Tocqueville, Catholic Social Teaching, and the Family Fun Pack

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A newly formed liberal think tank, the People’s Policy Project, recently rolled out its latest project, the Family Fun Pack (FFP), to provide millions of American families with federal programs to take care of all the expenses of children from birth to age 26.

The national media virtually ignored the announcement. If one media report had not compared Elizabeth Warren’s child care initiative to the FFP, it would have had no mention at all. This is unfortunate, because the Family Fun Pack is an interesting proposal.

Describing the program, its author, Matthew Bruenig, focuses on the plight of struggling young families who are forced to either postpone having children or have children and then struggle to support their families. He rightly points out that our government spends, relative to Britain, France, Germany and the Scandinavian governments, very little on benefits for non-welfare families with children.

Bruenig also cites a recent survey that shows parents today are having fewer children than they would like to have because of the high cost of raising them. He recognizes the preferences of a majority of women who say in polls that they would prefer being able to stay home with their children over free day care. That matches the preferences of many women I have known, and a research project I oversaw in the 90’s, which found that the level of happiness reported by one-hundred women surveyed was directly related to the amount of time they had with their children. This far out-performed such variables as money, employment, and companionship.

Bruenig’s emphasis on the needs of real people rather than the preferences of feminists and others who wish to force women out of their homes and into the marketplace is commendable. It is also brave, since his writings indicate Brueniq is a man of the Left.

In my opinion, the Family Fun Pack may be the best-designed government welfare plan currently in the public arena, even if it has only barely entered that arena. But its author misunderstands the causes of family distress.

He is wrong to blame capitalism for the stress that families face. The tagline on his website reads: “Capitalism is hostile to families. The welfare state can fix that.” I disagree.

America has tried to make up for slavery, but slavery has come back in the form of oppressive taxation. When some workers have to turn over to the government 50% of earnings, and the combination of local, state, and federal taxation causes almost every family to give up at least 20% of earned income, then they are, in effect, slaves for half of the year. In the early days of the Republic and well into the 20th century, the family thrived along with capitalism, as neither was heavily taxed.

According to Alexis de Tocqueville, freedom from government tyranny, fiscal and otherwise, was facilitated by two factors, religion and American voluntarism, or what Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.” Religion moderated the excesses of freedom and “self-interest rightly understood”, resulting in a plethora of voluntary organizations designed to meet all kinds of social needs. This kind of social support increases the solidarity of society. Help from people who care is always better than entitlement checks.

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity protects a people who value their freedom. Democratic proposals like the “Family Fun Pack” are more appropriate for people living in countries where all authority is concentrated at the top.

Rather than blame capitalism for the loss of support for families, it might make more sense to blame our failure to employ the principle of subsidiarity to serve the cause of solidarity, allowing problems to be solved at the lowest possible level, rather than having a far-off government provide for families. Families in America traditionally provided for themselves with the help of extended family members, friends, neighbors, churches, and local social welfare programs.

As late as the 1950’s, most one-earner families in America were able to provide a middle-class living for themselves, even amidst a baby boom. Today, it is more difficult, even though, as a nation, we are much more wealthy.

In my upcoming book, tentatively named, “How to Re-invent the Safety Net by Unleashing the Free Market,” I take a very different approach from Mr. Bruenig. Instead of handing out benefits and collecting money from workers to ensure that the elderly have housing, food and health care, everyone with walking-around sense could and should own his or her safety net. The truth is, the government is not a good steward of our life’s savings, but it might help facilitate an owner-based safety net. We still need welfare for the severely disabled, ill, and isolated, but it does not need to be organized at the national level.

If capitalism were unleashed, I believe we still have enough of our traditional Christian culture to take care of ourselves and the poor. This leaves the government free to fix the highways, protect the borders, and run Washington properly, leaving civil society to the civilians.

Study after study and plain old common sense tells us that people spend their own money more wisely and more carefully than do bureaucrats. Trillions of dollars have been spent fighting poverty, and the result has been no decline in poverty rates, increased drug use, and decreased marriage rates. If we had followed the principle of subsidiarity, applied with solidarity in mind, we would never have nationalized welfare programs. If we had been mindful of the benefits of subsidiarity, we could have avoided the bloated, inefficient and soul-less government bureaucracies we use today. The Family Fun Pack, despite its good intentions, is not the answer.

Finally, Tocqueville also noted that the principal characteristic of America is freedom, while that of Russia is servitude. He predicted that half of the world would follow one example or the other, either America, giving “free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people,” or Russia, “centering all authority in a single arm.”

We would do well to rekindle our love of freedom and reclaim our right to take care of ourselves, our families, and our communities, with our own resources.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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Dr. Christina Jeffrey lives in upstate South Carolina with her husband, Rob. They attend St. Mary's Parish in Greenville, and she serves on her county's GOP executive committee.

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