Published August 28, 2023
Conservatives and libertarians have seen their marriage of convenience wax and wane over the decades. The “fusionism” of National Review’s Frank Meyer sought to harness the limited-government energies of the libertarian right with the religious and moral vision of mainstream conservatives, and racked up meaningful political victories. In the early 2010s, some predicted a “libertarian moment” was going to permanently shift the political right.
Instead, the pivot has gone in the opposite direction. A post-2016 political right has become much more interested in using state power to advance its ideals and ideas, breaking decisively away from the goal of making government small enough to “drown it in a bathtub.” Conservatives, who tend to prize social stability and tradition, now seem as apt to lob rhetorical bombs towards libertarians who seek to maximize individual autonomy and dynamism as towards their traditional adversaries on the left.
These divides play out in a new report on pro-family policy from the Cato Institute, which lays bare real fault lines between a conservative and libertarian approach to supporting families. But it also highlights areas where the well-worn “fusionist” approach can still, within limits, meaningfully make life better for parents.
Cato’s director of opportunity and family policy studies Vanessa Brown Calder and policy analyst Chelsea Follett are to be commended for encouraging their colleagues on the libertarian right to think about falling fertility as a social phenomenon worth taking seriously. While they shy away from explicitly saying that their concerns are justified, they point out that many politicians and pundits have begun worrying about declining family formation as a problem that requires public policy solutions. The purpose of their paper, then, is to make the case that “a genuinely pro‐family policy means less government, not more.”
And they are right—in certain areas. Housing, in particular, is an area of public policy where allowing the market to work more freely could pay massive dividends for parents and family formation, as I have written about elsewhere. (Indeed, I am grateful to Calder for having influenced some of my thinking on housing policy during our time as colleagues at Congress’ Joint Economic Committee.)
Another area of strong agreement between conservatives and libertarians should be in freeing up the culture around childhood. A culture of “safetyism” means parents are expected to plan for a worst-case scenario at every turn, and socially—and at times judicially—are punished if their assessment of the risks differs from the prevailing experts. Affirmatively giving parents the legal freedom to, say, let their children walk to school or play alone outside can lighten the mental load for parents, while also letting kids develop more independence. And it recognizes the appropriate local of decision-making for the family, rather than assuming every social interaction needs state sanction.
The report is a reminder of how useful a libertarian approach to public policy can be in pointing out the accumulated regulations that make family life more expensive, like land use restrictions or over-credentialization of child care workers. But other areas show how cracks between a libertarian and conservative view of pro-family policy can quickly turn into chasms. For many social conservatives, pro-family policy is necessary—and increased government investments worthwhile—precisely because children are the natural byproduct of the conjugal relationship between husband and wife, and strengthening the bond between the parents themselves should be part of any pro-family agenda.
Thus, as a prospective agenda, an individualistic approach to family policy has predictable blind spots: neglecting the institution that makes future children most likely to thrive; tolerating practices that prey on the vulnerable; and taking a hatchet, rather than a scalpel, to the Chesterton’s fence of kludges and red tape that aim to keep families safe.
Calder and Follett, for example, spend no time on encouraging marriage, beneficial to both the parents who form it and the children it produces. And while libertarians and social conservatives may agree the federal government shouldn’t subsidize assisted reproduction technologies (ART), Calder and Follett oppose federal dollars for ART only for fear it could crowd out or inflate the cost of private services. They ignore conservative concerns, like those raised by the Heritage Foundation’s Emma Waters, about the ethical ramifications of turning human reproduction into an unfettered marketplace.
Moreover, the Cato report’s sidebar about the hypothetical potential of external wombs to allow women to “outsource the entirety of pregnancy…[and] have biological children without the health risks, pain, or other physical and psychological inconveniences often attendant to pregnancy and childbirth” may strike some as exciting science fiction. To those whose anthropology of the human person emphasizes embodiment, self-sacrificial relationship, and values beyond that which the market can provide, this vision sounds like an anti-human dystopia.
On more prosaic grounds, they oppose the creation of baby bonuses for fear the new spending will all get absorbed into higher prices. This is a viable fear for subsidies for a specific industry, like higher education, but is less relevant when parents are faced with a universe of goods on which to spend it on.
On child care, conservatives can rightly join libertarians in opposing some of the more over-credentialization boondoggles, like Washington D.C.’s ongoing effort to require child care providers to have a college degre. But once we get past the more egregious examples, questions of quality and safety aren’t so easily addressed by a simple prescription of deregulation. Part of the reason that child care providers groan under binders of state regulation is because, by definition, parents aren’t there to monitor the services being provided during the day (and the direct users of the service are often too young to legibly vocalize their complaints.)
Calder and Follett favorably note, for example, that Denmark has no federally-mandated staff-to-child ratio, while omitting the fact that the Danish day care system boasts a ratio of 3.1 children under age two for every employee (as well as more generous federally-provided parental leave, leaving fewer children in child care facilities). In some US states, that ratio can be as high as 12 two-year-oldsfor every one adult. Eliminating the mandated ratio of adults to infant children, without a commensurate increase in funding for child care slots, would inarguably open the door to concerns about safety and well-being.
The Cato report has meaningful suggestions for making family life more affordable. They discuss the school choice revolution that has given parents more options in their children’s schooling, along with policies like eliminating energy mandates to lower the cost of food or liberalizing baby formula regulations, which can ease the strain on parents’ pocketbooks even if they do nothing to directly impact the fertility rate. And they deserve serious consideration on those grounds.
But the report also serves as a reminder that as we work towards some common goals, neither libertarians nor conservatives should paper over the significant difference in ultimate ends. Helping families thrive will require more than simply cutting government down to size; it will also require orienting the government that will always exist in a meaningfully pro-family direction.
Patrick T. Brown (@PTBwrites) is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes from Columbia, South Carolina.