A policy is a general principle that a person, business, or government seeks to follow when making decisions and acting upon those decisions. Every government has many policies each of which falls into one of two broad categories, foreign and domestic. Foreign policy includes the policies the government follows in its external relations with other countries, whereas domestic policy consists of government policies that are internal, that pertain to the government’s own country. Domestic policies fall into a number of smaller categories. Fiscal policy concerns government revenue and spending whereas economic policy pertains to the production and distribution of goods and services and all related matters. A government’s social policy consists of the principles which determine government decisions that affect how people interact with each other socially.
Policies, including social policy, have both ends and means. Ends are the goals that a government seeks to accomplish. Its policies are directed towards the achievement of those goals. Means are the methods and instruments which a government uses to achieve its ends. Among the means which government has at its disposal are its powers of taxation and legislation and the funding it provides for various projects out of the revenue it receives from taxes. Policy determines the means, the ends determine the policy. It is not the means by which government enacts its policies that is our subject of discussion but the ends to which those policies are directed.
What should be the ends, the goals, the purpose, of public social policy?
Public discussion of this question is usually framed as a debate between the conservative and the liberal position. This is a false dichotomy in more ways than one. First, the conservative and liberal position, while very different, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In the best of circumstances, they are complementary positions. Second, there is a third position, the progressive position, which since at least World War II has had more influence on public social policy than either conservatism or liberalism. It is because of the success of progressivism that conservatism and liberalism are no longer complementary positions.
What are the conservative, liberal, and progressive positions?
The conservative position on public social policy is that government and its laws should support and strengthen the traditional social order. The liberal position is that social interaction and cooperation should consist of the free choices of individuals with which government should not interfere. Interestingly, this can be stated in one of two ways. The first is that government should adopt a policy of laissez faire on social issues, the second is that government should have no social policy whatsoever. These sound like contradictory statements but they amount to the same thing. The progressive position is that government should actively seek to correct the “injustices” in the traditional social order by replacing it with a new, rationally engineered, social order built upon ideals of equality and fairness.
Progressivism has been very successful, not in the sense of having achieved its unachievable goal of eradicating evil and suffering from human existence, but in the sense of influencing public social policy so that it serves progressive rather than conservative or liberal ends. The success of progressivism has severely undermined and weakened the traditional social order.
To understand how progressivism has undermined the social order, we must first look at what the traditional social order is and how it emerges from the natural order of the family, after which we will look at a few examples of how government social engineering has damaged this order.
The traditional social order is part of a society’s inherited way of life. It is a complex set of relationships, responsibilities attached to those relationships, and rules governing those relationships, which slowly evolves as a society passes it down from one generation to the next. Although it varies from society to society and changes over the course of a society’s history it contains elements which are the same in every society in every time and place. This is because it is an expansion of the natural social order which arises out of human nature and can be found in the family.
The family is the most basic unit of social organization. It is not based upon a contract, an agreement between its members to cooperate together for their mutual benefit, but rather upon the natural relationships of its members. A natural relationship is a matter of who one person is to another not a matter of who two people chose to be to each other. All human children are born from a woman. They are her children and she is their mother. That is their relationship to each other. All children born from a woman were sired by a man. They are his children and he is their father. That is their relationship to each other. All people who have the same father and the same mother are siblings, brothers if they are male, sisters if they are female. That is their relationship to each other. The people who bear these relationships to one another make up a family.
It is the nature of human beings that these relationships come with responsibilities. Human children are born helpless and it is therefore the responsibility of the mother who conceived, bore and gave birth to them and of the father who sired them, to love and care for the children they brought into the world. This responsibility is not optional but is the binding responsibility that we call duty. A mother has a duty to nurture and watch over her children and a father has a duty to provide for and protect his children. Children, in turn, have a duty to love and obey their parents. Contrary to the claims of eighteenth century liberalism duties and authority do not derive their validity from personal consent. They arise in the family out of the essential nature of blood relationships.
There is one family relationship that is different in kind from all the others. The relationship between husband and wife is not like the relationship between father and son, mother and daughter, brother and sister. It is not a blood relationship. A man is not born a husband to a woman or a woman born a wife to a man. It is not an automatic relationship but one which must be entered into. This does not mean that it is an artificial, contractual relationship the terms of which we are free to define in whatever way pleases us. It too is a natural relationship, albeit one that lacks the intrinsic permanency of a blood relationship. We have seen how a father has a natural responsibility to protect and provide for the children he sires and a mother has a natural responsibility to nurture and care for the children she bears. Implicit within this is a shared responsibility on the part of both the father and the mother to cooperate with the other in looking after and raising the children they have brought into the world together. This shared responsibility creates the need for a relationship between a father and mother and it is to answer this need that the relationship we call marriage exists. A marriage is created by a set of mutual vows in which a man vows to take a woman as his wife and to be a husband to her and the woman vows to take the man as her husband and be a wife to him. In vowing this, the man and woman are vowing to live together and love each other for the rest of their lives and to raise their children together.
The relationship of marriage unites more than just a husband and wife. It unites families into an extended social network. The need for marriage generates the need for community. A family cannot survive beyond one generation in isolation from other families. Since human beings have an instinctual aversion to incest which manifests itself in a universal taboo against the practice, a man must marry a woman from outside his immediate family and vice versa. Therefore families must live in communities with other families so that when their children are old enough they can marry and perpetuate the family. This is not the only reason families form communities but it is the most important.
As network of human society expands outward from the essential relationships in the nuclear family it becomes more complex and therefore requires more complex social arrangements in order to function. These arrangements and the rules necessary to maintain them are not something that came about at a specific point in time when a group of people sat down and drew them all up on paper. They came about gradually as society became more complex and the need for them arose. They are neither fixed in stone nor infinitely malleable. They change over time as circumstances change and as the collected experience and wisdom of the community grows. Since the needs they meet arise out of human nature, however, much remains constant within these arrangements. The community passes them down from one generation to the next, making the necessary adjustments wherever necessary. This is why they are called the traditional social order, a tradition being something that is passed on from one generation to the next.
Government is not the source of a traditional social order, which can neither be rationally planned nor legislated into being. Rather it is the other way around, the traditional social order is the basis of the constitution (1) of a society from which government derives its legitimate authority. Just because government cannot create something, however, does not mean that it cannot affect it. The laws government passes can have either a positive or a negative effect upon the social order. When government does not respect a community’s social arrangements as they have been agreed upon, passed down, and slowly modified through time and when it introduces major changes to these arrangements to make them conform to a set of abstract ideals thought up by social planners, the laws it passes will have a negative effect upon the social order.
These are exactly the sort of laws which have been passed by Western governments since at least the end of World War II. In the 1960’s and 70’s, for example, Western governments amended divorce laws to make “no-fault divorces” available. A no-fault divorce is a legal dissolution of marriage that is granted without requiring that one spouse sue the other for violation of marriage vows and without legal penalty to either party. The result of the passing of these laws is that marriage is now less binding, less permanent, than a business contract.
The argument most often used by those who favour no-fault divorce and are glad that it was introduced by our governments to justify their position relies upon liberal presuppositions. It goes along this line that if a man and a woman marry and discover that they are not happy living together then we as a society should not force them to stay together in misery when they could be happy apart. Beneath this line of reasoning lies the idea that each person as an individual has a right to pursue his own happiness and that this right outweighs both his society’s need for stability and security in the family and his children’s need for a father and a mother who love and are committed to them and to each other. This idea comes out of the liberal notion that the individual comes first and is more important than the family, community, or society.
Yet, while no-fault divorce laws may rest upon an ideologically liberal foundation, they are manifestly inconsistent with liberal social policy. They are not an example of government taking a laissez-faire, hands off approach to social arrangements but of government actively intruding itself into social arrangements so as to radically transform an existing social institution and pervert it from its original purpose.
It is often difficult to get people with a strong belief in liberal individualism to understand this. Such people often look at no-fault divorce as an issue in which one side, the liberals, say that people should live with whoever they want to live with for as long as they want to live with them without outside interference, whereas the other side, the conservatives, want the government to force people intro particular living arrangements. This assessment is very superficial and shallow. Conservatives did not think up the idea that a man and woman should marry each other for life and then use the government to impose this idea upon everyone else. Marriage is a social arrangement that predates government. This is true whether one accepts Christian and Jewish Urgeschichte in which it was instituted by God in the Garden of Eden or the anthropological explanation that it began as an arrangement between families in prehistorical tribal societies. (2) That it was a binding covenant consisting of life-long vows was not something that government added to it. It is active government legislation that has reduced it to something less than what it was. (3)
The reason liberal individualists fail to grasp this because of their extremely limited understanding of voluntary human behaviour. They understand human arrangements to be voluntary only if they were thought up and agreed upon by individuals qua individuals. If individuals did not think up and agree upon their own arrangements for themselves, the liberal individualist thinks, they must have been thought up by some other group of individuals and imposed upon them by the government. He does not get that social arrangements arise out of a process called tradition that involves all members of a society, past, present, and future and therefore he does not see that government interference with these arrangements is at least as bad, and probably far more so, than government interference with the choices of individuals.
In the last two decades Western governments introduced a new round of progressive interference in the ancient social institution of marriage. This was the introduction of “same-sex marriage”. The public debate over this government initiative has reached new heights of absurdity. Conservatives who oppose “same-sex marriage” are accused by their opponents of trying to use the government to control the lives of other people. That “same-sex marriage” is a government invention created by state interference in a traditional social institution and is therefore itself an example of state intrusion into people’s lives never seems to dawn on such people. Instead they accuse everyone who wants the definition of marriage to be what it was twenty years ago of wanting to establish a theocracy.
These changes to marital laws are not the only way in which Western governments have been undermining the social order of their countries. By establishing bureaucracies which set and enforce universal standards of education throughout their countries, governments have wrested control of local public schools from parents and community. They then transformed those schools into indoctrination centres that program children with values that are often contrary to those passed on by parents in the home. Western governments have created vast networks of programs through which the government undertakes to look after people when they are sick, unemployed, impoverished, aged, etc. These programs are not temporary measures for helping people out in emergencies but permanent programs whereby the government undertakes to ensure that all needs are met from cradle to grave. This weakens the traditional social network by causing people to look to and rely upon government first rather than upon their families, churches and communities.
All of these are examples of a progressive social policy, a policy in which the government actively sets out to reshape the social order.
This influence of progressivism over social policy in recent decades affects our answer to the question of what the proper ends of public social policy should be. The basic conservative answer to that question is that public social policy, policy that determines government actions which affect society, should have as its end the support and strengthening of the traditional social order. In the days before all of this progressive meddling began the laissez faire policy of the true liberal would have been sufficient to serve this end.
Now that progressive meddling has weakened the social order and in many areas all but destroyed it the conservative answer must be amended. It is no longer a matter of strengthening and supporting an order that to a large extent no longer exists but of reviving and restoring it.
Here, however, the conservative runs into a dilemma.
What kind of social policy can possibly serve the reactionary end of restoring the social order progressivism has ruined?
This is a dilemma because of the very nature of the traditional social order as described earlier. It is not something that can be constructed from a blue print. It cannot be planned in the abstract and drawn out on paper. It cannot be legislated into existence. This is not how it came into existence in the first place and it is not how it can be recovered.
Does this mean that the liberal social policy of laissez faire would still serve the conservative end?
For it to do so it would have to be a true laissez faire policy, not social progressivism hiding behind the guise of social liberalism. The government would have to commit itself to no longer trying to bribe people’s loyalty away from family, church, and community, to no longer actively undermining the authority of parents in the home, to cease encouraging a socially and morally destructive culture of self-indulgence. It would have to commit itself to allowing other social institutions to grow strong again and not actively opposing those who seek, through non-governmental means, a cultural revival. It would have to reject the idea that a thriving, complex, social order is something that can be planned and enacted by itself, and return social arrangements to the hands of the time-honoured process of tradition.
(1) The title of the written charter of the American Republic is “The Constitution of the United States of America” and when Americans refer to their “constitution” they are referring to this document. A country’s constitution, however, is more than just its charter. All countries, even those that do not have charters, have constitutions. A country’s constitution is the way it is organized, the way it does things, and the most important part of its constitution – even in the United States – is always unwritten.
(2) These are not mutually exclusive explanations and could be regarded as the same explanation approached from two different starting points.
(3) This is true to a lesser extent of all divorce legislation, not just the “no fault” type. Government and law were not necessary for the creation of marriage, but they have the primary, if not the sole, means of its dissolution throughout history.
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