Empowering American Families


Presidential candidate Rick Santorum is enjoying a bit of a surge in Iowa.  He’s put a huge amount of work into the state, and could not possibly make a comparable effort in any other.  He’s big in his home state of Pennsylvania, but their primary won’t be held until April 24.  He’s facing pretty long odds against surviving in the race until then.

On the eve of what could, therefore, be either his big break or his swan song, Jim Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute took a look at Santorum’s detailed campaign platform.  As with the other GOP candidates, he doesn’t talk about it enough when he has the attention of a national audience – it’s curious how they treat so many powerful, intriguing proposals as footnotes. 

Santorum is better than average at tying the many elements (31, to be exact) of his platform into a unified theme, reflected in its title: “Made in America: Empowering American Families, Building Economic Freedom.”  The economic freedom part comes from lowered and simplified tax rates, particularly on investment and manufacturing.  One of those curiously underplayed ideas is what amounts to a flat income tax with only two rates, 10% and 28%.

Unlike some other tax reform proposals, Santorum’s keeps plenty of deduction incentives, compromising economic freedom in the service of a very specific goal: supporting American families.  He offers tripled deductions for children, and eliminates marriage tax penalties.  He would keep the deductions for charity, home mortgage interest, health care, and retirement savings, all of which are of keen interest to families. 

Our media and political culture is rather hostile to the notion of deliberately supporting families through government policy.  This is partly a result of the enormous energy deployed in the quest to re-define marriage – an effort premised on the notion that there is absolutely nothing special about the union of one man and one woman.  Policies deliberately designed to cultivate traditional families are unhelpful to this effort, so they draw accusations of bigotry, theocracy, or at least hopelessly out-of-touch nostalgia.  The defense of marriage and the family is dismissed as the province of unthinking religious zealots.

However, there are eminently practical reasons to support and nurture the traditional family, which have nothing to do with religion.  For starters, there is the simple need to maintain population growth, which requires a large number of families to raise three or more children.  It does not denigrate other family models to point out the simple truth that traditional families are particularly, perhaps uniquely, suited to this task.  Remember, we’re talking about societal trends over a huge population, not asking whether a particular well-heeled single parent or same-sex couple could successfully raise three or four children.

Stable families are incredibly powerful social assets.  They offer sound environments for growing children, provide adults with a way out of poverty, and naturally cultivate good citizenship.  Comparing virtually any index of social dysfunction between intact and broken families is eye-opening, if not horrifying.  Illegitimacy is often cited as a far more important indicator of economic and criminal difficulty than race or geography; it is the variable that changes most dramatically between American populations, to the sorrow of those who suffer from high rates of illegitimacy.

The strength of a family helps to build the independent character vital to a nation of free, and therefore responsible, men and women.  We did not appreciate the social importance of family honor until it became a scarce resource.

Families build wealth by passing both tangible and intellectual assets forward through generations, and by forming bonds with one another.  Wealth grows from transactions, a term that means far more than plunking down cash in exchange for merchandise.  The connections and cooperative alliances that grow between families united by marriage are transactions, too.  It’s great to have a father-in-law who can help you get a job, or a sister-in-law who help paint your house, isn’t it?  We’ve become so focused on centralized planning and huge national agendas that we’ve forgotten just how valuable such connections are.

Our massive government and complex tax system are structured to favor all sorts of things the elites have decided are assets to society, or penalize what they consider poisonous.  Why shouldn’t we explicitly encourage and support intact families, perhaps the most powerful asset in our inventory?  We would want to encourage both their formation through marriage, and their endurance through healthy numbers of children.  Far from being a peculiar obsession of religious traditionalists, it seems like an act of irrational prejudice not to weight the benefits of the family logically, and recognize they are far superior to many things the government compels us to spend titanic amounts of money subsidizing.

It’s fair enough to prefer dismantling the machinery of subsidies, penalties, deductions, and incentives shaping our lives entirely.  But if we’re going to keep that machinery intact to some degree, and the government will go on making “investments,” why shouldn’t it make the investment with one of the highest rates of return?