State vs. Parent: The Crowding Out of Choice
When welfarism fails most spectacularly, it is usually because it attempts to treat a perceived social or economic problem without understanding — let alone undoing — its cause. Often, this treatment of symptom only serves to mask the cause, establishing it more firmly in society, typically distorting incentives and having unintended consequences that often do more harm than good.
The British government (a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats) seems determined to prove this point in one of the most disturbing ways seen in recent times.
Many British families face the difficulty of extremely expensive childcare, which, for many, has become a necessity rather than a choice, as parents find themselves unable to bring up their children on only one income. This was not true for our grandparents’ generation.
Rather than make any attempt to address the economic causes of the loss of this fundamental option for British parents, and then to do something about them (which would almost certainly involve a reduction in the public spending that transfers wealth away from private individuals, either through corresponding taxation or dilution of the buying power of private individuals), the British State has recently announced that it will treat the symptom by providing parents with a benefit in the form of vouchers of up to GBP 1200 (almost $2000) a year for childcare — but only if both parents are working.
When did such a policy become even thinkable — let alone acceptable?
Let us be clear what this policy is and what it is not. It is absolutely not an incentive to have children or to facilitate parenting. (In the UK, these already exist in the form of tax breaks for dependents and universal credits for all parents, regardless of their employment status).
Rather, this “childcare voucher scheme” is the State’s economically incentivizing absentee parenting: It is to make the remarkable statement, through the allocation of public resources, that the State has an interest in having both parents away from their young child for most if its waking hours. And perhaps it does, if it calculates its interest only in the amount of tax collected, but such a calculation is to mistake the well-being of people with the weight of the Treasury’s coffers — a mistake that denies the very raison d’etre of the State
Such an impact on the family unit is certainly not consistent with traditional or conservative values, so the Conservative administration’s support of it is remarkable enough.
But what is even more remarkable is that it is not even consistent with liberal values — for who believes, on either the Left or the Right, that it is better for a child to be brought up in a group of children by a carer who must divide his or her attention among many children (none of which is his or her own) than it is for the same child to be brought up by the attentive parent who loves that child more than anyone does?
I’ve met plenty of modern parents who say that they believe that putting their child into care does it no harm (although, when pressed, many of them say that in an ideal world, they’d rather not have to, which suggests some qualification of, or at least uncertainty about, the claim), but I am yet to meet one who says that their absence is in their child’s best interest per se. So, given that no one has to have a child that he or she cannot bring up in the way he or she thinks best, what can justify the State’s redistribution in support of such a choice?
Of course, it is utterly reasonably that perfectly good parents look at their financial situation and rightly determine that they cannot feasibly bring up their children on one income. But the State’s interest, if any, is surely to find out why they cannot. Pushing money at those parents who have chosen to be parents despite this fact, and letting it be known that society will subsidize a particular approach to raising children, must, over time, make any other choice regarding the raising of children less economically viable.
The better society — for parents and children — would be one in which the most important choice any human being ever makes — how to raise their children — is just that: a genuine choice. What moral basis can exist, then, for penalizing a couple for choosing to make an economic sacrifice to gain the certainty of knowing that, while the local childcare center may be just fine, it can’t possibly give better care than one of them who is with their child constantly?
In the bigger picture, when the State spends the money of many people to subsidize the choices of a few, it necessarily reduces the economic capacity of those it does not support to make any choice other than that which it subsidizes. In other words, redistribution can never support people who make a particular choice without supporting that particular choice that they make. The latter is always an act of moral judgment and coercion, whatever may be intended.
In the case of subsidizing the childcare only of parents who both work, wealth is transferred from couples of which one parent chooses not to work and from people (like myself) who choose not to have a child precisely because they cannot afford to bring up that child in the way they would best like to do so.
The fact of not being able to bring up a child on one income is the predictable and predicted result of (among other factors, admittedly) the State’s co-opting of the value created by private individuals to the tune of about one half of all value generated by the economy. Given that the largest part of that value is spent by the State on social programs, it is perhaps ironic that this very spending is both cause and effect of the weakening of the one social unit that provides the overwhelming majority of all welfare and support even in social democracies – the family.
There is a huge difference between a welfare system that is a safety net, under which wealth is forcibly transferred to help the most needy among us, and a system in which we give up altogether on solving the fundamental imbalances in our society, to the point that even the most personal choices made in the most intimate context of the family are now open to government interference.
If Misters Clegg, Osborne and Cameron, were genuinely interested in how the prevailing assumptions of the social democratic, welfarist state have made something so basic – so human, even so animal – as being with your child in its earliest years, an economic impossibility, they’d have at least made a little time to read a few relevant books, like those of Hayek and even Bastiat. If, after doing so, they still wished to argue that the State should take my money for the welfare of someone else’s child, we could at least discuss the trade-offs. And even if I conceded that position, I would not concede that they should be allowed to take my money to put any child in a situation that I would not choose for my own.
Fortunately for me, I write as a Brit who happens to be an American taxpayer, so none of my income is, in fact, being used to subsidize this piece of social engineering. In fact, I do rather well, thank you, out of British Statism, and it is a travesty that I do: the same coalition government also just announced its solution to unaffordable housing. (The median house price in England is 5.1 times the median pre-tax household income ) Rather than addressing and treating the causes of unaffordability, including the monetary, regulatory and environmental policies that make the housing market anything but free, the government has decided to subsidize the purchasing of unaffordable homes with yet another redistributive program that will help keep the prices higher than they would otherwise be.
This “solving” of one economic injustice by creating another keeps people like me, who already own a home in England, artificially well off, at the expense of other responsible young adults who might love to be able to “get on the property ladder” – perhaps to own a house in which to do something as economically outrageous as having a child, and even – State forfend – something as socially outrageous as staying at home to bring it up.