Family Flourishing and State Denigration
By Samuel Peterson – August 15, 2023
There is little doubt that the institution of the family in the West is in crisis. Birth rates have been declining in the USA, and most Western countries have fertility rates below replacement level. Abortions number over five hundred thousand per year, most of which are concentrated among low-income individuals. Famously, around half of all marriages in the USA end in divorce. Rather than ignoring these problems, it is important for all on the Right (conservatives, traditionalists, libertarians, etc.) to address these issues. But what means should be employed to combat a declining family institution?
Some individuals, especially national conservatives, have called for state intervention to solve these issues. Their proposals range from redistribution and welfare to banning bachelor’s degree requirements as hiring criteria. Rather than seeing the state as an obstacle to family flourishing, national conservatives tend to look to the state as a means of addressing family issues. However, the state is often the very creator of family denigration.
Social Security and Medicare
One policy that harms the family is state social insurance. Medicare and Social Security make up approximately one-third of the federal budget, costing around $2 trillion per year. This money is directly taken out of working people’s hands, making it harder to feed, clothe, and house families. State-sponsored social insurance policies create disincentives for individuals to form families. Because of the increased costs, individuals are pushed out of having an additional child, lowering birth rates.
Social insurance also replaces the family with the state in regard to the care of the elderly. Due to Medicare and Social Security, children do not have to aid their elderly parents. This yet again affects fertility. To put it bluntly, why would I have a child who is going to make me sacrifice decades of my own time and cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars only for them to not take care of me in my old age?
A similar case of the state subverting the role of families came with the advent of the welfare state. Historian David Beito writes, “A conservative estimate is that one-third of adult American males belonged to [mutual aid] lodges in 1910.” However, by the 1930s these societies started to fall out of favor due to the rise of the welfare state and American tax code. When it comes to the family, it is unlikely that state welfare programs will fix the problem of a falling birth rate and looser familial bonds. Rather, it is likely that social insurance proposals will subvert the family in the same way that mutual aid societies were subverted.
Trade and Protectionism
Another policy that harms families is protectionism. Trade quotas, manufacturing subsidies, and other protectionist measures like tariffs all raise the cost of goods that American families consume. As Scott Lincicome writes, “Protective tariffs force American families and businesses to subsidize—through hidden, regressive taxes—the small share of U.S. manufacturers and workers (and the tiny portion of the total economy and work force) that compete directly with the imports at issue.” Families need goods to thrive, and protectionism makes these goods less affordable.
Take the example of diapers. While many of the most popular brands of diapers are manufactured in the United States, many of their components are not. In 2021, the United States imported over six million tons of wood pulp and over $18 billion of plastic, key components to making disposable diapers. Even if a policy maker could successfully implement protectionist measures while not decreasing the number of diapers or raising their costs, it would be impossible for these policies not to have long-run, unseen effects on other products that American families need, like appliances, pharmaceuticals, vehicles, and food.
One does not have to look far back to remember the baby formula shortage of 2022. Due to tariffs and FDA regulations, the market could not adjust to meet the newfound spike in demand for baby formula. Rather than stealing candy from a baby, the state simply prevented newborns from getting to eat! Needless to say, this puts massive strain on existing families and those planning to have children.
Trade also benefits low-income and middle-class families. Because middle-class and low-income individuals buy more imported goods relative to high-income individuals, the gains from trade are conferred to them as well. For example, the types of goods that are made in Mexico and China are more likely to be bought at Walmart by an office worker than by a top 1 percent income earner at a luxury department store. Of course, these goods make it much easier for poorer families to raise a child and devote more time to their upbringing, thus promoting a flourishing family.
Inflation and Monetary Policy
Another avenue by which the state destabilizes the family is through monetary policy. As it stands today (and has for many years), the Federal Reserve targets a 2 percent inflation rate every year. Due to this, the current monetary regime erodes savings for families, making future planning and economic calculation difficult. For example, if two parents decided to put away some of their money every paycheck upon their child’s birth for their college fund, by the time that child graduates high school, that saved money will be worth substantially less.
Family formation is drastically impacted by the Fed’s inflationary policy. As Jeffery Degner writes, “[Inflation] also serves to erode the quantity and quality of marriages while creating distortions in the decision-making processes of those hoping to form marriages and to have children.” In the case of hyperinflation, such as what happened in the Weimar Republic in Germany, so too is the family abused.
The spiritual consequences of inflation upon the family cannot be understated, too, as moral standards and expectations of savings are diminished. To keep the same rate of return as would exist in an unhampered financial system, people are forced to move from saving to more risky financial markets like stocks. The consequences of failed investments on families are obvious and a route by which the current monetary state harms family flourishing.
The system of monetary expansion and currency debasement as it exists today under the Federal Reserve greatly impacts both the number of children and marriages formed as well as the degree to which families thrive.
Given the effects of the state on the family, it is highly unlikely that state intervention can fix a dying family. Churches and religion, civic organizations, mutual aid, and charity all must be turned to, not the state, if family flourishing is the goal. An active, managing state does not mean a thriving family. To help families grow and live happier lives, the role of the state must be drastically cut back, allowing families to take back the vital role that they serve.
Samuel Peterson is a student at Grove City College majoring in economics. Samuel is an inaugural Mises Apprentice, a Don Lavoie Fellow with the Mercatus Center, and a Summer 2023 Policy Intern at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.