Robert Maynard
December 3, 2012
Promoting "functional values"
By Robert Maynard

I have written previous about why I see the supposed dichotomy between the fiscal and social concerns of conservatives as a false one. Both the free market and the family unit form an interrelated foundation of a free and and prosperous society. As I mentioned in that article:
    It wasn't until recently that the concern of economics was treated in a more narrow fashion. An intellectually honest approach to promoting a free society, which is at the heart of the American conservative agenda, cannot separate the concerns of economics from social and moral concerns. We all remember Adam Smith for his work 'The Wealth of Nations" and his notion of "the invisible hand,"what we forget is that Adam Smith was not strictly an economist, but a moral philosopher who applied his moral philosophy to the discipline of economics. Smith's major work was a piece entitled "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," where he theorized that man has a natural sentiment towards benevolence. This was the basis of his notion of an invisible hand. Society does not need a top down order imposed on it to ensure that the less fortunate get taken care of because man has a natural sentiment toward benevolence. This sentiment was to be cultivated through a social order that began with the family, but included Churches and the other institutions of what is often referred to as "civil society." This order was the essential foundation needed to maintain a free society.
I think that political meddling into the affairs of the family and civil society is a cause for a lot of social ills and would like to see the government reframe from usurping the role of the institutions of civil society. In that sense, most of the goals of social conservatives can be met by insisting that the government "mind its own business." In a strict political sense there is little that can be done to strengthen these fundamental institutions by passing policy. These institutions have been atrophying for some time now as their roles have been assumed by the government. As these institutions weaken, so to do the "moral sentiments" that Adam Smith believed made a free society possible. The result is a society increasingly held together by the force of regulations and bureaucratic decree rather than freely held "functional values."

Again, I see little in the way of policy proposals that will make this situation better. On the other hand, there are plenty of policy proposals that are making this situation worse. It might be a good idea for conservatives to make this case when faced with some utopian scheme coming from progressives. There needs to be a more sophisticated critique of such proposals than merely pointing out the "the numbers do not work," or "we cannot afford it." Many of these proposals are inherently bad ideas that should be opposed even if the number did work and we could afford it. Society is far too complicated to buy into the notion that there is a political solution for everything. It consists of a moral/cultural sector made up of the institutions of civil society and held together by "moral sentiments." There is an economic sector made up of businesses, workers, consumers, etc., that is fueled by creative entrepreneurship. Finally, there is a political sector made up of the various levels of government. To assume that all the various sectors of society can be centrally managed in a top down fashion by supposedly all knowing government bureaucrats is as foolish as assuming that a complicated circuit board can be tuned with a hammer. Government is a blunt instrument much like a hammer and our society is far more complicated that even the most intricate circuit board.

Since the family is the cornerstone of any society, and the values passed on from the family are the key to the smooth functioning of a free society, conservatives simply cannot escape the need to discuss family values. Because these values are essential to the functioning of a healthy and free society, we might want to refer to them as "functional values." Discussing such matters does not mean we intend to impose these values on the public any more than discussing the value of entrepreneurship means we intend to impose it on the public. Both ideals are vital to a free society and in both cases it is a matter of reigning in government so that it does not tread on those areas of society best equipped to deal with those ideals.

In discussing the notion of family values as functional values, it would be useful to use research from the social sciences. One good source is a booklet entitled "Why Marriage Matters: An Argument for the Goods of Marriage" by the Institute for American Values. Here is how they summarize their work:
    For most of the latter-half of the twentieth century, divorce posed the greatest threat to child well-being and the institution of marriage. Today, that is not the case. New research — made available for the first time in Why Marriage Matters — suggests that the rise of cohabiting households with children is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children's lives in today's families.
On their website is a section with scholars discussing these concerns in an apolitical manner. The website includes videos of the discussion. Here is the site's introduction to these discussions:
    A Conversation with Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values; Amy L. Wax, Robert Mundheim Professor of Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School; and W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, University of Virginia and chair of the team of scholars that authored the third edition of Why Marriage Matters; hosted by Jonathan Rauch, guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.
It is long past the time for conservatives to make use of such material in their critique of government directed social engineering.

© Robert Maynard

 

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