Liberals want more government and conservatives want less. This isn’t really an accurate characterization of the divide between liberals and conservatives, but it’s what most people tend to think of when they think of the left/right divide. Patrick Deneen argues in his excellent new book, Why Liberalism Failed, that both liberals (i.e. left/progressive liberals) and conservatives (i.e. right/classical liberals), favor vesting colossal powers in the state so that it can protect individual rights. Progressives want to permit the state to restrict hateful speech to protect the feelings of minorities, and conservatives want to use the power of the state to extend the free market as much as possible so that we can consume more goods and services to satisfy our needs and wants.
But then there are people who want to give the government the power, not to secure individual freedom (whether from economic or social constraints), but to promote the common good. Elizabeth Bruenig’s column in the Washington Post, combined with her comments that followed it on Twitter, is a good example. Bruenig supports state-funded paid family leave for the purpose of supporting families, rather than the system backed by Marco Rubio, in which the cost of supporting a family would remain on the parent(s), albeit shifted years into the future.
I found an interesting response to this position on Twitter:
This is true, if somewhat beside the point that Bruenig was making at that particular moment. (Her point was that child rearing is a collective concern, and not merely an individual one.) But what I found interesting about this exchange is that it was unclear exactly what was meant by the “state” or “government.” Important public policy questions cannot be boiled down to “more government” versus “less government,” as government can take many different forms, some of which are better suited to pursuing certain ends than others. We do not have to choose between an expansive federal nanny state and individual autonomy. Indeed, these two things often come as a bundle, as Deneen notes in his book.
Instead, we ought to consider what other kinds of government might be better suited to promoting the collective interest that communities have in ensuring that children are raised well. The answer is contained in the question, if the question is posed properly. Communities have an interest in raising their children well, so self-governing communities should promote and protect that interest, which is a key component of their common good. We don’t need to rely on an impersonal, relatively unaccountable governmental entity that does little more than dispense cash to promote the good of families. In a properly constituted community, individual members work together to secure the common good, even if that means sacrificing some of their autonomy.
The solution proposed by Bruenig thus treats the symptoms, rather than the disease. If we have strong communities who are willing and able to govern themselves in such a way that promotes the good of the families that constitute them, then we will not need a distant federal government to tax and spend to support the welfare of families. Federally mandated paid family leave is a quick, short-term fix that might even make things worse in the long run by removing the incentive for communities to govern themselves in pursuit of their common good. The need for devotion to the good of a particular community would be annihilated because of the promise of the bureaucracy to provide financial security to all, regardless of their situation.
Yet Bruenig is correct in maintaining that child rearing is a collective concern, rather than merely an individual one. If I am truly a member of a community, then I will care about the well-being of other members of that community—how they raise their children, whether they have enough financial resources to support their family, etc. And a true community is governed by norms that effectively require members to actively pursue the common good. For example, the federal government need not require me to provide financial help to my parents should they ever need it. Doing so is my moral obligation as their son, even though it is not my legal obligation.
So Bruenig and her critics on Twitter are wrong for the same reason: they assume that an acknowledgement of a collective concern requires the empowerment of a centralized state to deal with that concern. This assumption that the only way to treat the common good as truly common is by harnessing the power of the Leviathan is one of the deadly symptoms of liberal ideology. Neither the autonomous individual nor the distant, centralized state is well-equipped to pursue the common good. Fortunately, we have an alternative, genuine self-government by well-constituted communities.