Replacing Family With Welfare

Capitalism depends in large part on whether individuals can make “voluntary associations:” freely trade goods, labor or ideas however those making the exchange agree is fair. When governments limit these voluntary associations—as in where a Wisconsin judge recently ruled it illegal for people to drink raw milk—they essentially engage in social engineering.

recent article in City Journal further contrasts free association and social engineering by considering its effects on policies like education and welfare. It examines these ideas through the life of liberal-turned-neocon Nathan Glazer, a prominent social scientist who came to the fore during Johnson’s Great Society years. It quotes Glazer:

‘Every piece of social policy substitutes for some traditional arrangement, whether good or bad, a new arrangement in which public authorities take over, at least in part, the role of the family, of the ethnic and neighborhood group, of voluntary associations.’ In doing so, Glazer continues, ‘social policy weakens the position of these traditional agents and further encourages needy people to depend on the government for help rather than on the traditional structures. This is the basic force behind the ever growing demand for more social programs and their frequent failure to satisfy our hopes.’ Glazer goes further still, asserting that the breakdown of traditional modes of behavior is the chief cause of our social problems.’

Glazer goes on to ponder re-instituting old traditions—the upward mobility rooted in a solid work ethic and intact nuclear family, for example—as new traditions, a cultural renewal that seems particularly suited to Christians, who constantly reaffirm and reapply the ancient truths.

The sort of metrics we apply to financial policies tie deeply to how we think also about social policy. Not to oversimplify, but at large a serious difference exists between attempting to maximize freedom by depending on voluntary, traditional societal arrangements and abandoning them for coercive measures ill-suited to human flourishing. A simple question for evaluating where a policy falls on this spectrum is, “Will this lead to more self-government or more coerced, external government?”

Of course, where people do not govern themselves, others must do it for them (e.g., “Do you know how fast you were going?”). Intermediate institutions like family, church and the local community can and do, however, privately perform these functions and, in so doing, are more likely to instill that internal self-control and self-direction than public institutions, as Glazer explains.

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