The GOP’s occasional embrace of social engineering


As proposals from Republicans in state legislatures go, the “Healthy Marriage Act” in North Carolina stands out as especially interesting, especially in a culture-war context (via Tom Kludt).

A pair of Republican lawmakers want to make it harder to get a divorce in North Carolina by making estranged couples wait longer and go to counseling.

The Healthy Marriage Act would extend to two years the current one-year waiting period in order for a divorce to be finalized. During that time, the couple would have to complete courses on improving their communications skills and conflict resolution.

If the couple has children, they would have to take at least a four-hour class on the impact of divorce on children.

At a certain level, there’s at least some intellectual consistency to efforts like these. For all the Republican rhetoric about “protecting” the institution of marriage, it stands to reason that such policymakers should worry a little less about same-sex couples who want to make a life-long commitment to one another, and worry a little more about opposite-sex couples who want to stop making a life-long commitment to one another.

But let’s also go ahead and call this what it is: using the power of government to engage in social engineering. That’s not applying a value judgment, per se, so much as it’s recognition of a phenomenon the right is often reluctant to admit.

Rick Santorum believes the tax code should be used to encourage Americans to have more children. Sam Brownback has endorsed taxpayer grants for counseling that encourages unwed parents to marry. The proposed “Healthy Marriage Act” in North Carolina seeks regulate divorce.

The merit of the various policy ideas certainly matters, but for much of the 1990s, Republicans decried “social engineering” as outrageous.

Americans must be a free people, the argument went, free to make their own decisions – using the power of the state to encourage folks to engage in certain behaviors favored by politicians, as part of a larger societal agenda, was deemed ridiculous. If the values of “limited” government mean anything, they mean rejecting the notion of using levers of governmental power to alter how people can and will behave.

But under the big-government conservatism, we’re occasionally reminded that much of the right likes “social engineering” more than they let on.