Fascinating article  today in the Telegraph by Tim Montgomerie, who edits a UK blog called ConservativeHome.com.
Montgomerie addresses a central argument taking place in the UK Conservative Party, between those who are committed to the David Cameron agenda of supporting marriage, and those believe that Government has no business involving itself in people’s private lives.
Conservatives, Montgomerie points out, believe that the State should be smaller, and that individuals should be less dependent on it. This would tend to support the laissez faire view that the Government should stay out of the family, on the surface.
But as Montgomerie points out: “It’s very hard to have a small state when the bonds of our society are weakening.”
He demonstrates this point by citing empirical evidence. According to the Tory Party’s Centre for Social Justice, family breakdown costs the UK Exchequer about £24 billion a year. Failing students cost the Government £18 billion. Reoffending by prisoners, £11 billion. Drug and alcohol abuse is costing taxpayers £39 billion.
The Centre for Policy Studies, Montgomerie continues “has calculated that an average family will cost the taxpayer £10,000 more each year if it splits up, owing to a reduced offering in tax and a greater need for welfare benefits”. Meanwhile, reconvicting a repeat offender takes an average of £24,000. Annual incarceration adds about £35,000. Drug treatment puts £2,000 per annum more on top of that.
“Many estimates suggest that the price of our broken society is close to £150 billion,” he writes. (One wonders what family breakdown and the related social problems cost the Irish Exchequer?)
Montgomerie also acknowledges that the Reagan/Thatcher era in politics, while it might have “saved the economy” failed to “save society”. Rates of crime, drug use and martial breakdown continued to rise inexorably.
A number of US writers, such as David Frum, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salem, have also made this point in an American context. They argue that middle class families are coming under increasing economic and social pressure, to some extent brought on by the economic reforms of the Thatcher/Reagan era, and that government needs to step in and provide some assistance.
Montgomerie continues that a small state requires the building up of “the family, the local school and all voluntary organisations”. Where any of these is weak, the State steps in to fill the void, aggregating power to itself as it does this.
The piece ends with him quoting former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith to the effect that the next Conservative government should be judged “according to their success at helping parents to stay together and to spend more time with their children”. That might be problematic politically, given how difficult it will be to reverse trends that have been in train since the 1960s. But it is a worthy policy objective. One hopes that it will be pursued.