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How Conservatives Can Love ‘the Family’ and ‘the Free Market’

It is easier to reconcile than you might think.

We are witnessing, right now, a flurry of attacks on the freedom of Americans to live as they choose. Conservatives have renewed their war against L.G.B.T.Q. inclusion and are poised to excise the right to have an abortion from our constitutional order. At the same time, they have continued to fight against public goods and what’s left of the welfare state, slashing spending and cutting taxes in states where they have control.

There’s a tendency among liberals to treat the conservative social agenda — and the attack on abortion, specifically — as being in tension with the conservative economic agenda and its commitment to the “free market,” meaning the domination of capital and the total erosion of the social safety net. But, as the sociologist Melinda Cooper has shown, that tension is exaggerated, if it even exists.

In “Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism,” she argues that social conservative and neoliberal critics of the state — facing the crisis of inflation in the 1970s — called for a profound reform of the welfare system. “It was now agreed that the redistributive welfare programs of the New Deal and Great Society would need to be radically restricted, even while the private institution of the family was to be strengthened as an alternative to social welfare,” Cooper writes. These right-wing critics of the social safety net, along with some liberals and others on the center-left, “looked back to a much older tradition of public relief — one embedded in the poor-law tradition with its attendant notions of family and personal responsibility — as an imagined alternative to the New Deal welfare state.”

The two groups held very different assumptions about the role of the state vis-à-vis the family. Social conservatives, says Cooper, saw “the primary function of the state as that of sustaining the family, the foundation of all social order, if necessary through the use of force.” Neoliberals, by contrast, envisaged “the private paternalism of the family as a spontaneous source of welfare in the free-market order,” which had been undermined by the “perverse of incentives of redistributive welfare but also restored through the diminution of state paternalism.” Meaning, in short, that the family would thrive as long as perverse government incentives could be kept at bay.

Despite this seemingly fundamental difference, Cooper writes, “neoliberals have in practice relied on the much more overt forms of behavioral correction favored by social conservatives.” In order for neoliberals to realize their vision of a “naturally equilibrating free-market order and a spontaneously self-sufficient family,” they must delegate power to social conservatives who then use the state to impose traditional family forms.