I have long suspected that free-market libertarians aren’t all that different from postmodern relativists who insist that human beings have no natural end, no normative patterns for life. Some recent editorials in the Wall Street Journal confirmed my suspicions.
Last Monday, in advance of the New Hampshire primary, a staff editorial assessed Rick Santorum’s economic message, giving him a mixed review. What leapt out, however, was this sharp attack.
Most disappointing is the Pennsylvanian’s proposal to triple the tax credit for children (today $1,000), which is a hobby horse of the Christian right. This is social policy masquerading as economics. Unlike a cut in marginal tax rates, a larger tax credit tax credit does little for growth because it doesn’t change incentives to save, work or invest. It merely rewards taxpayers who have children over those who don’t.
This extraordinary paragraph echoes an earlier column by Wall Street Journal regular, Kimberley Strassel, who also attacked Santorum’s call for a larger child tax credit, “which benefits only Americans fortunate enough to have a child,” and thus, Strassel suggests, is unfair to those who do not.
Where do I begin untangling the confusions? Let me start with the notion that Santorum’s desire to raise the child tax credit is “social policy masquerading as economics.” Come again? The entire tax code reflects a tacit social policy—or more accurately a hodgepodge of social policies—which surely the editors of the Wall Street Journal know.
For example, they believe that we need lower marginal tax rates to encourage productive economic activity. But for some reason the use of tax policy for any other purpose than creating incentives to save, work, or invest is suspect—mere “social policy” rather than serious economic thinking?
Yes, we need incentives to work, incentives to invest and save, and the free market philosophy represented by the Wall Street Journal gets frustrated with liberals who imagine that entrepreneurs automatically take risks and create jobs. The frustration is merited. When it comes to productive economic behavior, we need the encouragement of knowing that we can keep most of our earnings. But the same holds for other important human activities. We need incentives to be generous, which is why we have tax deduction for charitable donations.
Having and raising children? By supposing that families “just happen,” the editors of the Wall Street Journal show themselves to be as naïve about social capital as liberals are about financial capital. No, families don’t just happen, as we are discovering in the demographic decline in some countries in Europe, a decline that would characterize American society were our culture not renewed by immigrants who have yet to turn marriage and children into lifestyle choices. When incentives for women to work and disincentives for men to marry constellate with rising costs for the care and education of children, to which are added all sorts of changed social attitudes toward child-bearing and parenting, you’ll get what any good economic theorist would predict, which is fewer children.
But there’s the rub. When the editors of the Wall Street Journal say that a tax credit designed to encourage and support men and women who have children “merely rewards taxpayers who have children over those who don’t,” they are saying, in effect, that there is no important difference between having and not having children, at least no difference that our society should care about. Get people to save, work and invest? Yes, government should definitely have policies to encourage that behavior. But marry and have children? No, those are just private decisions that government has no business encouraging. Let the invisible hand of the social free marketplace decide!
It is at this point that I see a fundamental agreement between free market libertarians and postmodern relativists. I can’t speak for Rick Santorum, but by my way of thinking human beings are ordered toward natural ends, work and productive economc cooperation being among them. But we’re also made to mate.
Unlike the acorn that grows into a tree without cultivation and encouragement, human beings don’t just do what they are naturally ordered to do. Or more accurately, we don’t automatically do it well and in a way that brings us the satisfaction that comes with living in accord with our natural propensities. We require cultivation, which is to say culture, which is to say “social policies.”
The free market libertarianism that largely guides the Wall Street Journal editorial page does not deny the need for cultivation and social engineering. It wants to engineer tax policy in order to encourage us to do what we’re naturally inclined to do, which is to work and invest and otherwise try to secure for ourselves a better and more secure financial future. But what that same philosophy denies is that human beings have a natural end beyond economic self-interest, which is why the editorials criticizing Santorum see an increased child tax credit either as an unfair preference for one lifestyle over others, or as case of misguided social engineering.
The underlying view of the human person in relation to society that leads to these conclusions fits with postmodern relativism, which says that we are motivated by a will-to-power or sexual desire (the two main options in postmodern theory), but not in accord with an essential human nature, and not toward any normative end. By this way of thinking there is no human nature, no natural as opposed to unnatural way to live. Society constructs norms (social engineering), and individuals do this or that in accord with their own personal wishes and desires (lifestyle choices).
Take will-to-power and domesticate it as economic self-interest, and you pretty much have the political and social vision of free-market libertarianism. I see little future for what is today a very modern social philosophy in American conservatism. Yes we’d like to be richer, but that’s not all we want. We want to live in accord with our nature as human beings, and that includes contributing to and enjoying the primitive community of the family. If free market libertarians can’t get their minds around that fact—and the fact that as we make personal choices about marriage and children we’re influenced by a manifold of social and economic incentives—then I can’t see how they will be able to formulate a governing consensus. Over the long haul people won’t vote for politicians who won’t work to implement policies that help them live the kinds of lives their nature desires.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Wall Street Journal, Rick Santorum's Economy
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