Mother’s Day is a good time for conservatives to fight for government-guaranteed leave time for parents. While mostly progressives have advanced this policy in the past, the case for conservatives supporting some form of it is rock-solid.
To explain why, we have to start with a basic question: what makes a political society functional? What does a society with a government actually need to survive and thrive? The answer can be phrased in a more or less complicated way, but the simple version is, it needs citizens who have some degree of civic virtue: citizens who participate in the political process, are informed, and digest information in a way that reflects some degree of wisdom and character.
This is a way of saying that the strength of a nation ultimately depends on the character of its citizens. As citizens become whiners, victims, dependents, and clients, the society becomes less functional and, ultimately, weaker. As civic virtue declines, everyone suffers under an increasingly dysfunctional government and embittered political process.
Good Citizens Start With Parenting
What makes a good citizen? That includes numerous components. We want people who are courageous, honest, sacrificial, creative, have integrity, invest in strong social institutions: we could come up with a very long list. But it is enough to say that good citizens are people who see themselves as having a stake in society, and who seek to increase the value of that stake through wise and prudent engagement in political processes.
Good citizens try to make their stake more valuable by being honest jurors, hospitable neighbors, conscientious voters, and industrious workers. The whole society benefits from these things. The question then becomes, “Is there any way to increase the odds that a given person sees themselves as invested in the wider society, and more likely to make wise decisions?”
There are many ways to do this. For example, I believe that Christianity has a nice side effect of inculcating good civic virtues. But of course, legislating Christianity would be both unconstitutional and ludicrously ineffective. So are there any constitutional ways to increase the level of civic virtue of citizens?
To determine this, we must ask, “How does civic virtue come about?” It seems likely that civic virtue is inculcated in people from a young age: good citizens do not pop into existence ex nihilo at age 18. They have been formed over many years by many influences.
Thus, we can likely affect the civic quality of citizens by inspecting what people or organizations influence our children. Today, the dominant influences are school boards, daycare workers, and Spotify. Sure, in some houses, parents are still the decisive influencers and molders of their children, but by and large, influential parenting has been abdicated to people outside the home.
Parents Typically Care for Kids the Most
This is not ideal. Parents’ commitment to their child’s wellbeing and improvement usually exceeds anyone else’s. Aside from the fundamental principle that parents have a sovereign right to make decisions for their child (a right increasingly under threat, as seen in the Alfie Evans case), parents can also usually be trusted to actually make the right decision for their child.
In the vast majority of cases, not only do parents have a justified role in making choices for their non-autonomous children, but practically speaking parents are trustworthy advocates for their children’s wellbeing. Parents are usually more diligent shepherds of their children’s lives than are professionals at school, church, or daycare, because parents have a deep and powerful tie to their child specifically. Few parents will sacrifice their child’s wellbeing for the good of some group, and this is how it should be.
The special bond of parent and child gives society a powerful weapon: a justified true belief that when children spend time with their parents, they are usually spending time with the people on this earth who have the strongest motivation to advance their wellbeing and mold their character.
Now, the empirical literature on maternity leave is mixed. Some studies show moderately positive impacts on child outcomes like dropout rates, child behavior, and infant death. Virtually all studies show maternity leave does increase time parents spend with children. But several also show essentially no effect on child outcomes.
However, there are two reasons to have some skepticism of these findings. First, most focus on things like standardized test scores, future wages, or simply child death rates. While interesting, these aren’t quite the same as civic participation. Second, the academic view of parenting turns out to be negative in general! Once you account for genetics, the effect of parenting in general just isn’t very big at all.
For people willing to accept these conclusions at face value, fair enough: you can reject expanded parental leave on the grounds that parenting does not matter much, and a fresh-faced young sociology grad sent by Child Services can raise your kid as well as you could. But if you’re more skeptical of the technocratic view of parenting and think parents pass on hard-to-measure intangibles related to civic virtue, as I suspect most conservatives are, then the argument for parental leave continues to hold.
Overall, then, time with parents is, all else being equal, a good thing for the development of children. It makes them better adults. As better adults, all of society benefits from their improved participation in the economy and in politics.
Policies Should Preference Kids to Adults
Up to now, there is probably little disagreement among conservatives. But where we might part ways is that some would say, “Yes, this is all good, but we should not force businesses to agree with our values that parenting time matters: we have to be careful not to make government a tool for shoving specific moral values down individuals’ throats. Rather, we should just use informal social pressure to encourage companies to offer parents leave voluntarily.”
That’s a fair point. But it mistakes one basic issue. There is no law in the United States against adultery, even though adultery is a heinous sin and socially destructive. We do not criminalize it because, at the end of the day, adults have a right to bodily autonomy.
There is no law requiring children to visit their sick and dying parents, despite the Ten Commandments making clear that neglect of parents is a fiendish and particularly damaging kind of immorality. We do not, and should not, provide socialized health care to all people, because we recognize that adults have a responsibility to work for their keep. We do not, and should not, provide a universal basic income for the same reasons.
Yet we criminalize pedophilia. We provide children with government health care, and their families with extra income through food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit. We don’t have these laws because adultery is fine but pedophilia is bad: they’re both bad! The reason we have kid-focused welfare programs is not that socialism is fine for kids but bad for adults: socialism is bad!
The reason we have these programs and laws is that the law does have and must have a special concern for people who cannot speak for themselves. This is the justification for criminalizing the mass-murder campaign of abortionists: the unborn cannot speak for themselves, thus conscientious adults must express the will to live on their behalf.
Do Kids Have a Right to Parents’ Attention?
We have to ask ourselves basically one question: is a child entitled, if the parent is willing to give it, to the time and affection of his or her parents? If you think that there actually is a fundamentally special moral relationship between parents and their children, if you believe that parents have special obligations to their own children versus other peoples’ children, then you must confess that yes, children deserve an opportunity to spend time with their parents. Not only do they deserve it, but society stands to reap substantial benefits from it, as time spent with parents will mold them into better citizens.
If you believe parents and children have special moral obligations to each other, then the next question is simple: are infant children able to advocate on their own behalf and represent their interest in parental time? The answer here is clearly no. An infant cannot walk into his parents’ offices, sit down with their bosses, and cut a deal on how to share time between the factory floor and the nursery. Except in the case of Boss Baby, somebody else actually has to represent that infant.
It should be the parent, but that doesn’t work in practice. Why? Because the parent has two competing child welfare concerns: on the one hand, parents wants to spend time with their kids. On the other hand, they have to maintain an income to pay for the stuff their kids need.
Well-heeled, educated, white-collar workers with flexible workplaces may be able to negotiate their time off fairly freely. But good luck doing that as a burger-flipper at McDonalds. Middle- and lower-income parents face a Scylla and Charybdis of unemployment or insufficient time spent with their kids.
They make the best choice they can, but we as a society can do our part to step in and make sure the time-off negotiation is actually fair; that is, the parent doesn’t have a sword of Damocles hanging overhead during the negotiation. For simplicity, the way to do this is simply to declare as a matter of law that parents are entitled to a certain amount of paid leave when they have a child.
Kids Are Good For Tomorrow’s Business
Society needs parents to spend time with their kids. Look around at our social conditions today and the quality of civic participation, and just try and tell me there’s no parenting deficit! Children have a right to their parents’ time, but parents, especially those without high incomes, are unable to effectively negotiate for time off due to the need to keep food on the table.
Employers have no incentive to make it easier to have kids: kids distract workers from making more iPhones! Kids make workers not want to take overtime! You can’t trust employers to prioritize the interests of children (and indeed it isn’t a corporation’s job to promote childbearing! Their job is to make money!), and we cannot demand that parents take a gamble on food for the table or time to invest in their child.
There is one last concern I hear from conservatives, which comes down to political prudence. Some conservatives worry that if we create a precedent of legally guaranteed paid time off for parents, there will be mission creep. Pretty soon there will be legally guaranteed paid time off for any number of things, including requests that conservative employers may object to: should a person get paid time off to have and recover from a sex-change operation?
This is not a crazy concern, and I want to take it seriously. But seriously, the way to prevent this is to create citizens who have had stable, loving parents involved in their lives, helping them to see that an endless proliferation of mandates giving autonomous adults special benefits at substantial cost to society is bad.
If we don’t start producing a more functional kind of citizen soon, then this whole debate is moot: in 30 years there will be mandatory leave for sex-change operations anyways, but still no leave for families to invest in their children. The way to improve our politics and prevent this kind of creeping libertine socialism is simply to take measures now to improve the quality of citizenship in the future. That means getting kids more facetime with their parents. That means giving parents time off.
Maternity Leave Isn’t Correlated With Socialism
More practically speaking, we could ask whether the generosity of parental leave has any correlation with socialistic or regulatory economic policies. The answer is a flat and simple “no.” Regressing Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates of the full-time-salary-equivalent-weeks of paid leave against Heritage Foundation’s index of economic freedom for OECD countries produces a correlation coefficient of close to zero: family leave policies explain less than 1 percent of the variation in Heritage’s metric of economic freedom.
Indeed, the country with the most generous maternity leave in the developed world, Estonia (equivalent of 85 weeks with full pay!) is also, according to the Heritage Foundation, the seventh freest economy on earth. In fact, countries with more maternity leave on average have better scores from Heritage on one key metric: tax rates!
The 10 OECD countries with the smallest maternity leave benefits have an average tax score of 71.4, while the 10 OECD countries with the largest maternity leave benefits have an average tax score of 76.3; in this case, higher means lower taxes. In other words, maternity leave around the world is not correlated with high-tax, progressive politics, and when countries implement it, it doesn’t actually lead to some unending cavalcade of Nordic-style welfare-state expansions.
Alternatively, it could just mean a parental wage. Some conservatives may, despite my arguments, see a mandate for employers as a bridge too far. For these conservatives, a preferred alternative might be a universal child cash benefit. Essentially, families could be guaranteed a certain monthly cash payment for every child they have, either for the child’s whole minority, or some portion of it. Many countries in the world do this, including very religious countries like Poland, which recently instituted such a program.
Kids Should Be the Top Social Priority
This policy would give parents an income boost when they have kids. They would then have income security and increased ability to make the high-stakes request for time off from their employers, as, even if they were fired, they have a new source of income helping them in the form of the child benefit.
A direct child benefit has much to say for it: fewer mandates, simpler to administer, more broadly helps all parents instead of just working parents, etc. The only problem with a universal child benefit is that it is wildly expensive, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, maybe even hundreds of billions of dollars, every single year, depending on the size of the benefit. Guaranteed family leave is much cheaper.
I would prefer both family leave and a child benefit, as I believe there is no social relationship more fundamental to the proper ordering of culture and society than the relationship between parent and child. (It is followed by a rightly ordered relationship between husband and wife, and then by the relationship between pastor and communicant.) But doing both would be both expensive and complicated, so I understand political hesitancy.
But doing at least one of them is imperative. Fertility rates in the United States are dropping fast, even as labor force participation is falling for women. We are seeing families increasingly unable to balance work and kids, and thus ultimately underperforming in both areas. Conservatives should seize the lead on family issues, passionately assert the importance of parents spending time with kids, and make the sanctity of the household a first-tier electoral issue. We should make a loud, passionate argument for extensive family and child benefits aimed towards maximizing the time kids have a chance to spend with their parents, and eliminating child poverty.
If we do this, when those kids grow up, they’ll have had more time with parents, more stability in family conditions, and less poverty. They’ll be voters who are more convinced of the importance of the family as the building block of society, more committed to providing for their own economic needs, and more able to do so without government help.
That’s the kind of society I, and I think most of my fellow conservatives, want to build. So in honor of U.S. mothers, fathers, and kids, let’s take the first step there, and push for at least four months of paid parental leave. That would still be well below average in the world at large, but it’s better than nothing.