Traditional Values, Smaller Government

COMMENTARY Government Regulation

Traditional Values, Smaller Government

Nov 12, 2012 3 min read
Derrick Morgan

Executive Vice President

Derrick Morgan is the executive vice president of The Heritage Foundation.

Gallup polls recently confirmed that most Americans think the government is trying to do too many things (54 percent) and that it shouldn’t promote traditional values (52 percent). Should we cheer these libertarian sentiments?

Yes and no. Government, particularly the federal government, is too big and arrogant, always asserting that it knows best. Washington even tells us what types of lightbulbs, toilets and appliances we can buy.

Too big? You bet. What about the values that government promotes?

Big government tends to promote values even when it claims to be value-neutral. Sometimes this means environmentalism, redistribution of wealth and “fairness.” When government uses these values as the basis for policy, it understandably can lead some to conclude that government shouldn’t promote values of any kind.

If we want smaller government at all levels, however, government must promote traditional values.

Let’s look at helping the poor. No doubt many of us believe that churches and other groups in civil society, rather than government, should serve at least most of the poor – materially and spiritually. Because government is in the business of providing welfare, though, it ought to do so thoughtfully – as a safety net and not a way of life.

The steep rise in welfare spending is in large measure due to the disintegration of the traditional family, as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has pointed out.

Government at all levels spends $927 billion of our tax dollars each year on means-tested welfare programs. Of this amount, $462 billion goes to low-income families with children – three-quarters of it to single-parent families.

Being raised by a mother and father who are married, Rector writes, actually reduces a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution has a similar view, writing that “young people can virtually assure that they and their families will avoid poverty if they follow three elementary rules for success – complete at least a high school education, work full time, and wait until age 21 and get married before having a baby.”

Marriage isn’t the only medicine for poverty. Observing 19th-century America, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville said that work was seen as “a necessary, natural, and honest condition of humanity.” He added that “work is held in honor; the prejudice is not against it, but for it.”

When Congress in 1996 began to require able-bodied adults enrolled in the nation’s largest cash-assistance program to work or prepare for work, that welfare caseload dropped by half. By promoting the value of work, government helped millions escape poverty and shrank itself at the same time.

Unfortunately, though, the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services in July offered waivers that gut this rare work requirement among the more than 80 means-tested anti-poverty programs. It was the wrong move, even during tough times.

Government should promote the traditional values of marriage and work in all welfare programs, to help those who otherwise could be trapped in a state of dependency. As an added benefit, government would shrivel.

Education spending, now $11,400 per student on average, helps disprove the idea that more funding means better outcomes.

Washington’s one-size-fits-all, valueless approach that ineffectually seeks to boost test scores by boosting funding isn’t the answer. Our children would be better served by giving parents the ability to choose what school their kids attend, including one with robust character education.

Paul Tough writes that recent academic studies suggest that what matters most in a child’s development is effective help in acquiring “persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit and self-confidence.”

Instilling these values, along with allowing more parental involvement and control, not only would improve results but minimize government. And looking ahead, inculcating traditional values promises to improve our retirement years.

“Be industrious and frugal, and you will be rich,” said America’s apostle of thrift, Benjamin Franklin. Recent innovations such as 401(k) plans encourage these virtues and reduce reliance on government-funded retirement. Government would do well to stop penalizing thrift with high taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest.

Government is too big. If it doesn’t promote traditional values, then the values that fill the gap will drive it to expand even more as Americans become more dependent on government.

Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

First moved by the McClatchy Tribune News wire.