David Brooks: Reversing Decline of Family Requires More Government Intervention

by W.F. Price on November 17, 2012

Although I probably shouldn’t be, I’m still surprised by how dedicated so many pundits are to using government and law to fix the problems they created in the first place. David Brooks wrote an opinion piece yesterday extolling the virtues of family and lamenting its decline, then closing with a call for more government encouragement of family.

At some point over the past generation, people around the world entered what you might call the age of possibility. They became intolerant of any arrangement that might close off their personal options.

The transformation has been liberating, and it’s leading to some pretty astounding changes. For example, for centuries, most human societies forcefully guided people into two-parent families. Today that sort of family is increasingly seen as just one option among many.

The number of Americans who are living alone has shot up from 9 percent in 1950 to 28 percent today. In 1990, 65 percent of Americans said that children are very important to a successful marriage. Now, only 41 percent of Americans say they believe that. There are now more American houses with dogs than with children.


The 2012 election results illustrate the gradual transition we are making from one sort of demography (the current Republican coalition) toward another sort of demography (the Democratic coalition). The rise of post-familialism is a piece of that shift.

My view is that the age of possibility is based on a misconception. People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft and country.

The surest way people bind themselves is through the family. As a practical matter, the traditional family is an effective way to induce people to care about others, become active in their communities and devote themselves to the long-term future of their nation and their kind. Therefore, our laws and attitudes should be biased toward family formation and fertility, including child tax credits, generous family leave policies and the like.

How quickly we forget the “pro-family” crusades of the past. No-fault divorce was supposed to lead to better marriages. VAWA to better family environments. Draconian child support enforcement to more paternal responsibility.

Have any of these measures, all of which received bipartisan support, led to stronger, healthier families? Quite the opposite. Every single time in the past 50 years that the government has intervened in family and marriage it has weakened the institution. Why on earth does Brooks think more of the same will have a different effect this time?

The most destructive force in the contemporary family is government and law. Nothing more effectively tears families apart than introducing lawyers, policemen and social workers into the intimate domestic environment. And with government involvement in “family policy,” they will most assuredly come.

Maybe I’m a little old fashioned, but I think the best solution would be to simply leave people alone. Let the people define family as it suits them, and don’t provide incentives either way. Incentives will only give cynical opportunists (like feminists) more leverage to manipulate policy for their own ends. Special interest groups will inevitably dominate when the complexities of law and bureaucracy intrude upon the common people’s private lives. It will just be more of the same mess, and people will inevitably avoid it, which means the disintegration of the family will continue apace.

While I share some of David Brooks’ sentiments, I disagree strongly with the proposed solutions. Unfortunately, I have to conclude that those who would promote the family through a carrot and stick approach are the biggest threat to the family of all.

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