Two Family Policy Essentials

In my time today, I want to focus on two matters regarding family policy.

The first is the absolutely critical need to craft an “ideal family” structure as a model or goal in shaping policy. Without such a model, it becomes impossible to build a coherent public policy; the results would actually be social chaos and fiscal irresponsibility.

In the World Congress of Families project, we crafted early on a definition of the “natural family” as our focus. Specifically, in May 1998 we gathered 30 persons in a second century B.C. room in the ancient city of Rome, here in this land. Our hosts were Ambassador Alberto and Christine Vollmer, of Venezuela. The group represented all the scattered children of Abraham: Roman Catholics, Russian and Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans and other Evangelical Protestants, Mormons, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Orthodox Jews. It also included important research scholars from the fields of law, demography, history, sociology, and psychology. After a long conversation and debate, the group agreed on this definition:

The natural family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered around the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage for the purposes of:

  • Satisfying the longings of the human heart to give and receive love;
  • Welcoming and insuring the full physical and emotional development of children;
  • Sharing a home that serves as the center for social, educational, economic, and spiritual life;
  • Building strong bonds among the generations to pass on a way of life that has transcendent meaning; and
  • Extending a hand of compassion to individuals and households whose circumstances fall short of these ideals.

We chose the phrase “natural family” as an alternative to earlier terms. For example, “traditional family,” in English, is backward-looking, or vaguely reactionary. “Nuclear family” is far too narrow, and it sounds ominously like a bomb. In contrast, “natural family” appeals to the reality that there is a “human nature”—whether designed by God or evolution—that includes a core, vital family component. It also has the advantage of appealing to nature, to the place of human beings within the ecological order. And it implies, by intent, that a natural law exists, to which we owe appropriate deference.

My second point is that effective family policy must strike a creative balance between state support for families and family autonomy, or independence. The goal must be a family policy that, paradoxically, actually strengthens families as free, autonomous entities.

The “Swedish model” of family policy, first developed during the 1930s by Social Democrats Alva and Gunnar Myrdal, did aim at raising the Swedish birth rate. However, it would do so by eliminating marriage and the marital household as meaningful legal and economic institutions. After accomplishing that, the architects of the Swedish model proposed to socialize all of the costs of bearing and rearing children. By implication, the properly organized Social Democratic state would then also claim the primary role in rearing and educating children. It was hoped that once freed from these responsibilities, parents—perhaps married, perhaps not—would joyfully produce three or four children per family, delivering modest population growth for the socialist state.

The Swedish model does not work; it never did. When the Swedish birth rate rose again during the 1950s and early 1960s, it was only because social conservatives managed to gain control over family policy. They favored “family wages” for fathers and home-centered mothers. As late as 1965, for example, 95 percent of Swedish preschool children received full-time care by their mothers.

Since 1970, the Myrdal agenda has been relentlessly and completely achieved. However, if one discounts the births of recent immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, the Swedish total fertility falls back to about 1.6 births per women, near the European average and well below the replacement level.

A promising development in Europe today is the turn by policymakers to the creative use of taxation policy to affirm and support natural families. Where the Swedish model uses direct government subsidies and state allowances to meet the costs of children, new tax policies in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere focus on cutting, or even eliminating, the income and payroll taxes of families with dependent children. Unlike the Swedish model, which reinforces state control of children, this new European model allows parents to keep more—much more—of what they earn while rearing children. This strengthens the parents as a married couple and strengthens their home as an autonomous economic order.

This is a vital form of liberty—familial liberty—that overcomes the paradox of state support and family strength. And as such, it is a pillar of true democracy. 

Allan C. Carlson is Founder of the World Congress of Families and Editor of The Natural Family.