Ten Not-So-Tentative Truths

What Ought Society Do When Families Crumble? What Ought Government Do When Children Are Endangered?

Chester E. Finn, Jr. John M. Olin Fellow Hudson Institute | Center of the American Experiment, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Published as the keynote essay in Certain Truths December 1995

Released in its original form as a freestanding essay July 1996


For American Experiment’s very first event, a conference on poverty in April 1990, I asked my longtime friend, Chester E. Finn, Jr., to give the keynote: a speech on crumbling families and endangered children, which we subsequently published as our first paper, “Ten Tentative Truths.” Suffice it to say, that essay remains one of the most influential we’ve ever released, as it has shaped beliefs and debate in both national and Minnesota quarters.

It was an easy call, therefore, when, in 1995, I needed to choose a keynoter for the Center’s first book, on children, families, and culture. I asked Checker (as he is commonly known) to update his 10 original ideas and principles in a paper that came to be informally called, then officially titled, “Ten Not-So-Tentative Truths.” That essay, re-released here as a freestanding paper, opens this way:

Today I’m far less tentative. Much has happened in [the last] half-decade. Uncertainty on these matters has largely vanished from my thoughts and, to a remarkable degree, from those of the broader American society.

Among the “much” that has happened, Dr. Finn cites another round of statistics reflecting worsened problems in American families. He notes changes in the intellectual climate which, for instance, have significantly vindicated Vice President Dan Quayle’s “Murphy Brown” warnings. And he writes of a greater willingness over the last several years, both in state capitols and in Congress, to discard old policy assumptions and reject old ground rules so as to try fundamentally different approaches.

Dr. Finn also acknowledges in this new paper the return to fashion of “civil society,” and with it, “a widening appreciation of the unmatched capacity of nongovernmental institutions to meet social, spiritual, cultural and sometimes material needs with greater sensitivity and efficiency than can instrumentalities of government at any level.”

As an example of one of his now “untentative truths,” he writes:

If the well-being of children and the integrity of families lead our list of social priorities, then we must recognize that out-of-wedlock births are only one of the destructive forces that we face — and that others are far less socially acceptable to talk about, even in today’s climate of greater candor.

The point being, debate and conversation have focused too little on divorce, in part because many of the people writing in the area are either divorced themselves or have loads of friends and relatives who have been. This omission has been neither fair nor helpful.

I’ve written many times that Chester E. Finn, Jr., is the nation’s most acute education critic. That salute needs expanding, as few scholars have written as importantly in recent years about American social life in general, not just our educational affairs in particular. It’s nearly impossible, for example, to pick up a small handful of copies of the Wall Street Journal, or journals such as Commentary and The Public Interest, without reading something new by him. This is just one more reason why I’m honored that American Experiment again has the opportunity — for the fourth or fifth time, actually — to publish him.

A former assistant secretary of education for research and improvement in the Reagan Administration (where I served under him), Dr. Finn is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Hudson Institute, in Washington, DC. Among his assignments there, he cochairs the Educational Excellence Network, directs the project on “Charter Schools in Action,” and co-directs the “American Dream” project. On leave from the faculty of Vanderbilt University, Dr. Finn and his wife Renu Virmani, a physician, have two grown children. They live in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

American Experiment members receive free copies of almost all Center publications, including “Ten Not-So-Tentative Truths.” Additional copies of this essay are $4 for members and $5 for nonmembers. Bulk discounts are available for schools, civic groups and other organizations. Please note our phone and address on the previous page for membership and other information.

I should add here that copies of Certain Truths are available either through the Center or in bookstores for $19.95 — or free with an American Experiment membership of at least $60.

Thanks very much and, as always, I welcome your comments.

Mitchell B. Pearlstein, President | July 1996


Five years ago, as Center of the American Experiment began, Mitch Pearlstein asked me to address a pair of important and vexing questions: “What ought society do when families crumble?” And “What ought government do when children are endangered?” I responded with a double handful of what I termed “tentative truths” and “provisional thoughts, open to revision and correction.”

Today I’m far less tentative. Much has happened in that half-decade. Uncertainty on these matters has largely vanished from my thoughts and, to a remarkable degree, from those of the broader American society.

Here is the gist of what I said in 1990 about decaying families and endangered kids:

  • We must steel ourselves to speak the truth about the social norms that we know to be good for children and the malign consequences of deviating from those norms. We should state that two-parent families are good for children, one-parent families are bad, zero-parent families are horrible. A well-functioning society must condemn behavior that results in people having children who are not prepared to be good parents. We need to understand that once the “normal” arrangements for child-rearing are ruptured, all the alternatives are going to be worse.
  • We are not talking primarily about material poverty but about behavior, which cannot necessarily be altered through economic incentives. We cannot count on conventional welfare-type programs to set matters right when the matters in question are essentially behavioral. Hence we need to promulgate and enforce a doctrine of accountability for parents as well as for their children.
  • We should embrace as a guiding principle of social policy the proposition that “somebody has got to be crazy about that kid.” But do we also understand that public policy cannot vouchsafe love? Our social policy should not be equated to our public policy. If we are serious about finding shepherds to deal with the moral, behavioral, spiritual and emotional dimensions of all our children, we cannot limit ourselves to government.
  • While it is usually best to improve the situation within a child’s own family, we are going to have to be prepared more frequently to remove children from their homes and send them into other settings where someone will be crazy about them. When a family is in melt-down, our priority must be to help the children.

As one of our foremost policy objectives, we should be devising means to generate and accumulate what James Coleman has termed “social capital” everywhere it is in short supply.

  • Finally, we need to treat these matters as we would a national defense crisis, not just as matters that vex individuals. We should expect to submit ourselves to the organizational arrangements, the long-term resolve, the bold changes in familiar assumptions and practices, the inconveniences and perhaps even the inhibitions that we associate with answering grave threats to the nation’s well-being.

My one-time tentativeness about these “truths” has been vanquished by subsequent developments and by widening awareness throughout the land that bold actions and unaccustomed steps must be taken if we are to have a fighting chance of solving problems that the old assumptions helped to cause and that the familiar, politically correct remedies seemed to exacerbate. Here are some landmarks of the past half-decade.

In the last five years

  • The numbers have grown steadily worse. Of the 4.1 million babies born in the United States in 1992, 30 percent were born to unmarried women. And 30 percent of those mothers were teenagers. Nor are such trends confined to our shores. I recently had occasion to visit Chile, where I expected to find a socially conservative and rather traditional Catholic society. To the contrary: As many as a third of Chilean infants today are born to unmarried women.
  • Charles Murray — who tends to capture attention with anything he writes — warned, in a much-remarked 1993 Wall Street Journal column, of the “coming white underclass.” Though illegitimacy rates remain highest among Black and Hispanic women — 68 and 39 percent, respectively, in 1992 — they are now rising faster within the white population (where 23 percent of 1992 births were out of wedlock). Measured by “fertility rates,” i.e., the number of live births per 1,000 unmarried women ages 15 to 44, the Black rate has actually fallen a bit since 1989, while the white rate continues to climb.
  • Illegitimacy is not the whole story. Today about 28 percent of all U.S. children under 18 are living with just one parent. (Many more — a majority, say most experts — pass through a period of single-parenting at some point.) The same thing is happening, if at a slower rate, in the rest of the world. By the mid-’80s, 15 percent of Australian households, 17 percent of Swedish households, and 20 percent of households in the former Soviet Union were headed by single parents.
  • In most respects President Clinton has been governing like a conventional liberal captured by his party’s myriad special interests, but every once in a while he does say something powerful and true about children and families. That was certainly the case with his Memphis speech of November 1993 on the deteriorating American family — and with a number of subsequent addresses and pronouncements.
  • Though Dan Quayle was reviled for his “Murphy Brown” speech, and the 1992 GOP convention in Houston put people off with its harsh and sometimes mean-spirited talk of “family values,” a remarkable moment of vindication-cum-truth-telling arrived less than a year later when historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead published her now-celebrated “Dan Quayle Was Right” essay in The Atlantic Monthly. Here is how the magazine’s editors summarized it:

The social-science evidence is in: though it may benefit the adults involved, the dissolution of intact two-parent families is harmful to large numbers of children. Moreover, the author argues, family diversity in the form of increasing numbers of single-parent and stepparent families does not strengthen the social fabric but, rather, dramatically weakens and undermines society.

  • Other analysts have deepened our understanding of the problems we face and of what alternatives might look like. Joining Whitehead’s essay at the top of the post-1990 must-read list, for example, are former White House aide William Galston’s essay, “A Liberal-Democratic Case for the Two-Parent Family,” David Blankenhorn’s Fatherless America, and Marvin Olasky’s seminal The Tragedy of American Compassion.
  • We can glimpse a public-opinion consensus emerging — one that spans much of the left, all of the center, and virtually the entire right — which views these problems as the gravest threats our society faces in the post-Cold War era. Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago embodies (and has helped to forge) this consensus: “Children are bearing the brunt of a profound cultural shift whose negative features we are now in a position to observe and whose continuing costs will last much longer than our own lifetimes. . . . I submit to you that our experiment in loosening up the ties that bind has been tried and that it has failed. It has failed our children; it has failed our parents; and it has failed our society.”
  • Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, with his unique capacity to help us see things we hadn’t previously realized, penned an arresting essay entitled “Defining Deviancy Down.” Which turns out, of course, to be precisely what we have been doing with respect to child-rearing: accustoming ourselves to living with, even explaining away, things that we had previously judged “deviant” and unacceptable, such that in time we forget — or can no longer say — that they are unacceptable.
  • Although the 1994 mid-term election was not fought explicitly over issues of children and families, most of the victors arrived in office with a sense of urgency that government should at least desist from weakening families and legitimizing misbehavior. The transformation of the debate over welfare policy is the most vivid evidence so far. No longer are the main protagonists arguing over whether to limit benefits, discourage child-bearing and compel work on the part of recipients but, rather, over the specifics of how this will be done.
  • Both in state capitols and in the corridors of Congress, we’ve seen greater willingness in the past several years to cast off old policy assumptions, repeal familiar ground rules and try boldly different strategies. This is already manifest in welfare, education and health care, where the belief is crumbling that there is one best system, that the federal government should drive it, and that states and communities ought not be allowed to tailor their own strategies.
  • The idea of “civil society” is back in fashion, and with it a widening appreciation of the unmatched capacity of nongovernmental institutions to meet social, spiritual, cultural and sometimes material needs with greater sensitivity and efficiency than can the instrumentalities of government at any level. That’s not to say our civic institutions are in good repair; only that they comprise an important resource and a legitimate alternative.

Faced with these challenges, conventional liberalism has proven itself morally bankrupt, intellectually barren, programmatically incompetent and budgetarily profligate. Although it retains great political assets — inertia, vast bureaucratic allies, some lingering editorial support, and the capacity to generate tear-jerking images of the consequences of change — it has all but removed itself from the main policy debate. Today’s big divide is not between liberal and conservative, but the schism within conservatism, between libertarians and paternalists.

Conservative schism

These two camps hold very different views of human nature, especially within the “underclass.” Some, such as Jack Kemp, trust in the basic competence of disadvantaged people to work things out for themselves, provided they are given the freedom and the wherewithal. Others — Robert Rector, Lawrence Mead, our own Mitch Pearlstein — have concluded that many disadvantaged people are damaged or impaired such that they lack some of the essential personal qualities that are necessary to turn their own lives around. As Mitch says, “When you get right down to it, I’m less confident than Jack that enterprise zones and other regulatory reforms will spur enough people to get up early and go to work every morning.”

There is a loose macro-counterpart to this debate, having to do with what levels of government (or private civic organizations) should do what. Paternalists tend to want the federal government to be prescriptive, including what Rector terms “strings-attached welfare reform.” Others, such as former Tennessee governor (and presidential aspirant) Lamar Alexander, term that approach “replacing their arrogant empire with ours” and would rather turn to states, communities, civic organizations and individuals to work these things out for themselves.

I find myself mostly in the latter camp. Years of federal service have left me deeply skeptical of Washington’s ability to do much well, and several decades in education have convinced me that government monopolies — whether national, state or local — always yield inefficiency, unresponsiveness and mediocrity. So I’m strongly drawn to nongovernmental alternatives, especially the kinds that permit choices and invite competition. At the same time, however, I’ve become more of a behaviorist as I’ve observed that most people (and organizations) act as we might hope, not because it is the “right” thing to do, but because they conclude that it is in their interest to do so. Hence my emphasis on accountability — and my doubt that a purer libertarianism will yield socially desirable results.

I haven’t abandoned any “truths” from 1990, but will avail myself of this opportunity to restate some of them and add others — still within a total of 10 — that guide my thinking about such matters today and that may serve as precepts on which to erect policy and practice. Let me state going in, however, that these do not comprise a detailed program design. They are more like an artist’s rendering for the client to see — to help him visualize the edifice he will one day inhabit — rather than construction drawings for the carpenter to follow.

Ten not-so-tentative truths

First, while the individual is our central political and civic unit, the family is our primary and indivisible social, cultural and moral unit.

The implications of that distinction are profound, striking at the heart of much that we take for granted about modernism and post-modernism.

For a long time — from the Enlightenment, really, until two or three decades ago — the western world did a decent job of balancing a political system rooted in individualism and freedom with a social structure centering on the family, and with a culture that prized stable institutions, respected authority and did not flinch from moral judgments. But that balance has tipped. As expressive individualism has overpowered our social and cultural arrangements, there’s been hell to pay, especially on the part of children. Putting the family back at the center of the social structure — and restoring its balance vis-a-vis individualism — must be our large project.

Very large indeed. The quest for personal pleasure (fulfillment, freedom, self-actualization, whatever) has become so powerful an impulse in contemporary life and so influential in our legal and political arrangements that brickbats will be flung at anyone who suggests that sometimes the family must take precedence over the individual. But it must. Making it far harder for parents to abandon their minor children would be a good place to start.

Second, if the well-being of children and the integrity of families head our list of social priorities, then we must recognize that illegitimacy is only one of the destructive forces that we face — and that the others are far less socially acceptable to discuss, even in today’s climate of candor.

I refer here to the more typically middle- and upper-middle-class phenomena of divorce, separation and desertion.

Were this a discussion of welfare policy, it would be OK to focus on illegitimate births and “unformed” families, which are indeed the prime sources of children who depend on the welfare system today. (That was not always so. Even within the welfare population, it was not until the 1980s that children born out of wedlock became the majority of those supported by AFDC.)

But if our concern is with youngsters growing up in “fatherless” households, we must understand that family breakup now creates 70 percent of these situations. Any serious effort to deal with single-parenting must begin with the fact that 40 percent of today’s first marriages in America will end in divorce, the highest rate in the world. (As recently as 1960, our divorce rate was 16 percent.) Some seven million U.S. female-headed households with children (in 1990) resulted from divorce, separation and marital desertion. About a million additional children each year are affected by divorce.

Changing the cultural norms and attitudes, and perhaps the laws and procedures, which have made marriage more an adult whim than a solemn and permanent responsibility, is as necessary a part of combating fatherlessness as dealing firmly with illegitimacy. But this is not something that many people want to face. I believe their reluctance has two causes.

One is that we’ve persuaded ourselves that growing up in a broken home is less damaging to children than being born to an unmarried mother. Sometimes that’s even true. We all know some adults who are better off sans former spouse, and once in a while their children’s lot also improves, especially if the divorced mother then marries someone who turns out to be a terrific (step)father. But this is rare. Blankenhorn summarizes the relevant research, which shows that children “in stepfamilies not only experienced far worse outcomes than did children who grew up with their two biological parents but also, on almost every measurement, experienced worse outcomes than did children from single-parent homes.”

As for the now-absent biological father, even the kind who provides financial support and regularly visits his progeny, Blankenhorn is blunt:

The end of co-residency and the rupture of the parental alliance mean nothing less than the collapse of paternal authority. Visiting fatherhood almost always becomes disempowered fatherhood, a simulacrum of paternal capacity. . . . Only wishful thinking permits us to continue viewing him as a parent at all. At bottom, he is no longer a father.

The second reason we avoid the “former-family” phenomenon has to do with social class. Whereas most illegitimacy happens among people who live across the tracks, much divorce and separation takes place in our neighborhoods, among our friends and relations, sometimes even ourselves. This makes it harder to condemn or even to depict as a pressing social problem. (That is precisely how what was once thought deviant gets “defined down.”) It’s well and good to declaim on the social mayhem wrought by illegitimacy and the ways in which today’s welfare policies contribute to it. But, as Blankenhorn notes, in America there are now more “visiting fathers” than there are welfare mothers. This is the big policy-relevant truth that the “family values” crowd seldom mentions.

A few honest commentators have spoken up. Not long ago, for example, William J. Bennett told the Christian Coalition that they should be more concerned with divorce than with homosexuality; that millions of families coming apart — not adults misbehaving with one another — are the greatest threat to children and to the health of society.

He’s right, of course. If the well-being of children and the stability of families were truly our premier domestic concerns, we would be paying attention to more than reforming welfare and “restigmatizing” illegitimacy. We would also be devising ways to make divorce and separation scarce, at least where marriage has produced children. We might begin by making marriage itself less whimsical, as is being tried by clergymen in a number of communities who now require couples seeking to be married in their churches first to put themselves through some minimal preparation for that momentous step.

Troubled marriages can often be mended. Some family therapists specialize in that. So do some church and community leaders, and more than a few authors. Michael McManus’ book, Marriage Savers, for example, as described in the Wall Street Journal, “focuses . . . on premarital inventories; mentoring by happily married couples; peer-led Marriage Encounter weekends to improve the communications in marriages that have not yet run into serious trouble; and Retrouvaille, an outgrowth of Marriage Encounter aimed at saving the most troubled marriages.”

Although marriage counseling is none of the government’s business, public policy influences its prospects for success, because it’s public policy that fixes the costs and arduousness of ending a marriage. I believe marriages that have yielded children should be hard to dissolve. Forget “no-fault” divorces when kids are involved, and let’s ensure that adults who change their minds face more than a little public embarrassment and dollar cost. Suppose, for example, that parents of minor children were obliged to pay a whopping fee — or fine — in order to obtain a divorce? The money from these fines might go into a fund to help with adoptions.

Third, is the vexed matter — I turn to it with no little trepidation — of what exactly we can do about the propensity of Americans, many of them young, some very young, to have babies in situations where they are grossly unready and unable to be proper parents?

What, especially, are we to do with underclass teenagers living in a culture where, for a lot of 14- and 15-year-old girls, having a baby of their own is both a symbol of growing up (which of course they haven’t) and, loosely speaking, analogous to the stuffed animal they coveted a few years before? And where, for boys of about the same age, fathering a baby signifies manliness, peer (or gang) approbation, something akin to making the team.

The truth, of course, is that we can’t not address this, even though the political and moral cost of doing so may be great. Condemnation and indignation alone do not seem to have made much of a dent in those birth rates. Let me therefore stipulate that our objective — the only objective that I find acceptable for kids and society alike — must be to bring close to zero the number of babies born to, and left in the “care” of, unfit parents. (One place to start gauging the distance we have to go is the 365,000 babies born in 1992 to unmarried females under the age of 20 — of whom, incidentally, 58 percent were white.)

I can think of four ways to go about this. None seems sufficient by itself but, in combination, they represent what we can at least consider doing.

First and best is abstention. Change those norms and values such that they overpower other impulses and cause people to refrain from sexual activity until they’re ready to be parents. Some think this approach is wishful thinking, but I’ve seen evidence of its success — Elayne Bennett’s “Best Friends” program, for example — and have been persuaded by the late James S. Coleman, among others, that social and cultural norms can indeed be changed and strengthened.1 The second strategy for preventing births is, not surprisingly, birth control: the effective and systematic use of contraception, whether the kinds that require continuing attention (e.g., condoms, the pill) or the kinds that are more durable and mindless (e.g., IUDs, Norplant).

Third is arranging proper homes for the babies of mothers who cannot provide them. Adoption is the best way to do this (and our barriers to cross-racial adoption are among the stupidest social policies in the land). Foster care and orphanages are more expensive, less-attractive possibilities. Sometimes the mother or father has a relative (often the baby’s grandmother) who is willing and able to provide the nurturing and structure that the biological parents cannot muster.

Finally, we get to the volatile issue of abortion. I didn’t include it as a form of contraception because we should never view such a drastic, morally loaded, religiously charged, medically involved and politically freighted act as mere birth control. And I respect the fact that many people — believing that any abortion, no matter when or why undertaken, is a form of murder — will not agree with me. But if we are serious about living in a society where every baby has a fighting chance of living a decent life and becoming a contributing member, then there are going to be some situations — we should do all we can to minimize their frequency — where abortion may be less awful than the alternatives.

Fourth, people are rational. They respond to incentives and disincentives, to rewards and punishments.

Teenagers who see no tangible reward for taking a hard science course and staying home on Thursday evening to revise their history paper are less apt to learn a lot in school. Drivers confident that there is no chance of being apprehended by the police are more apt to exceed the speed limit. People who know that the government will give them more money if they have another baby are less likely to avoid pregnancy.

It isn’t simple, of course. The calculus of rationality is seldom a purely intellectual process. People’s actions are shaped by many elements besides the kinds of “rational self-interest” — typically financial — that economists customarily weigh. Other influential factors include habit, culture, values, knowledge, peer pressure, trust, passion and chemicals. Nothing is more difficult than altering deep-set behavior patterns. That’s why it’s so hard for drug addicts and alcoholics to stay dry. But when the cost of leaving dysfunctional behavior patterns intact is extremely high, the wise society will seek to manipulate them by adjusting as many of the influences as possible.

Putting it more positively, if our goal is to build more “social capital” of the kind that Coleman described, we will need to be imaginative and wide-ranging in identifying and then changing the various incentives that relate to this goal.

Fortunately, not all of these incentives are in the hands of government, which is neither good at, nor properly entrusted with, many forms of behavioral change. Cultural signals and reputations count, too, as do group norms, trust relationships, family ties, etc. Thus, for example, many current discussions of family policy appropriately pay as much attention to the “stigma” (or lack thereof) of illegitimacy, and to reversing other features of our “no-fault” culture, as they pay to cash benefits.

Suppose good parents found themselves on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Imagine “A” students with their pictures on the front page of the newspaper. And that’s just the beginning. We probably don’t know enough about the full array of incentives and disincentives that are effective in altering behavior, especially when the behavior needing alteration involves child-bearing and child-rearing. We certainly shouldn’t suppose that much of it can be steered from Washington. Perhaps the best thing the federal government can do is make it possible for others to do the right thing — and cease creating incentives to do the wrong thing.

Fifth, we come to the broader point that, as a society, we’ve sorely over-governmentalized ourselves and thereby weakened our communities and our sense of personal responsibility.

We turn too readily and too often to government to do too much.Washington isn’t the only problem. Much of what’s wrong was caused by state and local governments — if you don’t believe me, pay a visit to your local welfare office or state education department — and much of what needs fixing can be approached successfully only by the nongovernmental institutions of civil society. William A. Schambra and Michael S. Joyce are illuminating on this point:

[T]he American people have utterly lost faith in the project of national community and the elites who would construct it . . . . [They] have also been patiently and consistently telling us that they wish to get about the business of reconstructing the local moral and political institutions of civil society, and rebuilding the social order they ensure.

They understand that only strengthened local government and revitalized intermediate associations — families, neighborhoods, churches, schools, and ethnic and voluntary associations — will permit them to reestablish fundamental decency and basic civil order within their immediate surroundings…

That positive agenda is once again to empower civic institutions, local governments, families, and citizens genuinely to make the public decisions and carry out the public tasks that really count. These include especially the economic, social, educational, and moral sustenance of the youngest, oldest, poorest, and most vulnerable . . . .

Pushing government back within its proper bounds — there are some things that only Uncle Sam can do, such as print money and operate the Air Force — is plainly desirable, but it’s not my main point here. Rather, our central goal should be empowering communities to solve their problems as they think best. As Lamar Alexander asks, who knows better how to feed a hungry child in Maryville, Tennessee: the people of Maryville, or the bureaucrats in a federal agency in Washington, DC?

Sixth, the Zeitgeist creates incentives, too, as it sets examples, creates role models and legitimizes certain values while scoffing at others.

Dan Quayle was right — and part of what he was right about is that Murphy Brown was wrong. Having a child out of wedlock is simply wrong, and for Hollywood to glamorize it is wrong, too. The Murphy Brown character is also deeply misleading. Just four percent of white unmarried mothers in the United States are college graduates. Most are poorly educated — and poor.

By contrast, C. Dolores Tucker and Bill Bennett are heroes for taking on the titans of the music industry because some of the “songs” they sell cheapen the culture, degrade women and celebrate sexual violence. We don’t need government censorship, but American society would benefit from a lot more restraint, whether out of decency, discretion, embarrassment or a rejiggering of the commercial marketplace.

Just as libraries once locked up dirty books so children wouldn’t have easy access to them, so should parents and teachers have the power to limit what their kids see on television and computer screens and hear on the radio. And the vendors of words, images and ideas that are harmful to the young should be given at least as much grief by an energized public as the manufacturers of cigarettes and the producers of toxic wastes.

Seventh, parents need to be accountable — legally, morally, economically — for their minor children.

This seemingly obvious maxim has vast implications, and some sound-minded commentators — John Leo, for example — have misgivings. But it’s already well-established that “minors” do not enjoy all the rights of citizenship. They cannot vote, for example, and they can be compelled to attend school. “Minority” ends at various ages for different purposes, and that we can alter it in order to solve a problem is clear from the decisions of states to raise the legal drinking age to 21.

Widespread flouting of that law, however, attests to the fact that the law has few consequences and little accountability built into it. Nobody visualizes jails full of 19-year-olds whose only offense was to chug a bottle of Corona. But what if parents were fined for underage drinking? What if they had to show up in court when their kids aren’t in school? What if they, rather than the state, bore full financial and legal responsibility for the welfare of babies born to their minor children? What if, in other words, we assigned to actual parents rather than to an impersonal polity the obligation of policing youthful behavior — and paying the price for misbehavior?

This is not hypothetical. Virginia recently decided to fine parents up to $500 for failing to help schools with the discipline of their children. In Alabama, they are liable for any damage their children cause to school property. Oregon obliges them — under the cloud of a $1,000 fine and compulsory parenting classes — to ensure that their sons and daughters (up to age 15) obey state laws in general. And Maryland has updated its truancy laws to slap a $100-a-day fine (and potential jail term) on parents whose kids skip school. A number of towns and cities put parents on the line for curfew violations, graffiti escapades and other forms of misbehavior by their progeny.

This approach is not problem-free. Truly incompetent parents may not be able to manage their children’s lives any better than their own, no matter what the law says. And as policy moves up the ladder from minor disturbances of the peace to momentous matters like reproduction and child-rearing, other complexities arise. Some (not many) teenagers are able to establish reasonable facsimiles of families. Some grandparents are irresponsible and lawless themselves, and efforts to enforce their management of their adolescent children’s behavior are likely to prove costly and frustrating. Nor am I entirely comfortable with entangling government more deeply in the internal workings of families. Yet somebody has to be accountable.

As John Leo concedes, “[M]any communities are so besieged that something must be tried.” Moreover, if it comes down to a choice between making the state directly responsible versus leaning on parents to take responsibility for the actions and well-being of their offspring, I’ll pick the latter course any day.

Eighth, our major child-serving institutions, in turn, need to be more accountable to parents.

Only in this way can parents be empowered as their child’s chief “caseworker.” Where necessary, “parents’ rights” laws and constitutional amendments should assure their primacy in directing the educational and moral development of their children. Very little should be done to or for children, especially by public agencies, without parents’ explicit approval. That means no intrusive counseling, therapies, testing, medication or birth control for minor children until their parents sign off.

Parents, moreover, need to be entrusted with the political and fiscal power to effect crucial choices in the upbringing of their children. Vouchers that enable them to select their child’s school are at the top of that list, school being the most important child-rearing institution outside the home. But it’s not the whole list. Day care, after-school activities, and summer programs are also domains where parents
should be in the driver’s seat. (They already are when it comes to selecting churches.) So are health care and social services. It’s unreasonable to hold parents accountable for the actions and well-being of their daughters and sons unless they have the power to shape their children’s environment and the influences to which they’re exposed.

Ninth, when families falter, there’s no fully satisfactory alternative — that’s why prevention is more important than therapy — but we can’t let that glum reality blind us to the fact that parents aren’t perfect.

Sometimes they need help. Sometimes they are so irresponsible and cruel to their children that they forfeit the right to continue looking after those children.

Empowering parents does not mean giving them carte blanche to burn their toddlers with cigarette butts or beat them black and blue. Society’s interest in the well-being of children rivals the parents’ primacy.

But that is a terribly delicate balance to attain, and the least likely way to get it right is to let distant government agencies write the rules and make the decisions. Government cannot know whether Sally is just having a bad day and needs a friendly ear, a bit of cash, or a baby-sitter, or whether she is a chronically incompetent and harmful mother who is not fit to raise those children. This is, however, the sort of thing a neighbor, pastor or local agency can size up pretty well, and calibrate a response accordingly. They are most knowledgeable about specific situations and available options and least apt to be impersonal and bureaucratic.

Even so momentous a step as removing a child from its parents may best be taken by people and organizations closest to the situation. Perhaps a grandparent, aunt or local Girls’ Club is what’s needed. Perhaps there is no reason to call the police, enlist social workers or seek court orders. But in these instances, when government must intervene on the child’s behalf, let it be the government closest at hand.

Which brings us to the matter of alternatives. None, as I have said, is perfect. In situations of crisis — where a child is in imminent danger — almost any safe haven is tolerable, including emergency foster care (and some of the saintliest people on earth are those who provide it). But long-term foster care is rarely good. First-rate adoptions are better. Residential schools and orphanages can be fine, if also relatively expensive. At the very least, they are better than the home situations faced by some youngsters.3

There’s a serious tension here, of course. On the one hand, I’m urging that people and organizations outside the family, sometimes even agencies of government, be assertive enough to move children quickly out of melt-down situations, lest they suffer terrible harm. On the other hand, it’s a foregone conclusion that, once anyone has this power, they will sometimes go too far and actually weaken families or stick their noses into places where they don’t belong. No community decision is graver than removing a child from his or her parents. At least let it be made by the immediate community.

Tenth, and finally, we need better leadership on all of this than we’re getting.

This should become the central issue of the 1996 election. President Clinton equivocates. He gives good speeches and appears to be an estimable father to his own daughter. But his party is still in grip of its post-modern factions, groups that don’t much trust parents, don’t much believe in families, and do favor governmental solutions to just about all social problems.

As for Republicans, they talk a lot about family values, and in general are more concerned than Democrats about cultural melt-down and social disintegration. They have less enthusiasm for government and more for the institutions of civil society. But many of them are steered by groups that seem more concerned about abortion than what happens to kids once they’re born; more concerned about stigmatizing sexual behavior than about strategies for keeping families together. It’s not a good sign that so many GOP leaders are themselves divorced. Yet many of the same people also tend, perhaps hypocritically, toward prudishness, which has only limited bearing on the well-being of children and the strength of families. William Bennett is again insightful and wise when he warns conservatives not to get too sanctimonious.

Politicians aren’t the only, or best, place to look for leadership in such matters. Again we are well-advised to turn to civil society, to the institutions and organizations from which Americans drew their values, rewards, incentives and fellowship for the first century and a half of our national life. Presidents, governors and senators have irreplaceable roles when it comes to government, but our over-reliance on government is an artifact of the Twentieth Century that we should put back into proportion as the Twenty-First draws near. Clergymen, educators and community leaders could well turn out to be better guides through the maze of contemporary life than public officials and bureaucrats.

But insofar as government itself remains part of the problem, and our public policies remain implicated in the melt-down of families and the endangerment of children, we cannot disregard what politicians say and do. Nor should we casually discard the unrivaled bully pulpit of the Oval Office and the leadership that a vigorous, clear-thinking chief executive can provide to nation and state.

So let Mitch’s questions become the starting point for the 1996 presidential debates and for their counterparts in congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral elections. Let the candidates and wannabees be asked at every turn, and not be left in peace until they answer clearly: What ought society do when families crumble? What ought government do when children are endangered? Then let’s cast our ballots for those with the sounder answers and the greater likelihood of acting accordingly. If nothing matters more to our society’s future, nothing should take precedence in our choice of leaders.

1 The conceptual foundation for much of this essay is to be found in James Coleman’s pathbreaking application of “rational choice” analysis of human behavior. Interested readers should peruse his magisterial Foundations of Social Theory.

2I go into this point at greater length in “Herbert Croly and the Cult of Governmentalism,” in The New Promise of American Life, edited by Lamar Alexander and myself, and published this year (1995) by the Hudson Institute.

3 Those who think I’m wrong about this should visit Boys’ Town in Nebraska or the Milton S. Hershey School in Pennsylvania. Or read Don Frazier’s account of growing up in North Carolina’s Presbyterian Home for Children, published in the World & I, in July 1995. Or Richard McKenzie’s fine American Experiment paper, “Orphanages: Did They Throttle the Children in Their Care?” released in May 1995.