Mises Wire

How the State Destroys Families

The peculiar consequences that result from government intervention are similar in all areas of economic and social life. Problems such as indifference, evaporating solidarity, irresponsibility, and short-term thinking are more than often caused or exacerbated by—sometimes well-intentioned—government interventions. This holds true for interventions in the financial world and in business, and it is no different with family policy. To make this clear, we first want to make a few comments about the economics of the family and then explain how state intervention tends to destroy families from within.

A Power Plant without Equal

According to the Christian definition, the family is a community between a man and a woman, before God, with God, and for God. It is a kind of worship. Of course, this is not the only motivation to start a family at all, but worship is what defines the Christian family.

From this covenant of life before God, with God, and for God, a whole series of further consequences follow with logical necessity, e.g., the formal and public alliance of the spouses, lifelong loyalty, openness to many children, rejection of abortion, and Christian commitment outside of one’s own family. Conversely, where there is no reference to God, there is no logical connection between these elements. They then appear as more or less arbitrary conventions. They become optional in the free design of individual lifestyles. Sometimes they become superfluous and even a hindrance.

In a society that loses the love for God, the family also loses its solid form. The Christian family is then gradually replaced by a patchwork of other forms of being together, which are set up according to one’s taste. This is inevitable and cannot be prevented by any human intervention—not even by the state.

But the traditional dominance of the Christian family is not only threatened by widespread apostasy. It is also, and massively, under siege by state intervention. In order to understand these, however, we first have to consider the economic reasons from which families arise and grow. The very first of these reasons is the division of labor.

The theory of division of labor teaches us that the work of specialists who exchange their surpluses is more profitable than nonspecialized work. The shoemaker naturally produces more shoes, the baker more bread than he himself and his family would need. But the point is that their specialization makes more shoes and breads overall than if everyone had devoted part of their time to shoemaking and another part to baking.

The most important precondition of this little miracle is that the specialists have different talents. The productivity of the division of labor is based on the inequality of the exchange partners. And that is exactly why the Christian family is so efficient. Men and women are different, and they happily complement each other. They complement each other in their intellectual and physical abilities, in their social skills, in their spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities, and in their mental lives. It is therefore possible for them to grow together in all these dimensions of being human beyond what would be possible for them alone and on their own.

The cross-generational division of labor within the family is equally important. The generations are also different; they also complement each other. Young people typically have a large work capacity and creativity, but less experience and money. The cooperation between the generations of a family is also favored by trust and affection that has grown over many years, which still has to be built up in relation to people who are not family members.

From a purely economic perspective, families are probably the most efficient form of human organization. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever properly appreciated, not even by the economists. This is probably due to the fact that the family’s performance has many dimensions, most of which are difficult or impossible to measure, in distinct contrast to the performance of a company or of a sports club.

Families are exceptionally efficient, but not infallible. They usually fail in one of the major areas of conflict: finance, raising children, sexuality. If no common denominator is found here, if there is a lack of hope or openness to the gifts of God, then failure is likely.

But how is this failure promoted by government intervention?

The State and the Family

To answer this question, we first have to consider the nature of the state. According to Max Weber’s well-known definition, the state is a monopoly of legitimate violence. This concept of the state is rooted in the legal concept of the modern state—the state that determines the law at its own discretion. It emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from the debates on the natural law conception of objective law, which is beyond human arbitrariness. In the modern conception, the state itself does not only have special rights that correspond to its special obligations. Rather, it is above the law in a strict sense. The state is completely free to decide what is right and wrong.

Once this concept of the law and of the state has gained a foothold, there is a natural tendency toward unlimited state growth. There is no logical brake on this movement, because the powers and tasks of the state are no longer fundamentally limited, but fundamentally open and unlimited. And there is hardly any economic brake on state growth either, because as it grows, so does the income and power of state servants and all other interested parties.

Family policy has become an important area of ​​state growth in recent years. In the past, various state interventions served to protect the family (tax privileges, child benefits, etc.), but today’s politics are almost exclusively harmful to the family.

It should be noted that explicit political harm to families is rather rare. Communists like Friedrich Engels correctly recognized the family as a source of bourgeois morality and therefore fought them. Such fanatics still exist today, but they do not determine what happens.

Tacit damage to the family is a much more important variant. In fact, the family-damaging effects of government intervention are sometimes not even considered. Monetary policy is an important example. Our current monetary system is designed to create constant (moderate) price inflation, which in turn creates irresistible incentives for debt management. The risks are obvious. How many families have been broken because they proved to be unable to handle the debt burden? Monetary politicians have no intention of accepting such consequences or even accepting them knowingly. They simply do not take them into account when making political decisions. And yet these are consequences that result from their decisions.

In other cases, the damage to the family is not pursued as an independent goal, but is accepted as a side effect of a policy. To a lesser extent, this affects the classic welfare state, in particular the supposedly liberal social policy à la John Stuart Mill, which became the dominant factor in Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries after the Second World War and has also been prevalent in Germany for around twenty years.

According to Mill, the state should promote freedom of choice for individuals by removing the stones of life from their path. In particular, the state should liberate them from the constraints and oppressive forces of their social environment. Mill’s followers today have taken this approach to extremes. Ultimately, they understand “constraints” and “oppression” to mean anything that restricts human arbitrariness—anything that could prevent individuals from doing what they would like to do, or from being what they would like to be. Oppression arises not only from laws, taxes, and personal economic circumstances. It also originates in authorities such as the church, fathers, mothers, and company heads. It shows up in border fences and walls. In extreme form, it shows itself in the circumstances of one’s own identity. Your own gender and your own body should also be freely selectable, and the state should also help the individual with this free choice.

When the state intervenes to bring about such “liberation” it damages family life. Indeed, on the one hand, such interventions burden families financially, and, on the other hand, they make families superfluous. The most important example is emancipation policy in the name of feminism. The state-funded all-day schools and all-day kindergartens, which Ursula von der Leyen and our current chancellor introduced in Germany with great determination, expressly aim to alleviate the life constraints of the female existence. Their purpose was to take a heavy load off women’s shoulders so that they could develop freely. All of this fits seamlessly into feminist politics since the 1970s: abortion rights, state-funded reimbursement of contraception and abortion costs, divorce laws, custody laws, etc.

It is clear that this policy does not support the Christian family. In fact, it damages the family by worsening the relationship between the costs and benefits of family life. It reduces the incentives to start a family and keep it alive even under resistance. All-day schools and all-day kindergartens are financed through family taxation, so the returns to family life decrease while the need for additional monetary income increases. The greater economic independence of women then reduces the costs of exiting the family community. There are increased divorces and increased numbers of single mothers. This connection is further reinforced by the fact that the incentives for men to start a family also decrease. For one thing, you have to expect a higher probability of failure from the start. On the other hand, German divorce law very often means economic ruin for men.

From the perspective of economic theory, this creates a destructive “rationality trap.” From a woman’s economic perspective, the family becomes unnecessary and superfluous as a result of government intervention. But as the family withers, the performance of the economy as a whole is weakened, and ultimately taxes are reduced, without which feminist politics is impossible.

In light of these crazy implications, one may yearn for the classic welfare state. The good old welfare state—let us primarily think of the pay-as-you-go pension and healthcare systems—was in no way aimed at enabling individual self-fulfillment at the expense of the taxpayer. Its goal was not to liberate the individual from all life constraints, but only to provide some protection against major economic emergencies.

However, a return to such a system would be deceptive, at least with regard to families. The welfare state has also had a lasting impact on the relationship between the costs and benefits of family life. It, too, has weakened the community of solidarity between the spouses—and between parents and children—if not quite as quickly, brutally, and cynically as the more recent feminist politics. It didn’t slaughter the family, but it slowly decomposed them. This tendency is particularly evident in the relationship between the generations. The state pension system turns this relationship upside down in economic terms. Families must continue to bear the costs of bringing up children but must share their children’s future tax payments with all other citizens, including the childless. The benefits of children are socialized, while the cost of raising children remains private. If you wanted to reduce families, you couldn’t think of anything better.

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