The New Populism and Family Policy

Historical Reflections

From March 29-31, 2019, participants in World Congress of Families XIII gathered in the beautiful medieval city of Verona, Italy, to discuss both the victories of and challenges facing the pro-family movement around the world. The League, one-half of the ruling coalition in the Italian government, participated heavily in the event. The media scrutiny leading up to the Congress was intense, and culminated in a march of some 30,000 protestors on the final day. The below essay, by Allan Carlson, sets the stage of current European politics. The feature essays following were adapted from talks given at WCF XIII. Many of the speakers note the media attention and subsequent protests. Also of significance: On the day after the protest march, an estimated 40,000 persons marched in support of the World Congress of Families.

Near 1900, signs of a sharp decline in human fertility appeared in the nations of Western Europe and North America. Observers fretted over the cause. Those of a traditionalist, moralistic bent explained the development as a consequence of selfishness and hedonism, derived in turn from a move away from Christianity.

Others, though, indicted the emerging economic system of industrial capitalism. In the pre-industrial order, they explained, children were commonly assets. By age three or four, a child could usefully participate in the family-scale enterprise of the peasant—or family—farm, the artisan’s shop, or the fisherman’s cottage. Accordingly, the birth of a new child would be welcomed as an economic—as well as a familial—blessing. Moreover, grown children would serve as the heirs and the “old age insurance” of aging parents, providing them a certain level of security.

The industrial order, in contrast, was hostile to family unity and the presence of children. Factories ripped away task after task from the household, quickly eliminating home production. Active adults, whose cooperative labor had been home-centered, were now drawn into factories for twelve hours a day, six days a week. Early on, some children found work in the new system: nine-year-old girls with nimble fingers in the textile mills and stocky boys of the same age in the coal mines. Yet, this radical economic individualization of adults and children disrupted family bonds; few parents bore children to send them off to the mines. Moreover, spouses within the industrial milieu increasingly saw each other as potential competitors, rather than as partners, sucking the material and emotional life out of marriage. Employers, for their part, viewed marriages and children as merely so many impediments to economic efficiency. Childless bachelors—male or female—were the preferred workers.

Still others, of a more philosophical mind, condemned the liberalism which undergirded the new economic order. This idea system gave primacy—indeed almost sole recognition—to the urges and needs of the individual, which fit well with the consumerist mentality favored by industrial processes. Indeed, most of the architects of liberalism—including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill—shared two traits: They were unmarried, and they were childless. The sole prominent exception, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, did have children; however, they were born of his mistresses and were quickly dispatched at his decree to foundling homes. The vacuous treatment of family, marriage, and children within philosophical liberalism was the predictable result of ideas designed by men alienated from women and children.

Some early socialist writers identified the anti-family consequences of the industrial capitalist order. Most notably, Friedrich Engels—in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England—eloquently exposed the discouragements to marriage and childbearing found in the rapidly growing industrial towns of Great Britain.

A more measured critique of liberal capitalism appeared in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, or The New Age, crafted by Pope Leo XIII. He described how this system left each worker alone and defenseless against the new economic lords, with mothers and children forgotten and abused. Leo gave support to efforts that would provide industrial workers with ownership of homes and fertile land sufficient for a family’s food supply. He also gave praise to Christian labor associations and ways to adjust factory wages to support marriage and children.

Leo’s promptings led within several decades to the first significant European efforts at family policy. Catholic study groups, commonly including Christian employers, actually devised an ingenious system of “equalization funds.” Privately organized initially in France and Belgium, they encouraged employers to send a portion of their payroll, determined by their overall count of workers, to a Fund which would then distribute allowances to workers with a wife and children at home. So constructed, these funds reduced or eliminated the industrial system’s “bachelor bias.” Many soon provided as well pre- and post-natal medical care to the mothers involved along with widows’ pensions and related forms of family-centered insurance.

The human slaughter of the Great War, 1914-1918, sharpened European angst over falling birth rates, a development now spreading to ever more lands. Adding to the apprehension was the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, propagating a communism which declared open policy war on marriage, home, and family: easy divorce; legalized birth control and abortion; the forced march of all women into industrial employment; and collectivized child care. On the positive side, joining the “Catholic” model of private wage equalization funds were new policy ideas. These included state-paid child allowances, loans to newlyweds with a portion of the principle forgiven with the birth of a child, and a “bachelor tax” on unmarried men. However, all of these approaches failed to reverse fertility decline, primarily because of their limited scope or size. The positive birth incentives were simply inadequate to overcome the negative, anti-family pressures of the liberal economic system.

In Sweden, a new form of socialist pro-natalism did emerge. Drafted by the social democrats Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, it shared with the communists the legalization of birth control, the expectation of female employment outside the home, and collective child care. Unlike the Marxists, though, this Swedish model did favor early marriage and a policy goal of doubling the average number of children to be found in each fertile-couple home. The Myrdals would accomplish this through an expensive program of state family housing construction and subsidized rents, the socialization of all medical and dental expenses, free education from kindergartens through the universities, interest-free marriage loans, children’s clothing allowances, state-funded child care, breakfasts and lunches for the children at school, and strict price controls on basic foods. These projects would be funded by new tax levies on the childless. The goal was to eliminate the impact of children on their parents’ living standard. While too little of this scheme was adopted during the 1930s to gauge its effectiveness, a version of this model would return during the 1970s, with a dangerous twist.

More successful was a family policy model actually developed in the United States. Framed by mainly female theorists called the Maternalists, this approach rested on a firm definition of family: a breadwinning father earning a family-sustaining wage; a mother engaged full-time in the work of the home; and at least three children. Every domestic social program of the New Deal—the anti-Depression agenda of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party of the 1930s—rested on this definition as a policy goal. Means to this end involved both legal and cultural job and wage preferences for men as husbands and fathers, social insurance that delivered pensions for homemakers, widows, and orphans, a state program of pre- and post-natal medical care, the mandatory training of girls in home economics, and strong subsidies—direct and indirect—for the purchase of single-family homes by young couples.

Supplementing these policies was an income-tax scheme resting on “income splitting” for married couples. In effect, this procedure cut their tax rate in half, compared to the unmarried. Generous per capita tax deductions also completely removed most families with three or more children from the federal income tax rolls.

American marriage and fertility rates began to climb during the mid-1930s; following World War II, these numbers soared. Overall fertility rose by 80 percent. Among the college educated, the birth rate more than doubled. This was the famed Baby Boom. This was also the Golden Age of the Homemaker, as a combination of cultural attitudes and policy prescriptions finally overcame the anti-family incentives of the liberal industrial order. This economy could claim one—but only one—family member: the husband and father.

Something very similar occurred in Western Europe. Following the war, energetic Christian Democratic parties emerged in France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Western Germany. Committed to moral, economic, and social reconstruction resting on Christian principles, these political movements fixed support for the natural family as the foundation of their domestic agendas. The Christian Democrats favored the family model now affirmed in the United States: a breadwinning husband and father; a homemaking wife and mother; and their children. While Christianity played no direct role in Great Britain, the postwar platform of the victorious Labour Party rested on the “Beveridge Plan,” which included universal child allowances. Even in social democratic Sweden, The League of Swedish Socialist Housewives (that was their real name!) pushed aside the Myrdal scheme, in favor of family wages for men, with mothers supported full-time at home. Here, too, the homemakers ruled. And fertility recovered in every land.

This time of renewal did not last. After two decades, the Christian Democratic parties began to lose their religious mooring, becoming merely pro-business political entities of the center-right. Family policy shrank in significance, and finally disappeared. In the United States, the Democratic Party abandoned its focus on families and small communities. Real communitarian agendas dedicated to the defense of marriage, children, home, and other human-scale entities gave way to fresh attention to individual wants.

Running parallel to this return of individualism at the personal level was a resurgent neo-liberalism in political economy. By the late 1960s, limits on the capitalist system that favored family life drew growing scorn. Equity feminism—dormant for decades—returned in a particularly virulent form. It zeroed in on the wage and employment favoritism shown to the breadwinning male and it attacked the policy measures—such as homemaker pensions and “income splitting”—that protected the mother-in-the-home. The feminists also denounced the training of girls in home economics, demanding instead affirmative action for women in industrial employment. Most business corporations were delighted to join in. Long critical of the “family wage,” they were eager to expand the pool of working women and so drive average wages down.

As before, liberalism displayed its primordial indifference toward children, also this time in a particularly vicious way. The “Spirit of 1968”—in Western Europe as in America—had a decided sexual edge. Free love, birth control, and legal abortion were common demands, which cleared the moral and legal paths to a full embrace of the sexual revolution. This would lead, directly and inevitably, to the policy triumph of the LGBTQ agenda. Equity feminism, homosexuality, transsexuality: all share an aversion to fertility. The birth dearth returned, with a vengeance.

Radicals in Sweden and elsewhere now resurrected the Myrdal project from the 1930s, designed to reconcile equity feminism and sexual radicalism with replacement-level fertility. This time, though, marriage was dismissed as irrelevant: Cohabitation and sole parenting were in practice preferred. Twice—in the early 1990s and again in the early 2010s—they claimed success. However, in the first case, this fertility bump was the result of faulty statistical calculations; and in the second, “success” came only through the high fertility of new immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Native-born Swedes were just as child-adverse as all the other value offspring of the “Spirit of ’68.” Indeed, as the European Union took more complete form at the turn of the millennium, it became clear that the EU’s only answer to systemic depopulation was more immigration: in practice, the import of babies from other continents.

However, in the opening years of the 21st century, something new began to emerge. The first clear lines appeared in Hungary, where the Fidesz Party led by Viktor Orbán advanced a different answer to the European-wide birth dearth: Hungary shall encourage the fertility of Hungarians. Border controls would be matched by a massive investment in family support. On the question of women and work, Fidesz chose to support both full-time mothers at home and their employed counterparts. Between 2008 and 2019, the Party implemented an amazing array of policies to support parents bearing and rearing children: massive tax breaks (as in the United States, circa 1950, a family with three or more children is in most cases free of all income tax); the forgiveness of student loan debt; large subsidies for the purchase of a home; state-funded child care; and marriage and birth bonuses. These programs represent a hefty four percent of Hungary’s Gross Domestic Product. (If the United States were to do the same, this would mean $760 Billion in annual support for new marriages and the birth of children—20 percent more than the amount allocated to the Pentagon.)

Quite simply, Hungary’s pro-natalist family policy is being implemented on a scale never before attempted. Is it having an effect? Early evidence says “yes.” Since 2010, when the experiment took hold, the Hungarian total fertility rate has climbed by 25 percent. As some of the largest benefits are only now kicking in, the positive results should grow in the years ahead.

In political terms, this pro-family agenda should be viewed as the real engine behind the success of the “new populism” in Europe. Neo-liberal and socialist critics, along with journalists at the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, routinely blast this movement for its opposition to open borders. They dismiss positive talk of “family” as mostly a smokescreen.

In fact, the adoption of a pro-family agenda has been the main factor driving “populist” electoral success. These initiatives in Hungary have been overwhelmingly popular, delivering “supermajorities” in Parliament to the Fidesz Party in three successive elections. Support for the natural family has also been the primary reason for the victories of the Law and Justice Party in Poland.

Most tellingly, the “populist” League of the North in Italy—long known mostly for its opposition to immigration—won only four percent of the vote in the 2013 election. However, when rechristened as “The League” and after adopting an aggressive pro-family platform, the party won 18 percent in spring 2018, and became part of the governing coalition. In the May 2019 elections for the European Parliament, the League’s vote swelled to 35 percent, a remarkable surge.

The same reconfiguration of priorities may be occurring in France, where The National Rally—long identified with its anti-immigrant stance—is now developing a pro-family agenda modelled on that of Hungary and Italy. An early result came in that same May election to the European Parliament, where the French “populists” won more votes than any other party. If and when the “populist” movements of Germany, Sweden, and other lands articulate and act on clear policies that support the natural family, they too should enjoy greater electoral favor.

In March of this year, the World Congress of Families XIII convened in “the city of love,” Verona, Italy. Launched in 1997, this WCF project aims to reverse both the cultural and legal decay of natural marriage and the birth dearth—in all lands. The host this year was Matteo Salvini, leader of the now pro-family League and Deputy Prime Minister of Italy. The theme of this Congress was: “The Winds of Change: Europe and the Global Pro-Family Movement.”

Indeed, a new spirit has emerged in Europe, with global implications. Family decline is not inevitable. The corrosive incentives behind neo-liberalism and industrial capitalism can be countered, contained, and overcome, provided that the political will to do so exists. And this need not mean economic decline. Notably, Hungary has had in recent years an annual GDP growth rate of four percent, the highest in the EU.

Closing on a personal note, one of this author’s historical and political heroes has been Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States from 1901-1909: himself a “populist” and “nationalist.” Writing a little over a century ago, Roosevelt described how “uncontrolled industrialism” tore through family life. He was also an early witness to the consequent birth dearth. While referring here to the United States, his lesson was and is universal: “I do not wish to see this country [as a place] of selfish prosperity, where those who enjoy the material prosperity think only of the selfish gratification of their own desires and are content to import from abroad not only their art, not only their literature, but even their babies.”

The pro-family “populists” now emerging in Europe—and other places as well—would surely agree.

Allan C. Carlson is Editor of The Natural Family.