Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth The Natural Family

Conservatives, Economics, and the Family

Ross Douthat had an intriguing article in the Sunday Review of the New York Times about the strong correlation between healthy families and personal economic success. He argues, I think rightly, that easier access to divorce and abortion has drastically hurt the family among America’s lower class, thus worsening the great divide. He also points out that certain economic incentives in the business world make a healthy and stable marriage with children unattractive to many in the middle class as well, again worsening the great divide. He concludes by asking how many on the Left would be open to economic reforms that required a greater restriction on divorce and abortion in order to strengthen the family and thus boost social mobility.

Mr. Douthat’s closing challenge is aimed at the Left, but I wonder if the same question couldn’t be asked to the Right? Would you be willing to restrict divorce and abortion by crafting a family-friendly economic policy which incentivized child-rearing and a domestic center? My initial thought is that this would be every bit as controversial and divisive among “conservatives” as it would be among progressivists. The contemporary logic of “freedom” and personal responsibility has seemed to have precisely the same effect of liberating the upper class, while weakening the family in both the lower and middle classes. What structural changes are conservatives willing to pair up with divorce and abortion restrictions to help strengthen the family?

Now obviously, there would be the regulatory concerns, the old problem of paying the piper and thus calling the tune. There is a very practical side to all this which really has nothing to do with high-octane Austrian theory. No, the average conservative is simply and rightly suspicious of the ever-increasing number of government managers who have invasive power over complicated areas of life. For instance, how should we expect a government to rightly value the family if that government does not seem to be able to identify the essential elements of the family? Why should the government control and order education if the same government does not believe in the first principles of truth? This was actually Dabney’s critique of  the public schools, by the way.  It wasn’t that no government could ever get involved in schooling; it was that no secular government could.

The basic riddle still seems to be how to have a virtuous and free society. Representatives on both the Right and the Left are quick to answer that one rather simply: you can’t have it both ways. A theory of Mere Christendom, however, is going to have to try harder.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.