OCPA Speaker: Americans need to renew the culture of liberty

January 30, 2013

Family and government are two entirely different social institutions that serve very different purposes, writes conservative commentator and scheduled OCPA speaker Star Parker in her column this week.

You can see why she'd feel compelled to clarify: Today, many Americans look to the government to supply any number of needs and wants that the family -- and civil society at large -- used to supply. Take just two examples: (1) The state educates the vast majority of America's children and (2) the state provides a steady source of retirement income to senior citizens.

In the past, mothers and fathers took a more active role in their children's education. Sure, they might enroll their children in the neighborhood school or pay a private tutor to instruct their children -- but they still perceived themselves to be responsible for whatever their children learned or didn't learn.

In "Parental Involvement in American Public Schools: A Historical Perspective," Pepperdine University education professor Diana Hiatt-Michael writes:

The American scene in elementary education was one of local parental control of school governance, parental support of curriculum, parental choice of teachers and parental support of religious teachings of the school. However, as public education developed in America, parent involvement changed. ... Public education institutions usurped and supplanted this parental function ... to the detriment of the children and the family.

Similarly, in the past, children took responsibility for their parents' retirement. It was not uncommon for older generations to live with younger generations -- and it was expected that children would provide for their parents in their old age. Social Security changed that -- and also removed an incentive for people to have children or to raise their children to be economic contributors. Economist Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., explains in the book Love and Economics:

A higher level of pensions provided by the government is correlated with lower birthrates. People who do not rely on their own children for support in their old age need not take into account the impact of their childbearing decisions. Social Security will be there, even for people who never had any productive children themselves. People who might otherwise have planned to have several children can instead rely on the collective support of other people's children.

People who must rely on their children in their old age have a focused incentive to assure that those children become and stay productively employed. Under a social insurance regime like Social Security, a couple can plan their retirement whether or not their own children are productive. ... How many parents would allow their children to squander family resources in an effort to "find themselves" if the parents themselves might be economically destitute when the adult child remains permanently lost?

It's not hard to intuit a connection between "the collapse of the family" and "the rise of the welfare state." What's so troubling, though, is that it all-too-often appears that the welfare state rises less as a response to the collapse of the family than as a means of concentrating power in Washington, with the collapse of the family collateral damage as people abandon family to respond to incentives the state creates.

As Parker writes:

There is a world of difference between the appropriate responsibility of parents toward their children and children toward their parents, and politicians deciding on how to spend someone else's money for someone else's children, parents or grandparents. ...

[T]he Johnson administration years marked not just the beginning of many huge government programs that we can't pay for today, but they also marked a major cultural change where government began displacing family and personal responsibility.

It is no accident that as the American welfare state grew, the American family collapsed.

The solution, then, is more radical even than simply cutting welfare spending or comprehensively reforming entitlement programs; it's to replace the entitlement mentality altogether, to renew the American ethos of honesty, hard work and the fulfillment of personal obligations to family and friends. (That also requires the assumption of obligations to family and friends by, say, marrying and having children!) Maybe that means going to the next PTA meeting – and inviting a friend to come, too. Maybe it means looking over your child’s shoulder as he does his homework. Maybe that means saving for your own retirement and consciously choosing not to draw Social Security even though (for now!) it’s there. It won’t happen all at once, just as the welfare state didn’t erect itself overnight. Little by little, though, Americans can do it.