Reviews | How Conservatives Can Love ‘Family’ and ‘The Free Market’

We are currently witnessing a wave of attacks on the freedom of Americans to live as they wish. Conservatives have renewed their war on LGBTQ inclusion and are on the verge of excising the right to abortion from our constitutional order. At the same time, they continued to struggle against public goods and what remains of the welfare state, cutting spending and cutting taxes in states where they have control.

There is a tendency among liberals to treat the conservative social agenda – and the attack on abortion, in particular – as being in tension with the conservative economic agenda and its commitment to the ‘free market’. that is, the domination of capital and the total erosion of the social safety net. But, as sociologist Melinda Cooper has shown, this tension is exaggerated, if it exists at all.

In “Family values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism,” she argues that social-conservative and neoliberal critics of the state – faced with the inflation crisis of 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 the Great Society should be radically curtailed, even if the private institution of the family were to be strengthened as an alternative to welfare,” Cooper writes. . These right-wing critics of the social safety net, along with some liberals and others on the center-left, “looked at a much older tradition of public assistance – one rooted in the tradition of the Poor Law with its attendant notions of family and personal responsibility – as an imaginary alternative to the New Deal welfare state.

The two groups had 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, on the other hand, envisioned “the private paternalism of the family as a spontaneous source of well-being in the free market order”, which had been undermined by “the perverse incentives of redistributive well-being but also restored by the reduction of state paternalism”. “It means, in short, that the family would prosper 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.” For neoliberals to realize their vision of a “naturally balancing 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.

Cooper cites Bill Clinton’s welfare reform as the best example of how this took shape. Under the “Personal Responsibility and Labor Opportunity Reconciliation Act”, states were required to “intensify their efforts to monitor, seek and enforce paternity obligations, on the basis that the biological father of a child on social assistance should be forced to pay child support whether or not a mother wanted to have a relationship with him.

Cooper continues:

And in what should be understood as a blurring of the lines between the free and unfree sexual contract, penalties were to be meted out to mothers who did not cooperate enough to help welfare agencies locate the biological father of their children. . By diverting a substantial portion of the federal welfare budget to the task of extracting child support from fathers, welfare reform served to remind women that an individual man, not the state, was ultimately responsible for their economic security. Unless a woman can take “personal responsibility” for her economic fate, she should accept her condition of economic dependence on an absent father or surrogate husband.

This conservative/neoliberal social focus on the “family” becomes the basis for a further destruction of public goods and the devolution of social responsibilities to individual households. Free (or at least reasonably priced) college tuition becomes state-guaranteed loans that individuals and families are forced to repay. Rather than supporting high wages and full employment, the government would “cut spending, clamp down on wages, and instead let long-term interest rates fall” in order to “generate an abundance of cheap consumer credit.”

Government would back down, the private sector would step in, and the market would take over, with the traditional family – shaped by politics and disciplined by capital – as the foundation of the social and political order.

Cooper, it must be said, sees in this largely the recapitulation of an earlier period in the history of American capitalism. And when she describes that period, it’s even easier to see how her argument relates to the present.

The social upheaval wrought by the rise of industrial capitalism produced a movement of reformers and critics who feared that “the traditional moral fabric of American life was being destroyed by a perfect storm of malign influences”, of “the dispersal of households as young people migrated en masse to industrial centers” to the “interracial mix and the rise of a feminist movement determined to challenge male authority in the household”. These reformers and critics were joined by liberals of the free market that have bound this unruly working class to the growth of public welfare programs and other forms of collective assistance.

They converged on the traditional family as a solution. “While free-market liberals were concerned with upholding the economic obligations of the family,” writes Cooper, “conservatives were convinced that the moral and legal foundations of the family must be strengthened before the economic costs of the breakdown of the marriage can be properly supported.”

Consistent with this view, she notes, “laws governing intimate relationships became considerably stricter in the later decades” of the 19th century. “During this period, most states moved to restrict or prohibit common-law marriages, raise the age of consent, reinstate waiting times for marriage, ban interracial unions, and to criminalize abortion and contraception.”

For these reformers, she continues, “the economic obligations of the family could not be properly enforced without a comprehensive effort to rebuild the family as the very foundation of the social order.”

Then and now, social conservatives and free market liberals had a vested interest in the traditional family as the cornerstone of their preferred political and economic regimes. The traditional family would safeguard gender and status hierarchies and manage the consequences of capitalist inequality.

That is, the imposition of traditional family forms—the reassertion of patriarchal control over women and children, the suppression of alternative gender expression, and the reinstatement of the heterosexual binary—is what underpins the destruction of the welfare state and the erosion of public goods. And the resulting segmentation of labor – with women relegated either to unpaid work at home or to low-paying, low-status jobs in markets – helps capital tighten its grip on society.

Or, as conservative and provocative commentator Ben Shapiro recently declared on Twitter, “Family is the foundation of free markets; it represents a central economic unit against the ravages of a confiscatory state.

That’s, I guess, one way of saying it.

My Friday column was about the ridiculous idea that the Supreme Court has all legitimacy to lose.

It matters whether a president has democratic legitimacy. Not Donald Trump. But rather than act in that spirit, he used his power to pursue the interests of a narrow ideological faction, leaving its representatives free to shape the Supreme Court as they saw fit. The court is therefore tainted with the same democratic illegitimacy that marked Trump and his administration.

Rebecca Treater on the post-Roe world for New York magazine.

Peggy Cooper Davis on slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment and abortion in the Washington Post.

Meaghan Winter on the fight for abortion rights in Dissent magazine.

Liza Batkin on Samuel Alito’s draft opinion quashing Roe v. Wade in The New York Review of Books.

Miles Mogulescu at the end of the right to privacy in The American Prospect.

A few of the flowers in our garden bloomed and I dutifully went out to take some pictures with my macro lens. It had rained overnight and I tried to focus on how the raindrops were resting on the petal. I think the photo turned out pretty well.

An easy-to-serve weeknight dinner with good bread, a sprinkle of feta cheese and a crunchy salad. The recipe comes from Kitchen NYT.


  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

  • 1 sprig of rosemary

  • 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds

  • ½ teaspoon dried chili flakes

  • 1 bunch broccoli rabe (about 1 pound), woody stems trimmed

  • 1 can (15 ounces) chickpeas, drained and rinsed

  • Kosher salt and black pepper

  • Crusty bread, for serving


Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a large ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, combine the oil, garlic, rosemary, fennel seeds and chili flakes. Cook until mixture is fragrant and garlic is golden, 3 to 5 minutes.

Turn off the heat, then add the broccoli rabe and stir until coated in oil. Scatter the chickpeas around the broccoli rabe and toss to coat them well with the oil. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Cover with a lid or foil and bake for about 40 minutes, until the chickpeas are tender and crispy in spots and the broccoli rabe is tender but the stalks are not mushy.

Let cool slightly. Before serving, remove the rosemary and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with crusty bread to mop up the seasoned oil.

Leave a Comment