Economic Policy Is Social Policy
Via Rod Dreher, here is a terrific column by First Things editor Rusty Reno, taking on a staff editorial from the Wall Street Journal that criticized Rick Santorum’s proposal to expand the tax credit for children as “social policy masquerading as economics”. As Reno points out, the WSJ‘s blinkered focus on the role of tax policy in encouraging economic growth assumes a social policy of its own, one according to which GDP is the sole or main measure of a society’s health. Too, the WSJ‘s claim that a pro-family tax policy “merely rewards taxpayers who have children over those who don’t” overlooks the role of tax policy in encouraging people to have children, and assumes once again that this — as opposed to growing the economy, of course! — isn’t something that tax policy should be in the business of doing. In short, the WSJ editors are guilty of exactly the charge they lay before Santorum: they pretend to be putting forward a “strictly” economic platform, which actually embeds a social policy of its own.
Here’s a choice excerpt from Reno’s response:
Unlike the acorn that grows into a tree without cultivation and encouragement, human beings don’t just do what they are naturally ordered to do. Or more accurately, we don’t automatically do it well and in a way that brings us the satisfaction that comes with living in accord with our natural propensities. We require cultivation, which is to say culture, which is to say “social policies.”
The free market libertarianism that largely guides the Wall Street Journal editorial page does not deny the need for cultivation and social engineering. It wants to engineer tax policy in order to encourage us to do what we’re naturally inclined to do, which is to work and invest and otherwise try to secure for ourselves a better and more secure financial future. But what that same philosophy denies is that human beings have a natural end beyond economic self-interest, which is why the editorials criticizing Santorum see an increased child tax credit either as an unfair preference for one lifestyle over others, or as case of misguided social engineering.
The underlying view of the human person in relation to society that leads to these conclusions fits with postmodern relativism, which says that we are motivated by a will-to-power or sexual desire (the two main options in postmodern theory), but not in accord with an essential human nature, and not toward any normative end. By this way of thinking there is no human nature, no natural as opposed to unnatural way to live. Society constructs norms (social engineering), and individuals do this or that in accord with their own personal wishes and desires (lifestyle choices).
Take will-to-power and domesticate it as economic self-interest, and you pretty much have the political and social vision of free-market libertarianism. I see little future for what is today a very modern social philosophy in American conservatism. Yes we’d like to be richer, but that’s not all we want. We want to live in accord with our nature as human beings, and that includes contributing to and enjoying the primitive community of the family. If free market libertarians can’t get their minds around that fact—and the fact that as we make personal choices about marriage and children we’re influenced by a manifold of social and economic incentives—then I can’t see how they will be able to formulate a governing consensus. Over the long haul people won’t vote for politicians who won’t work to implement policies that help them live the kinds of lives their nature desires.
One thing that might be added to this is that certain social policies, tax-related and otherwise, can positively thwart proper human flourishing, as e.g. when we drive up the cost of housing and education, and make it prohibitively difficult to live on a single income, thus keeping families small and driving their members apart. What are some other aspects of our “essential human nature” that require social policies for their proper cultivation? I can think of quite a few.