Ronald Reagan once said, “Man does not live by bread alone. We really almost diminish all the things we are when we limit the debate to money and how it is distributed in our country. We lose a sense of the mystery in men’s souls and the mystery of life.”
Was he giving a guest sermon at a church? No. He was speaking to poor students in a languishing Texas town, and the subject of his speech was, nominally, his reelection campaign and his economic recovery. The president’s remarks were in response to those who noticed that the economic recovery had not yet reached their own communities.
Reagan’s transmogrification of a technocratic policy question into a moral indictment of his policy’s own victims is sadly typical of a certain strain of social conservatism. A great deal of their rhetoric about society’s ills—divorce, declining birth rates, rising age of marriage—amounts to a sort of reality-defying mysticism. If only people could summon real moral courage and spiritual strength. If only we could repeal and replace the Enlightenment. If only, if only…
This kind of moral philosophizing is not just spectacularly ineffectual—if the sporadic political success of social conservatism in the last 50 years is any guide—it is also deeply un-conservative. Conservatism at its heart is about seeing the world as it actually exists, and working within those confines. We do not have to like reality, but unlike progressives, we do not see it as clay to be shaped in our image. We do not pretend that it is possible to transcend our messy, imperfect humanity. The conservative creed in essence: Human nature is a chronic condition.
To be sure, there are conservatives, such as the “Reformicons,” social conservatives who nonetheless embrace wonky Washington domestic policy ideas for Republican portfolios. But we’re talking about the kind of conservatives who think those conservatives are spooky social engineers. These are the social conservatives, often of a religious disposition, who display a skepticism of public policy, or even implicitly believe that the very concept of public policy is illegitimate. Though perhaps underrepresented in Washington, such conservatives make up a large swath of the popular conservative movement outside the Beltway.
In reality, the most conservative answer to social decay is to create incentives for the kind of society we would like to see. Virtue is not meaningless, but man, we might say, does not live on virtue alone. Fifty years of bashing feminism and glorifying motherhood has not made for more stay-at-home mothers, but a useful childcare subsidy or stipend to cover exorbitant costs might. The empirical research on this, as with many wonky policies, is mixed, but somewhat supportive. Denunciations of the “liberal city” do nothing to lower the cost of having kids and raising a family in a modern American metropolis; tax incentives might. For that matter, the various tax benefits for marriage have been stripped away over time, and the result has not been more pure and solid marriages, but fewer and more broken ones.
The usual conservative objections—that such policies have unintended consequences; that they empower suspect, amoral bureaucrats; that they are “social engineering” that encourages dependency; that taxation and redistribution is theft, or worse, socialism; that the government should not tip the scales in favor of one behavior over another—pale in comparison to the enormity of our socio-economic problems today. If the family really is the bedrock of society, how can we not do everything possible to promote its growth and stave off its dissolution? Swearing off incentives and human psychology and seeking transformation of society by the force of moral and spiritual convictions is many things, but it is absolutely not conservative.
Consider, to return back to the “social engineering” objection, the case of the American suburbs. Quite a few of the conservatives who abhor Cass Sunstein-style policymaking as some kind of proto-Communism seem to think there is something new and ominous about it. But, if they live in a suburban house, they are living out a social engineering experiment every day. The GI Bill, the government subsidization of home mortgages, the building of roads and infrastructure further and further outside the cities, were all results of deliberate policy in the postwar era. Without a concerted effort by government to build the American middle class in the 1950s, there would be no suburbs, no strip malls, no sprawl, or at a minimum, they would not have become our country’s defining landscape. The very fabric of American life would be drastically different.
Everyone who lives in a detached house on a paved street with city water is the victim, or beneficiary, of social engineering. These particular policies may have been for good or ill, but they happened, and we aren’t living under Stalinism. Compared to carpeting the nation with Levittowns in the 1950’s, any reasonable incentives for pro-family behavior today would be fairly benign. In fact, they are a no-brainer.
Conservatives should put their money where their mouths are—even if it’s taxpayer money.
Addison Del Mastro is Assistant Editor for The American Conservative.