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On Families, Relativism, and the Good

Helen Andrews’ American Compass piece illustrates the tensions in our politics.
On Families, Relativism, and the Good

Our print editor Helen Andrews has a really excellent piece up over at American Compass today, as part of that organization’s Home Building series on family policy. In the words of Rod Dreher, I urge you to “Read the whole thing.

Two passages, in particular, have broader relevance to ongoing debates beyond the issue of family policy:

Letting people make their own informed decisions should be the default choice of any conservative political philosophy. But in the matter of family and childbearing, if we simply trust people to make their own individual choices, we may find that people don’t make choices in their own long-term best interests, as they themselves would understand if they were better informed about the facts and better able to predict their own desires later in life.

The tragedy of these choices is that, by their nature, by the time someone realizes she has made the wrong decision, it’s often too late. Yet another reason not to simply assume that if fewer people today are getting married and having kids, it’s because they prefer things to work out that way.

I suspect that this passage will be the one that our libertarian and left-liberal friends find most disagreeable. At its heart is a rejection of the relativism that so pervades our public discourse. I certainly agree with Helen that a hands-off approach should be the default conservative position. But the argument here presents a challenge to that. It implies that some choices are, inherently, better than others; that self-interest is less subjective than it may seem; and—perhaps most provocatively—that sometimes policy needs to intervene in “letting people make their own decisions” to direct people away from making bad ones. This is the tension between liberty and virtue, long-debated in the conservative intellectual tradition, laid bare.

Here again, in Helen’s conclusion, we see this tension:

Not everyone wants a white picket fence, two-point-five children, a male breadwinner, and a stay-at-home mom. There’s plenty of room for pluralism. But stable families are good. Marriage is good. Babies are good. Public policy should acknowledge that. If conservatives won’t, who will?

There is room for pluralism—to a point. After all, the normative statements about stable families, marriage, and babies are themselves defining the limits of that pluralism. Under this framework, public policy allows pluralism insofar as it doesn’t contradict the prior goods of marriage, family, etc.

Perhaps this is ultimately why family policy is such a debated issue in our politics: it strikes at some of the core assumptions of our American regime. The debate over the proper balance of liberty and virtue isn’t going away anytime soon. Read Helen’s Compass piece for a microcosmic primer on it.

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