Should government have its hands in family matters?

April 10, 2014

Most Christians know that family is important. Along with the natural attachment and obligation that we each feel toward family members, the Bible clearly instructs us to place high value on our blood relationships: “Honor your mother and father” (Exodus 20:12), “Children, obey your parents” (Colossians 3:20), “He who brings trouble on his family will inherit only wind” (Proverbs 11:29), etc.

However, it is less clear that government should care about the family—particularly for those of us with libertarian political leanings. This trepidation is fair. Family life is very intimate after all; the government should not have its hands in such personal affairs…or should it?

By no means am I contending that there should be mandates on familial choices, like the horrific “one child policy” in China. Such decisions are critical aspects of basic civil and religious liberty.

Yet, families are also the fundamental building blocks of society. A recent study (entitled The Equality of Opportunity Project) by Raj Chetty and others found that:

[F]amily structure correlates with upward mobility not just at the individual level but also at the community level, perhaps because the stability of the social environment affects children’s outcomes more broadly.

When families break down, societies begin to crumble. Sadly, we are watching it happen. Scores of children in America are growing up in environments that set them permanently behind; they aren’t given the chance to acquire the social, technical, and mental skills that they need to be productive members of society.

If government is charged with pursuing the common good—as centuries of Christian thinkers, on the basis of Romans 13, have rightly believed, it seems obvious that it should be concerned about what is happening to the family.

But what can be done?

This is a difficult question to answer. At its core, family formation is a cultural problem, so above all, we need to foster a culture—across socio-economic class lines—that places high value on the family. Though difficult, these sorts of changes are not impossible.

Take smoking for example. Decades ago, cigarette smoking was widely accepted and even glorified in American society. Today, it is seen as a foolish habit that is on a steady decline. Inspired by conclusive research about its harmful effects, cultural attitudes toward smoking have shifted remarkably in a matter of decades. Along the way, policies were implemented to help shape these attitudes: taxes on cigarettes and bans on smoking in public locations, to name a few.

At its best, public policy incentivizes people to behave in healthy, beneficial, and productive ways. As with smoking, we ought to craft policies that recognize the damage broken families have on our society.

As Senator Mike Lee said in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute, “The primacy of family should inform conservative policies about everything from welfare to education to transportation to criminal justice.”

Though many are experimental, there are countless policy ideas that could help strengthen families in America: tax credits to offset the cost of raising children, education and training programs (like the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative), reformed divorce laws, career academies and many others.

Eventually, America must wake up to the undeniable reality that family breakdown is a crisis with wide-ranging societal ramifications. When that happens, we should be willing to implement policies that respect personal liberty, but also wisely incentivize healthy familial behavior. Our common good depends on it.