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Don’t Federalize Family Policy
Although this is a response to the interesting and compelling Family Income Supplemental Credit (Fisc) proposal by Oren Cass and Wells King, it is meant, more broadly, to engage with those on the political right who argue for more forcefully using public policy, especially federal policy, to support the family. I appreciate how American Compass and other conservatives are thinking anew about the role of the government. That work is enlivening the debate.
But I think the Fisc and other similar proposals err by too eagerly enlisting Uncle Sam in their cause. While I certainly agree that families play an essential role in society and that our policy agenda should reflect that fact, there is sound reasoning behind American conservatives’ traditional hesitation to use the federal government too prominently in this area.
My overarching contention is that policy should help the family, but a policy isn’t justified merely by its promise to help families. There are principles of governing that should inform our thinking about which programs are desirable and which are not. Said another way, I want to find new ways for conservative governing principles to help the family, but I want to avoid labeling a policy as “conservative” simply because it purports to aid families.
Among my top policy interests is stopping government action from distorting non-government behavior. From my experience inside of government, I’ve found that nearly every government program is created with good intentions—policymakers genuinely aim to help people, and they honestly believe their favorite initiatives will cause no meaningful, negative, unintended consequences. In fact, policymakers always seem to believe their preferred programs will address an immediate problem and create the right incentives. They argue that their creations will help now and produce second-order effects that will shape future behavior in healthy ways.
But whether its school-assignment zones, welfare programs, rent controls, agriculture subsidies, or something else, policies typically end up with all sorts of unanticipated, regrettable effects—inflating home prices, depressing employment, reducing available housing, overproducing certain crops. These distortions become greater and harder to unwind when the government body is farther away from those it affects (i.e., federal instead of state or local) and when the program is large instead of small, comprehensive instead of narrowly tailored, mandated instead of optional, and permanent instead of temporary.
This is why I resist most federal incursions into the quotidian events of individual, family, and community life. Those close to the ground best understand their needs and their environments and are quite capable of directing their own lives. It’s also why, when I have become convinced that a federal intervention in social policy is necessary, I want it to be as small-scale, targeted, voluntary, and short-term as possible.
One analytical tool I use to assess proposals and programs is the concept of subsidiarity, which comes from Catholic social teaching. Though rooted in theology, its lessons have shaped my thinking about policymaking because they touch upon issues I believe to be core to governing: the inviolability of the human person, the primary place of the family, the value of voluntary associations, and the different roles of the various levels of government. In other words, I am applying the wisdom developed by a faith tradition to the secular work of statecraft.
Subsidiarity can be misunderstood as just another term for decentralization, when, in fact, it is mostly about duty. It holds that the different members of social life (e.g., individuals, families, community-based groups, employers, local governments, etc.) have different abilities and obligations. Authority is assigned accordingly so the various components of society can contribute to, and complement others’ contributions to, the common good. This produces requirements and, even more importantly, limitations. Each type of entity is expected to support others in reaching their fulfillment, and no entity can shirk its duties and over-delegate its jobs to larger, more powerful bodies (like the federal government).
This second point is key. Subsidiarity was developed in the era of burgeoning industrial states (late 1800s and early 1900s) as massive corporations and powerful central governments were replacing smaller communities as the foundation of day-to-day life. The principle was designed in part to stop the state from arrogating others’ authority, even if the government believed it was providing assistance. The prerogatives of smaller entities must be protected. Subsidiarity helps restrain the overbearing, voracious welfare state.
But this doesn’t mean central bodies do nothing. The principle recognizes the need for larger authorities to help preserve institutions, like the family. But that assistance is circumscribed, namely to when individuals and their associations are temporarily unable to assume their responsibilities and are in need. If the state thinks solely in terms of solidarity instead of subsidiarity—that is, seeking cohesion, magnanimity, and efficiency at the expense of pluralism, proximity, and personal agency—it can lead to “paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need.” Indeed, the principle is clear that; “Neither the state nor any larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies” and that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order.”
Subsidiarity holds that it is wrong to take from individuals what they can do for themselves, and it is unjust to give to larger organizations what subordinate entities can do. Indeed, individuals’ first duty is to take charge of the areas for which they are personally responsible, including care for their families. Government “help” must not cause individuals and small communities to become dependent and lose sight of their obligations. Therefore, interventions should be as brief as possible, never take another’s functions, avoid unduly growing the central government’s role, and rely on the lowest-level entity able to provide support.
This is why, importantly, subsidiarity is simultaneously committed to strengthening and protecting the spheres of influence of mediating social bodies, like unions, community charities, and fraternal organizations. These are the types of groups that can provide aid to individuals and families in need instead of the distant, impersonal state. Because these bodies need active members if they are to provide meaningful aid, the principle puts a premium on citizens’ participation in public life, including joining and serving organizations that advance the common good. An individual should see her neighbor as “another self,” which requires civic service, particularly for those struggling.
I combine these insights from subsidiarity with other lessons I’ve learned about governing (e.g., the limited knowledge of distant administrators; the importance of close-to-home loyalties; the formative power of public service, charity, and local associations; the risks of building direct relationships between citizens and the federal government; the value of state legislatures). I end up with a general framework for thinking about social policy. For example, citizens and families have powers and duties that should not be taken away; solidarity should be built from the bottom up not the top down; families are essential so they should be supported; support should come from entities as close to home as possible; support should be limited in size and duration so as to not make smaller entities dependent on larger entities; federal interventions should only come after more proximate interventions have failed; federal interventions in particular should be small, narrowly targeted toward those most in need, and temporary.
I want to cheer a number of things in the Cass-King plan as well as some of the thinking behind it. The authors are right to raise concerns about the weakening of the family, adults’ reporting that they are having fewer children than they’d like, the health of the American Dream, and how changing economic conditions have influenced all of this. The authors are right that policy should have a role in addressing these matters.
I agree with their reasons for rejecting rationales related to anti-poverty cash payments, “parenting wages,” and “natalist subsidies.” I agree that the once-a-year payment of the child tax credit inhibits its effectiveness. I agree with their opposition to universal per-child benefits.
The Fisc plan itself laudably prioritizes work and marriage, and it smartly avoids the problem of child-care programs that subsidize two-working-adult families over those with one parent staying home. I also find appealing the idea of basing public support on work instead of income; that is, a working lower-income family would benefit from this proposal more than from the current tax credit.
But I do have reservations. I’m concerned that Fisc would create a larger federal footprint requiring new federal taxation. I’m concerned about its expense given our enormous deficits and debt. I’m concerned about understanding and delivering this benefit along the lines of a Social Security-style entitlement given that our existing entitlement programs are bankrupting the nation (making discretionary domestic spending more and more difficult).
But my more basic objection relates to authority and duty. While I agree that the economic position of the family has changed over decades due to a host of factors, that doesn’t mean, in my view, that a more muscular Uncle Sam is the answer. When families are in need, they should receive assistance from those close by. That assistance should last as long as necessary but as short as possible; it should be designed to help those served reach the point of no longer needing assistance.
A high-dollar, nearly universal, perpetual federal family program like the Fisc can create an unhealthy relationship between families and Washington. It casts the federal government in a significant, ongoing role in this most intimate of associations. It allows Uncle Sam to leapfrog the universe of mediating bodies standing between Washington and the home, which confuses the allocation of societal powers and duties and attenuates our bonds with one another. A regular check from Washington not only positions the federal government as each family’s personal benefactor, it also saps the purpose of family, community, and state support systems, which is how such mediating institutions wither away.
My view is that we should aspire to have families in a social compact with neighbors, community-based associations, and local governments, not federal mandarins thousands of miles away. Those providing assistance should know us by our names, faces, and stories, not by our Social Security numbers.
The proposal ends with an invaluable question to conservatives that forces us to be explicit about our goals and how we believe state power should be used to achieve them. Cass and King ask:
Will we support a major government program if it is pro-marriage, pro-family, pro-life, pro-work, reinforces solidarity and a sense of mutual obligation within the nation, and meets head on what the American people identify as one of their most pressing needs?
My answer is: A large-scale federal program is not warranted simply by virtue of helping families and incentivizing work and marriage. I would not support, for instance, an initiative that gives everyone a government job and a $100,000 marriage bonus. The collection of governing principles developed by American conservatives over generations can help us assess which proposals properly use state authority and respect the duties and powers of the various components of society. That is, we must consider the clumsiness of Uncle Sam, the inability of central administrators to collect, analyze, and act on the totality of necessary information; the dangers of federal action crowding out mediating bodies; the difference between local solidarity and national solidarity; and the risks associated with delegating individual, family, and community duties to distant authorities.
So, yes, absolutely, our agenda should help families. But “help” often means preserving the family’s powers and responsibilities, encouraging close-to-home entities to provide support, avoiding dependence by keeping assistance temporary and targeted, and stopping Uncle Sam from doing too much.Return to the Commons
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