September 26, 2013

The Family and Our Pursuit of Happiness

Last week Senator Mike Lee unveiled his new tax reform plan at the American Enterprise Institute. The new plan is designed to lift the tax burden of middle class families and ensure that people who decide to have families are not punished by government policies.  The Senator explained that the Republican Party is “too often seen as out of touch, aligned with the rich, indifferent to the less fortunate, and uninterested in solving the problems of working families, Republicans could not ask for a more worthy cause around which to build a new conservative reform agenda… The institution that unites all Americans regardless of race, class, creed, or politics: the institution of the family.”

Many of Conservatism’s best policy wonks and thinkers have hailed the plan for bringing something of substance to the table. Yuval Levin praised that the “far-reaching tax reform that would simplify and lower rates; eliminate and curtail some significant deductions, exclusions, and other ‘tax expenditures;’ and address the tax code’s mistreatment of parents.”

Ramesh Ponnuru hailed the plan for its “communitarian turn” and pointed out that “Republican economic rhetoric has tended to overemphasize commercial individualism. But that’s not the whole of a conservative philosophy, or of a good life or society. By talking about family economics, Lee starts to correct this imbalance.”

Brad Wilcox, a noted Professor and the president of the National Marriage Project, believes the plan will “increase marriage rates and marital stability among low- and moderate-income families who would benefit from the economic security such a policy would provide to their family finances. It would also signal to them that the nation values the parental investments they are making in the next generation.”

Lastly, Pete Spiliakos at First Things claims “This is a huge step toward making the GOP a more middle-class friendly party.”

In sum, every serious conservative thinker who thinks the GOP needs to place a larger emphasis on authentic middle class values, i.e. families, has nothing but praise for the Senator and his new work. As far as the nuts and bolts of the plan are concerned, I have no objections and stand with them in welcoming a much needed help to families everywhere. However, as I sat listening to the Senator give his reasons for the plan I began asking whether it could truly last succeed and last. If society at large shares the Senator’s reasoning for his new plan then I’m afraid the answer is a likely no.

Consider some of the Senator’s remarks:

“Here, I am not speaking about the family as a moral or cultural institution—strictly as a social and economic one.”

“In recent years, the family has emerged as perhaps the most important institution in our economy.”

“The family is an incubator of economic opportunity, and an indicator of economic success.”

“It is every individual’s primary source of human and social capital: habits and skills like empathy, self-discipline, trust, and cooperation that grow more economically important every day.”

“The family is where we learn the skills to access and succeed in America’s market economy and civil society . . . and thereby create new opportunities for others to do the same.”

“Some skeptics might suggest this plan is just a different kind of tax loophole for a group conservatives like. – Not so. – Like everyone in this room, I hope, I oppose rigging policy to unfairly favor any group. And that’s why my bill does not tilt the playing field for parents. That would be wrong. Instead, it takes a playing field that is right now tilted against parents, and levels it. That’s only fair.”

There are several problems with the Senator’s line of reasoning.

First, if the family is not a good in and of itself, but only a means to an economic end, then it will be replaced when we find a more efficient means to that end. Happiness, according to the Senator, is not found in the family life, but rather in the ‘economic growth’ that family stability makes possible.

Secondly, this begs the question, what is the happiness we are pursuing? ‘Growth’ cannot bring happiness because it is undefinable and limitless. In that regard, it is much more likely to bring pleasure than it is to bring happiness. If we are to assume the Founders were Aristotelian (or that they should have been) when they penned the phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” then we must also assume that the pursuit of happiness has nothing to do with subjective self-gratifying pursuits, but is instead concerned with an objective way of living well.

Thirdly, the Senator’s believes that government has no business in observing that families may be the best way of life for citizens and then encouraging its citizens to lead the good life. He seems to forget the very idea of government is to ensure justice and that doling out justice inevitably requires making judgment calls about what is right and good and therefore best for a country.

Lastly, his reasoning is self-contradictory in that on one hand he declares government should not recognize the family as a necessary moral or cultural institution, yet on the other hand he obviously believes that economic growth is a necessary good in people’s lives.

In answering the question “What’s Wrong with Conservatism,” Mark Mitchell criticizes the very reasoning that is at work here by noting that in modern conservatism “Any commitment to a particular place or a particular community must come in a distant second behind the ambition to succeed. The notion that a person might forgo opportunities in order to stay rooted, in order to stay home, smacks of parochialism, shiftlessness, and misplaced priorities. Mobility is encouraged by (and in turn helps cultivate) a conception of the human person as primarily an individual and only accidentally a member of a community, a parish, or even a family.”

I am grateful for the benefits of the Senator’s plan, and I do hope they will begin to point us in the right direction and toward a family oriented economy. I do not know if the Senator realizes the implications of his rhetoric, and I also acknowledge that the Senator has given a very good and thoughtful speech on the nature of conservatism, however, in as much as it is a victory for family friendly conservatism it is also illustrative of the ever-widening gulf between libertarian individualism and the traditionalist conception of the good life. Conservatives and Christians can embrace the plan in good conscious, but if they uncritically embrace the reasoning behind it they will be undermining the very ground the family stands on.

Senator Lee is right in at least one respect. The family is necessary for the pursuit of happiness. As are all things sacred and beautiful.

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