to heavily on the power of the state rather than on allowing the state to get out of the way. You can’t mandate compassion, you can’t legislate respect, and you can’t expect societal problems to be solved using political means. Ultimately, the fault is not with our representatives in Washington, but with ourselves. We collectively have the tools to solve a great many society problems, but we’re too self-absorbed to use them.

The more we abrogate our personal responsibilities in society to the state, the more intrusive and ultimately dangerous the state will become. We all hold a individual responsibility to society, and a full political philosophy must recognize the magnitude of that personal commitment. Given that the family is the predominant and most important structure for propagating those positive societal values, a free society without strong families won’t remain all that free for long.

3 thoughts on “Why “Family Values” Matter

  1. Being a single mother is “bad behaviour”? Maybe on the part of the asshole who got the woman pregnant and then walked away. I dont think you can say that being a mother is in any way “bad behaviour”. I suppose you will say that she should have just kept her legs shut until she was married, huh.

    Calling single mothers bad people.
    Is that a part of your positive societal values?

  2. I’ll ignore the troll for now.

    But anyway, I don’t see how this isn’t libertarianism in a nutshell. The ideal of libertarianism, in my mind, is the freedom of choice; and to choose a socially-conservative lifestyle and want the government to butt out doesn’t seem inconsistent. In fact, given how many “liberals” live such a lifestyle, I don’t see how its a political philosophy or matter at all. My problem isn’t with the conservative way of life (I never realized just how “conservative” I or my family was until I moved away from South Dakota), but this new populist-conservatism that feels so insecure in its lack of moral community that it needs to use the levers of the state to enforce its will. Again, Barry Goldwater is spinning in his grave.

  3. Of course, Shiddybutt jumps to conclusions because he simply wants to call names. Nowhere above does it say that mothers are solely responsible for single motherhood. Also, I would argue that fatherhood and motherhood is often unhealthy – there are plenty of people who are not ready to raise children, are not mature enough, not financially stable enough, etc. I’m a psychologist who works in a prison – in West Virginia. The unhealthy choices I see people make on a daily basis, both inside and outside of prison are so demoralizing that it’s enough to make me want to quit and move somewhere, start up a private practice, and deal with some relatively healthy people for a change (of course, then I’d have to deal with insurance companies :). Bottom line – these ARE choices, albeit made by people who have little exposure to individuals who have made other, healthier choices (again, both inside and outside of the prison). How can we expect people to make healthy choices when they no exposure to choices like that, and there is no incentive (shame-based or whatever) to delay gratification? We do present an alternative world view in treatment, but even in a program that is nine-months long, how much change can one reasonably expect when someone’s been immersed in the thug mentality, or “Three kids before the age of 18? No problem!” mentality their entire life. I can tell you for a fact that there is little to no stigma amongst inmates for acting out, being irresponsible, etc., at least among the guys who need to change the most. Many have even turned it around to the point where being in prison is cool. And multiple kids? Please. We’ve got one guy here with 11 kids, 8 different moms. He doesn’t mind, doesn’t see it as a problem, basically he doesn’t care. And there is nothing either myself or anyone else working here can do to change him. And that’s just one. Obviously I don’t blame the kids, but this guy and the women he’s had children with are either selfish, irresponsible, ignorant, or all of the above. And if an individual doesn’t care intrinsically, there ain’t a program in the world that will matter. We spend a lot of time working to get inmates to care, but it’s slow going, let me tell you. You’d think it’d be easy – “Man prison sucks, my life sucks, and here’s some people who can teach me a different way.” Would that that were true!

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