Conservatives distinguish themselves on the campaign trail by championing ‘family values.’ But do conservative politicians value the family?
Simply look at the intra-conservative debate over Senator Mitt Romney’s child benefit proposal. In early February, Senator Romney proposed legislation, the Family Security Act, that would provide families a monthly cash benefit of $350 per child to reduce the rising cost of starting a family.
As raising kids has become increasingly expensive, more Americans have delayed starting a family. These delays are adding up. Fewer Americans were born in 2019 than in 1985, despite America’s population having grown 40% over that time.
In the midst of America's ‘birth recession,’ you might expect Republicans to praise Romney’s plan as an innovative way of assisting families. Not quite. A number of Republican politicians and policy analysts have objected to Romney's proposal, claiming that the extra income provided would cause some parents to work less. But family should take priority over work. If a parent wants to work a bit less in order to raise a family, that is a choice conservatives should celebrate, not fret over.
The conservative divide over the Romney bill is just one skirmish in the long-running debate over which values conservatism should prioritize. While this debate has never been fully settled, it has been rekindled as conservatives reflect on the issues that have driven the discontent in American life this past decade. Some conservatives have identified America’s social crisis—a term which encompasses rising isolation and falling marriage rates—as the root of this disenchantment. Bills like the Family Security Act are meant to alleviate this crisis by strengthening the family. But conservatives, unsure whether to prioritize the family or lower budget deficits, often fall into disarray when faced with national problems. Often, the ‘conservative’ response is none at all.
It shouldn’t be this way. Conservatism has a long tradition of thinkers, from Edmund Burke to Yuval Levin, who have recognized that people are best understood in the context of their relations to others. For instance, a man should be seen as someone fulfilling his role as a father, son, and community member, not just as an ‘individual.’ Conservative policies should likewise attempt to strengthen family, faith, and community. Family-focused policies may force conservatives into trade-offs they are unaccustomed to making, such as risking greater budget deficits in order to protect home and family. But that shouldn't frighten conservatives. Politics always involves value prioritization.
Conservatives have sounded the alarm over the state of the family for decades, and for good reason. Just as a house cannot be built on a weak foundation, a nation cannot endure broken families and shattered communities.