Early in the fifth century, the theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo noted something about families and society that, in his era, was simply conventional wisdom: “After the city, or political community, comes the world, following the convention that treats the household, city, and world as three successive levels of human society.” For the ancients, families were the first and smallest societies, units of cooperation and order within which people learn to get along with others. Together, families formed political communities — cities, as Augustine put it; and together, those political communities made up the world, which was a society of communities. Peace and order in each domain contributed to the peace and order of the next, and thus society had an interest in fostering functional families, and families an interest in forming functional societies.
What sense it all made! And how strange it is to have completely dismissed the idea in modern thought. Our world is one of individuals making a series of contracts and agreements with one another in hopes of getting the most one can out of the world; the lives of others are none of our business, and ours are none of theirs. Nowhere is this clearer than in conservative policymaking, where family policy is absurdly individualized.
Consider the paid parental leave plan teased in President Trump’s State of the Union address, which has now gained traction with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ivanka Trump. The plan, described as “a budget-neutral approach to parental leave” by advocates, would allow parents to draw from their Social Security benefits early to fund their parental leave, then require them to delay the collection of retirement benefits by some yet-to-be-calculated period of time. Participation would be strictly voluntary.
It’s a highly individualized way of dealing with the facts of family life — which by their nature are communal issues: Babies and children need caregivers, mothers and fathers need time and money to give care, elderly grandparents and great-grandparents need companionship and assistance. Babies and children learn and grow, adults work and produce, and the elderly help and rest. There is a place for every stage of the life cycle in the grand order of things, and a just state would ideally defer to that natural rhythm. Instead, conservatives’ plan would penalize the elderly for their decision to have raised families, all in the interest of making parental leave a self-contained option, no burden to anyone but the parents themselves.
The proposal would penalize bigger families more than smaller ones; couples with more children would face working further into old age before receiving retirement benefits. Moreover, it would likely mean that lower-wage workers would end up putting off retirement longer than wealthier workers with ample company benefits, an especially perverse outcome given that America’s poor suffer significantly reduced life expectancies compared with the country’s rich. If you’re not particularly well-to-do and you want a family, in other words, you’ll need to be prepared to pay for it in your old age: your family, your choice, your problem.
It actually is in the best interest of society that people have children, and it would be in society’s best interest for them to be provided with the time and means to nurture those children. In their more lucid moments, even tax-slashing, welfare-reforming Republicans recognize as much: House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) himself observed in December that economies simply don’t function unless people have children. Today’s infants, lovingly cared for by their parents, will become tomorrow’s producers and inventors and administrators, and will, in time, look after their elders in their dotage. That this cycle of life continues unhindered is everyone’s business, because our fortunes and futures rest on the arrival of helpless little ones who will one day be our caretakers, in many senses.
It’s worth a tax to see that families aren’t penalized for bringing forth new generations, and that the elderly have time to rest and look back on their lives with satisfaction. It’s worth the support of society at large. It’s worth everything.