Historian speaks on America’s pro-family tradition of politics

One of the great disputes in politics, both in theory and in practice, is that between individualist and communitarian conceptions of the state and society. In his talk entitled “Pro-Family Economics: Individualism, Communitarianism, and the ‘American Way'”, Dr. Allan Carlson, President of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Sociey, addressed this issue, coming down squarely on the side of family and community.

As was perhaps clear from the sponsors of the event, the College Republicans and the Institute for Intercollegiate Studies, Carlson is a self-declared conservative. However, early in his talk, he admitted that for most of the twentieth century, which is his area of historical expertise, the Democratic Party was more notably pro-family than the Republican Party in the United States; Republican Herbert Hoover called himself an “unashamed individualist.”

This conflict between the proponents of the dueling American ideals of rugged individualism and innovation versus the partisans of a communitarian society was well represented in the stories that Carlson expanded on his talk, which focused on seven members of the latter set.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first figure Carlson considered. This was Carlson at his most energetic, speaking words of the progressive Republican that may be somewhat surprising, as Roosevelt rails against birth control as destroying the child-bearing family as “the cell of American society” and against divorce as a destruction of marriage as a “partnership of the soul.”

Carlson also spoke of Julia Lathrop, a contemporary of Roosevelt, who was the first woman to run a public agency, and pioneered a social feminist, or maternalist view. She sought to solve the immigration problem through the enhancement of the family, and supported a wage for male workers sufficient for the raising of a family as a means of lowering infant mortality rates.

The next two figures, Art Altmeyer and Molly Dewson, were employed by Carlson to demonstrate the essentially pro-family nature of the New Deal. Altmeyer helped save Social Security from dying at birth and saw to it that “protection of the family and the home” made its way into the Democratic Party’s platform. Dewson was a powerful woman in the Democratic Party ranks who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment because she felt women required additional protection before the law due to their role as potential or actual childbearers.

In the postwar period, publisher Henry Luce, described as “an optimist formed by Christian hope,” spread the ideal of the “American century” through his publishing empire. He championed family life’s renewal in the suburbs and celebrated the baby boom as good for economic prosperity. He also supported religious diversity and believed peace could be won through American ideals.

Walt Whitman Rostow more definitively was employed by Carlson to demonstrate the intersection of security policy and the family. Rostow served in the Johnson administration, and witnessed the takeover of the Democratic Party by the New Left and the failure in Southeast Asia as it fell to the Communists. Finally, Ronald Reagan believed that families kept safe our cultural heritage and protected it from the “mad rush of modern American life.”

It is perhaps in the question-and-answer period following the lecture that Carlson was best able to articulate his own views. He described how “sophisticated Europeans cringe” at questions of family and community as American questions. He defended a modestly growing population as a stimulant to the economy and innovation, and elucidated the process by which financial policies eventually changed and necessitated the move of a growing sector of the population to a 2-income household.

He articulated his advocacy for the Parents’ Tax Relief Act, which he helped write, and would offer tax incentives for stay-at-home parents, raise the tax exemption for children, eliminate marriage penalties, offer deductions for home offices to encourage entrepreneurship, and establish staying at home to support small children as real work in the eyes of the Social Security Administration. In so doing, he remarked with tongue-in-cheek that the bill could “undo the Industrial Revolution,” in that it would remove the divide between the places were people live and where they work.

He explained how gay marriage, in his view, transforms marriage into something different than it is, although admittedly is not nearly as detrimental to the institution as other “heterosexual innovations,” such as no-fault divorce. He also offered the possibility that he would advocate protections akin to marriage for homosexual couples if children were involved, and did not indicate that homosexual couples are intrinsically less capable of raising children than heterosexual couples.

Challenged by one questioner who alleged that his views seem “old-fashioned” and that he is “defending normative claims in a positive guise,” Carlson acknowledged that he does not expect the clock to be turned back in the near future. However, he did make clear that he has no problems with redistributing income as a means to support a thriving family and community life in the United States, and in so doing help its economy in ways a number of economists advocate. Judging from the response of the Swarthmore students in the audience, it is in his tax proposal and other advocacy for economic growth through the family that they can find something to admire, if not in the traditional emphasis of his broader philosophy.


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