Rand Paul has an impressive combination of ideology, determination and pragmatism. He has, as Allahpundit has written, the ability to “sell libertarian wine in conservative bottles.” He matters, and so it matters if aspects of Rand Paul’s particular style of libertarianism would actually weaken limited government politics.
In the 2012 exit poll, Romney won married voters by fourteen percent, but lost unmarried voters by twenty-seven percent. According to the recent Third Way report, in the American context “male children raised in single-parent households tend to fare particularly poorly, with effects apparent in almost all academic and economic outcomes.” The report also links the decline of marriage among lower-earning sectors of the population to declining wages among lower-earning and lower-skilled men over the last thirty years. It also notes that the decline of marriage among lower-earning men does not mean they are any less likely to father children. They are just far less likely to get married and live with the mother of their children. Reihan Salam has written about how the collapse of marriage, with more and more children raised in female-headed households, with fathers more loosely connected to their children and with the resulting academic and economic disadvantages to the children (especially male children), would increase the constituency for a more intrusive and expensive government.
A conclusion one could draw from the above is that conservatives and libertarians have social, economic, and political reasons to strengthen the institution of marriage - especially among the working and lower middle-classes. How should we look at Rand Paul’s proposals through this lens?
Rand Paul has suggested taking marriage out of tax and health insurance law. It is a measure of the insanity of our current system that having the federal government ignore marriage would make policy less hostile toward married couples. There is a marriage penalty in tax law but it primarily impacts higher earners. On the other hand, Obamacare actively encourages people to be unmarried. An unmarried couple would receive larger Obamacare subsidies than a married couple. This is crazy and socially counterproductive. I don’t think it would be wise for the federal government to avoid recognition of marriage, but it would be helpful if federal policy stopped affirmatively discouraging marriage.
Other Rand Paul proposals are more damaging. Paul’s tax plan would raise taxes on working families who are at or just under the median. Rand Paul’s immigration proposals add up to what amounts to an unlimited guest worker program that would make enforcement against those who overstayed their visas virtually impossible. The result of the first proposal would be a pay cut to those men whose wages and ability to support their families has already been declining. The result of the second proposal would be to increase competition in those sectors of the economy where wages are already in decline.
The policy tools that conservatives could use to strengthen marriage are not obvious. Robert Stein’s family-friendly tax reform would improve the economic returns to work and family formation - especially among the lower middle-class. Moving to an immigration system that is more skills and education-based would tend to alleviate some competition at the low end of the economic distribution while increasing the productivity of the work force. We should, at the very least, refrain from policies that would further weaken marriage among those at the lower end of the income distribution. Maybe the least important reason to do so is because, in the American context, the decline of marriage tends to increase the constituency for social democratic politics.