An Introduction to Supportive Communities
Strengthening the institutions that allow markets to deliver on their promise
Americans are more than just economic actors, trading goods and services, constantly seeking their own financial advantage. They live and work within communities, as part of a social fabric. These interlocking communities—including families, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, labor unions, and churches—shape and support individuals, creating the foundation for flourishing individual lives and productive engagement in a well-functioning market economy.
Public policy and economic forces play powerful roles in reinforcing or eroding the foundations of these institutions, which are essential to our liberty and prosperity. But in recent decades, market fundamentalism has prevented conservatives from protecting them or articulating how capitalism relies upon them. Instead, a singular focus on delivering cheap products quickly has undermined them, leaving people atomized and unsupported. As good, working-class jobs in once-thriving communities disappeared, economists and pundits celebrated the “creative destruction” as a chance to “move to opportunity.” In other words, to uproot families, shattering generations-long community ties that cannot easily be rebuilt. Both those who stayed and those who left lost out: The former saw their communities weakened, while the latter found themselves alone, far from the support of family and friends. Similarly, policymakers converted public education into a college-prep service, leaving out most Americans, who do not earn college degrees. And especially on the right, they cheered the demise of the labor movement, trusting that market competition would provide workers whatever support and protection they might need.
Conservatives must reject this libertarian thinking that sees individuals as merely cogs in a global economic machine. People are not only consumers, but also producers, as well as friends, family members, and fellow citizens deserving of equal participation in the social and economic life of the community. They cannot succeed without the support of institutions, which means that capitalism cannot succeed without the support of those institutions. Policymakers must not simply assume they will always exist, but rather work to preserve and strengthen them.
The most fundamental of these institutions is the family, which provides the basis for the health of every other community and prepares people for participation in them. Yet while the right talks frequently about the consequences of broken families for children’s futures, and declining marriage and fertility for the economy’s growth, it has rarely recognized that supporting families must therefore be a central element of economic policy. Instead, such “intervention in the market” has been rejected as beyond the proper scope of government. While conservatives should be careful not to undermine the importance of work and the value of the market, it is clear that the American family is in serious need of support, with marriage rates in decline and fertility rates below what many families say they desire, largely due to economic constraints.
Policymakers should support working families with children by providing them with a monthly Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc), ensuring that young Americans have the resources they need to start families. This would allow families to pursue their preferred form of childcare, without the pressure to have both parents work and leave young children in daycare. Policymakers should also reform employer and Social Security benefits to cover homemakers, acknowledging the value of these years invested in the family and community. And families need support navigating modern technology. Parents are currently on their own to protect their children from the harmful effects of social media platforms—a fight they are ill-equipped to win. Policymakers should help by taking the same kinds of steps to keep children safe online that we take for granted as necessary in the physical world.
Families also rely on public education to help prepare children for the responsibilities of productive citizenship. But educators have lost sight of this purpose. Rather than prepare people of diverse backgrounds, abilities, and interests to build the lives they want in their communities, the education system has imposed a college-or-bust mindset that pushes every young person toward traditional higher education. On one hand, this model strip-mines talent out of communities and into elite institutions and big cities. On the other, it leaves everyone unprepared for, or uninterested in, college with little useful preparation at all. Instead of pretending that a bachelor’s degree is the best option for every student, our education system should invest equally in a range of pathways, including apprenticeship and training programs.
Policymakers need to reduce dramatically the hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies that flow to college education, requiring colleges to offer affordable programs and making them accountable for the success of their graduates. Those resources should be redirected toward better supporting the four-fifths of young Americans who do not go smoothly from high school to college to career, for instance by subsidizing trainee programs offered by employers, often in partnership with community colleges. Policymakers should also reject the use of the bachelor’s degree as an arbitrary mechanism for screening job applicants, not only in government jobs, but also in the private sector.
As people move from family and school into the labor market, the workplace can also be an important source of identity and community, and it is certainly also one where individual workers need support and solidarity. A libertarian conception of labor sees workers as production inputs who appear at the job, earn the marginal product of their labor, and then vanish again. But conservatives should see purposeful work as a fundamental element of what markets provide and labor organizations as vital institutions for a thriving market and civil society. Both the left, with its support for dysfunctional unions, and the right, with its support for intransigent employers, bear responsibility for the foundering of America’s labor movement. Without power in the labor market, workers have faced stagnating wages, less investment, and increased precarity.
When workers organize, they are able to support each other and assert their voice and dignity within the workplace. They also develop the power to counterbalance capital, creating the balance of power and mutual dependence that capitalism requires. Rather than cheer labor’s demise, conservatives should provide new options. Reforming the 1935 National Labor Relations Act could allow for new forms of worker organizations that might provide benefits, work collaboratively with management, and bargain industry-wide for baseline employment conditions. As part of such reforms, new labor organizations should also be restricted from engaging in partisan politics, the activity that most often alienates rank-and-file members.