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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The War Between the State and the Family: How Government Divides and Impoverishes

Sympathy and compassion help make humans caring, moral beings. Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, understood that, as illustrated by his emphasis on sympathy in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Often, however, sympathy and compassion are transformed from tools of moral judgment and action into weapons of blind ideology, irrational emotionalism, and cynical politics. They particularly serve as the bat with which opponents of the welfare state get pummeled. After all, the argument goes, if you oppose an extensive network of government income, housing, healthcare, employment, and child-care assistance programs, you must be severely lacking in sympathy and compassion. To truly care, you must support big government.

That assumption, unfortunately, has long clouded the debate over welfare policies, especially when it comes to government programs affecting family life. The big-government crowd has pushed blindly for government to play an ever-larger role as financial provider for households, thereby contributing critically to the undermining of traditional families. Meanwhile, it should be noted that some who argue against such programs have tried to make their case without fully acknowledging the important economic and societal roles played by the family.

Too many on both sides of this debate have been guilty of declaring that “family” can mean whatever one likes—therefore saying, in effect, that “family” lacks any significant meaning or purpose.

Part of the problem is the failure to apply economic analysis to the family’s role in the economy and to the impact of government policies on the family. That has been remedied to a degree in The War Between the State and the Family: How Government Divides and Impoverishes by Patricia Morgan. Published initially by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, it mainly deals with the programs and realities of Great Britain, but the discussion and analysis obviously apply elsewhere, including the United States.

Morgan pulls together overwhelming evidence and data showing the benefits to adults, children, and society in general of marriage and intact families, and the problems of non-marriage, single parenthood, and divorce. And she illustrates how the welfare state subsidizes and encourages family breakdown.

For example, Morgan shows that marriage boosts personal responsibility and employment among males, while single males are far more likely to be jobless and receiving government assistance. She also makes clear that government benefits have a strong impact on marriage and childbearing decisions and responsibilities among both men and women.

She notes the varying ways in which government policies affect such critical decisions: “By rewarding some behaviours and penalising others, tax and welfare systems affect the preference and behaviour of individuals not just through hard cash calculations but by (unavoidably) embodying and promoting certain values and assumptions. . . . The generous subsidisation of the lone-parent household cannot but reinforce the belief that it is quite acceptable for men to expect the state to provide for their offspring.”

Morgan sums up the implications of all this on the size and intrusiveness of government: “Growing family and household fragmentation” drives government spending and taxes ever higher; increases the “number of clients of the state”; “displaces existing institutional and private arrangements”; places the government in the role of parent and provider to children; allows for increased government intrusions into family life; and generates “an increasing mass of legislation and regulation of provisions for custody, access and financial support.” For good measure, child development is inevitably hampered due to the loss of “private investment in children,” which can never be matched in substance or quality by government programs.

What’s the solution? Morgan provides a straight-forward answer: “The benefits to society of family commitments within households, including marriage, are so huge that these institutions should be nurtured rather than eradicated. There is no need to denigrate other ‘lifestyles’: the tax and benefits system should just stop discouraging family commitment and treating it as superfluous.”

After digesting the formidable data, evidence, and arguments harnessed in Morgan’s book, it is hard to see how anyone claiming to possess sympathy and compassion for others could still rationally embrace a welfare system that, intentionally or not, undermines personal responsibility, destroys the traditional family (thereby undermining its accompanying benefits), and hurts children. If we are serious in our concern for others, then, as Morgan closes her book, “Voluntary action within and between families and households should be the first source of welfare.”

Given all the problems that come with government, including waste and loss of freedom, government action should always be a last, desperate resort. Unfortunately, for decades government action has been the first resort in dealing with social problems. When it comes to family life, the negative fallout from this government-first philosophy should be obvious to all who understand economics and feel compassion for others.