Community is not a Liberal Word

By: on November 27, 2009 |


It has been said that all it takes to create a believer in big government is one broken family. Little wonder then, with broken families all around us, that government in Canada sits at a very hefty 42 per cent of GDP.[1]

Intact families — says Statistics Canada — are on the decline.[2] The fastest growing family form — cohabitation — is an unstable one.[3] Unstable families break up more readily — and broken families use government services disproportionately, resulting in a greater government cost.[4] Apart from financial, there are emotional costs and the cost of broken communities, which government then steps in to try to replicate. Both are bad if freedom and independence from government are the goals.

Social conservatives step in to insist that strong families matter because they create community where government can’t — true community, not the artificial, top-down, government-funded variety. Too often, the emphasis that social conservatives place on things such as marriage or family is misconstrued as an effort to “legislate morality.” However, what it really means is this: Social conservatives are aware that without strong families positioned within strong communities, the size of the state will remain bloated and unwieldy, and the costs associated with broken families will continue to grow.

Community is a nebulous concept — one associated today with government funding only because conservatives have ceded this important ground almost entirely to the left. True community does not involve a grant from your favourite government agency. Don Eberly, author of The Rise of Global Civil Society, states that “the real essence of community is organic and intangible, built on bonds of trust, shared values and mutual obligation.”[5] In effect, community is like a larger form of family, one that also protects families through alternative, non-governmental support avenues.

Classical liberals could not foresee a stage in societal development when parents would put their children in government-funded centres instead of caring for them, or when men and women would walk away from their marriages en masse in search of enhanced personal fulfillment. “Classical liberalism,” writes U.S. economist Jennifer Roback Morse, “paid little attention to familial relationships because these relationships were taken for granted, both by classical liberals and their opponents.”[6]

Instead, the primacy of strong families was assumed. Roback Morse further argues that family was so important that invoking the family acted as the sort of “trump argument” — one with which no one would disagree. She tells this story in support of her case. When Sir Robert Filmer, the author of Patriarchy, attempted to defend the divine right of kings over the individual, he argued that the king was like a father to the people. In responding, John Locke accepted the notion that fathers were powerful heads of their family, but he devoted considerable time to explaining just why a king was not like a father.[7] In short, conservatives have taken community for granted.

Yet all humans share a need to band together and rally around similar ideals, values and aspirations. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, said that citizens “become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another.”[8] He added that through this process, “[f]eelings and opinions are recruited, the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed only by the reciprocal influence of men upon one another.”[9]

This idea of serving something bigger than our individual selves has been lost in our society. Certainly, some social conservatives misrepresent the position of why they support strong families. Some refer too often to a faith dimension, which turns off many in Canada's post-Christian culture. Nonetheless, the main point remains that parents are stuck raising their children in isolation, feeling trapped in suburban homes. The elderly often live in lonely isolation, wondering what the point of continued existence is. In allowing government to take over so much of what families formerly did, be it in healthcare, daycare, pensions or other benefits, we have lost that sense our forefathers had of doing it for ourselves, which, in turn, meant doing things for others. Government cannot replace community, which may be why even as vast sums of money are spent on “community creating” programs, we still fail to experience community around us.

Communities are made up of strong families, and the reverse is not true. A community cannot create a strong family. To suggest this would be to downplay the importance of individual freedom. This is where the dance between individual freedom and community comes into play.

Individual freedom is the starting point for strong communities. “[Individualism] must be defended by every proponent of the free society as our most important social principle, for it constitutes a link in the ethical chain that makes our type of society possible,” writes William Gairdner in The War against the Family.[10] Gairdner highlights the link between individual freedom and community, and he rightly asserts that individualism and collectivism “are mortal enemies.” He goes on to distinguish between a grassroots movement toward true community — community that starts with families and flourishes without intervention from the state — and “communalism,” which is a fraud, a sort of attempt at community pushed from the top down. Freedom, Gairdner argues, leads to individualism, which leads to co-operation and community, which is the ideal of all human societies.[11]

Gairdner’s description illustrates how strong families make up strong communities. The vast majority of people strive for what is best for their spouse and their children. Obviously, there are exceptions, but overall, social science research concludes that children do best when raised by their married, biological parents.[12] This creates the building block for strong communities, which are more resilient to government interference.

In spite of this, it is not hard to see why strong individualism is the trend today among conservatives and even among many on the left. An emphasis on the wrong kind of community can indeed lead to statism and coercion. Still today in Canada, it is fair to argue that the pendulum has swung too far — we are all for independence and individuality, with little notion of the benefits of living in family and community. In a ferocious cycle, deteriorating families destabilize communities, allowing government intrusion to grow.

Yet government intrusion into the natural state of family is also, in part, to blame for weaker families. Certain regulations have hurt family stability — and hurt the cause of smaller government. One concrete example is the introduction of no-fault divorce in 1968. With divorce made easy, Canadians did indeed choose to divorce in vast numbers, which caused a fivefold increase in the divorce rate. Certainly, some divorces were and are absolutely necessary—and this will always be the case. But where divorce is an easy option, it can become a first option unnecessarily, in particular where the couple involved is not fully aware of some of the possible fallout. Divorces result in single parents who are strapped for both time and money — less time to do things such as sit on the local parent-teacher board and less money to spend on necessities, never mind treats. Whereas fewer than 10 per cent of two-parent families are low income, more than 30 per cent of female, single parents are.[13] There is a link between family structure and poverty in all OECD countries.

So is it an oxymoron to say that social conservatives want smaller government, but then say that government still has a role to play in regulating family affairs? Not when we can no longer assume the primacy of strong families as the classical liberals of yesteryear could. What is a legitimate role for government? Ideally, the government’s role should be restricted to policy, not the provision of programs. Government can recognize and should support family forms that have more-positive outcomes. For example, the research on familial outcomes of children of married parents versus cohabiting parents is near unanimous. Children do best when raised by their married, biological parents. Therefore, why not offer these families a tax credit that is not available to cohabiting parents?

Similarly, single-income families that have the same income as dual-income families pay higher rates of income tax, limiting the family’s ability to choose how to spend their money. For this reason, we have advocated that the federal government move to a form of family-income splitting, thus taxing the family unit, not the individuals themselves, thereby recognizing strong families and further strengthening them, too.[14]

We cannot consider the implications of fiscal or social policy in isolation from each other. When government makes fiscal policy changes, there will be an effect on social outcomes and vice versa. We must ensure that we take every effort to analyze and grasp the often long-term outcomes that these policy changes will have across society. We must ask ourselves if these outcomes work toward strengthening families and, in turn, communities.

Most social conservatives would like to have smaller government – at all levels – thus reducing the personal impact on them and their families. Many government programs that are intended to “assist” families ultimately limit choice and penalize those parents who do not want to be a part of the program. For example, a universal daycare program is paid for by everyone’s taxes, whether or not we want to be a part of it. This increased tax levy limits our personal ability to make alternative choices.

Conservatives cannot continue to abandon the concept of community to the left whether that be in rhetoric or practice — that is how ideas such as national daycare get off the ground. If fiscal conservatives are serious about fiscal responsibility, efficiency and smaller government, they must acknowledge the role of private communities, which spring up around strong families. It is in the microcosm of the family that we first learn how to be free and how to live in community. And when the time comes that we need to lean on someone, as it always does, we then understand it should be those closest to us: our families and communities.


[1] Milke, M. (2006) A Nation of Serfs. Mississauga: John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd. p. 223.

[2] 2006 Census: Family Portrait, Statistics Canada. Cohabitation rates are on the rise as marriage rates decline.

[3] A body of social science research shows that cohabitation is less stable. For more information, see W. Bradford Wilcox, et al. (2005). Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty-six Conclusions from the Social Sciences. New York: Institute for American Values. Other authors for reference include Andrew Cherlin, Maggie Gallagher, Linda Waite and Paul Amato.

[4] Walberg, R., Mrozek, A. (June 2009). Private Choices, Public Costs: How Failing Families Cost Us All. Ottawa: Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

[5] Eberly, D. (2008). The Rise of Global Civil Society – Building Communities and Nations from the Bottom Up. New York: Encounter Books, p. 30.

[6] Roback Morse, J. (2001). Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-faire Family Doesn’t Work. Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, p. 58.

[7] Ibid.

[8] de Tocqueville, A. (1835). Democracy in America. Retrieved online November 5, 2009, through the University of Virginia, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/colophon.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gairdner, W. (1992). The War against the Family. Toronto: Stoddart, p. 22.

[11] Gairdner, p. 24-25.

[12] There is much empirical data to suggest marriage is critical for children. For further details on how marriage helps children on different outcome scales, try Waite, L. and Gallagher, M. (2000). The Case for Marriage. New York: Doubleday; W.Bradford Wilcox, et al. (2005). Why Marriage Matters. Twenty-six conclusions from the social sciences, 2nd Edition. New York: Institute for American Values.

For further details on how marriage helps avoid poverty, try Hymowitz, K. (2006). Marriage and Caste in America. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee; Duncan Smith, I. (Chairman). (2006, December). Breakdown Britain. Social Justice Policy Group, London: The Centre for Social Justice.

[13] Walberg, Mrozek, Private Choices, Public Costs: How Failing Families Cost Us All.

[14] Mintz, J. (Spring/Summer 2008). “Taxing Families: Does the System Need an Overhaul?” Ottawa: Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. Retrieved November 5, 2009, from http://www.imfcanada.org/default.aspx?go=article&aid=1001&tid=8.

About Dave Quist

Dave Quist is Executive Director at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

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