Family at war

The title of Patricia Morgan’s new book, The War Between the State and the Family, is fighting talk. But the British sociologist has a lot of evidence on her side when she alleges that modern governments are engaged in “systematic discrimination against (married) couples in the tax and benefit system.” (62) In the words of her subtitle, she aims to show "How Government Divides and Impoverishes" the family.

She chalks this ill-conceived policy up to an ideological cocktail of feminism, neo-Marxism and radical individualism. The fiscal result throughout the Anglophone world is an expansion of the welfare state and an increase in the overall tax burden. The human result is an increase in unmarried mothers and the marginalisation of men from the family.

The feminist “contribution” to this lethal ideological mix is to brand the bread-winning father as a social problem. Britain's New Labour politicians claimed that, “the assumption that men are financially responsible for families is at the root of women’s disadvantage in the labour market and thwarts the ability of women alone to provide adequately for themselves and their children. ...[T]he treatment of a married couple as a single financial unit ... is to be discouraged, along with any predisposition in favour of the nuclear family.” (66-7).

Left-wing individualism has been much more extreme and deliberate than anything ever dreamed of by free marketeers. The social policy of the Left has replaced the personal, human relationships of the family with the impersonal bureaucratic relationships of the state and the labour market.

Morgan also implicates Marxism, which “interprets human relationships in terms of the distribution of power, and any care and reciprocity operating within and between generations as servitude.” (50) Together with the demotion of the father-breadwinner, this has created a situation of complete atomisation, with individuals left to fend for themselves. Patricia Morgan once again: “The assumption is that there are no joint resources and no mutual support because people do not and must share within families. Motherhood is now invariably viewed as something women plan and deal with on their own. The references are to jobs, maternity pay and leave, and child care, and never to a relationship with someone else who might share or sustain the costs involved. Marriage is now deemed irrelevant to reproduction.” (58, emphasis in original).

Because of this emphasis on the individual, many free market advocates are tongue-tied against this destructive social atomisation, even though it is directly responsible for massive increases in state expenditures to sustain all these “independent” mothers. Left-wing individualism has been much more extreme and deliberate than anything ever dreamed of by free marketeers. The social policy of the Left has replaced the personal, human relationships of the family with the impersonal bureaucratic relationships of the state and the labour market.

British policies structure income support for the poor to benefit unmarried mothers in comparison with married couple households. Public housing benefits are structured to benefit single parents.As one might imagine, the impact on the treasury has been enormous, as more women become single mothers, and fewer men support their children.The human cost is that couples who might have supported themselves and their children together, instead spend a lifetime on the dole.

Although her evidence is principally drawn from the United States and the United Kingdom, Morgan points to similar patterns elsewhere. In Australia, for instance, out of wedlock "births rose from 9.7% of births in the year before the introduction of the Sole Parent Benefit (SPB, replacing ad hoc state and charity provision) to 14.7% in the following year, and the numbers receiving SPB rose fivefold over the 1980's. By 1997, the proportion of ex-nuptial births was 27%, and the nuptial birth rate had nearly halved.”

Even the divorce rate is linked to social policy. Morgan argues that the feasibility of the no-fault divorce system “rested upon the availability of state support for lone parents.Women with feminist agendas operating in bureaucratic and government circles played a central role in defining their needs and in influencing social policy... so that the state came to provide the income maintenance that they needed to achieve independence. Their right to have a family without a husband had been given public recognition.” (104-5). And, we might add, public policy accelerated the marginalisation of men from the family.

A similar transformation took place in New Zealand: "Thirty years ago, a system of universal acknowledgment for family dependents by the tax system was replaced by a welfare system targeting the needy....With no fiscal recognition at all (emphasis in original) for two-parent families above a low income level, sole parents essentially became the only recognized family type in New Zealand. The proportion of lone parents collecting the DPB had peaked at nearly 90% by 1991. Extraordinarily, the number of male recipients rose by nearly 50%." (105)

Patricia Morgan’s book demonstrates that both ideas and incentives matter. Bad ideas lead to bad policies. And even ordinary, non-ideological people respond to incentives in a systematic and predictable way. The all-too-predictable result of the assault on the family has been the worldwide decline in married couple households and an increase in social welfare spending.

Almost the only voices raised against this human destruction are those of religious traditionalists. It is time for fiscal conservatives to moderate their individualism and abandon their agnosticism toward the family. The collaboration between mothers and fathers is a great social good that states should encourage and support, rather than systematically search out and destroy. Patricia Morgan’s book will be an invaluable resource for anyone who aims to make government policy more truly family-friendly. The War Between the State and the Family: How Government Divides and Impoverishes, by Patricia Morgan, (London: The Institute of Economic Affairs, 2007) Jennifer Roback Morse , Ph D, is the Senior Research Fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute and the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work.


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