During his first State of the Union address, President Trump explicitly called for a policy of paid family leave. This proposal was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation from many in attendance, including applause from Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
It is an odd thing to witness: the leaders of the nominally conservative party of the United States cheering for one of the principal hallmarks of European big-government statism. How we got to this rather sad state of affairs is a matter of some debate. But conservatives should not be fooled: as a government policy, paid family leave is a terrible idea.
It is terrible for two reasons, one of them philosophical and the other political.
Philosophically, it is not the government’s responsibility to pay (or force employers to pay) people for having children. In a great many European countries it is reflexively assumed that the government will pay for or subsidize more or less every major event and decision in your life — education, medical care, maternity leave, childcare — but the political culture of the United States has managed, in varying degrees and with varying success, to avoid this impulse. Our conservative political party, if nobody else, should be avoiding this impulse, not encouraging it.
To the political problem: It is virtually guaranteed that any paid family leave policy implemented by the federal government would quickly grow beyond its original intent and become overlarge and over-expensive. The history of federal government programs is clear on this.
In the Wall Street Journal last week, Kristin Shapiro and Andrew Biggs presented a thoughtful argument in favor of government family leave that, on its face, should be appealing to conservatives: Rather than create a new entitlement, the writers proposed that the government could “offer new parents the opportunity to collect early Social Security benefits for a period — say, 12 weeks — after the arrival of their child. To offset the cost, parents would agree to delay collecting Social Security retirement benefits, probably for only about six weeks.”
This seems, at first blush, to be a good idea. But does anyone honestly believe that such a program would stay within these parameters? Federal programs and departments virtually never work that way. Medicaid, for example, was originally meant to cover only a narrow subset of low-income and indigent Americans; it has expanded to cover nearly 20 percent of the country, and it costs far more than its architects originally predicted. Medicare, too, has grown more expensive than anyone dared imagine, and has tacked on new programs and benefits like Part D; the proposed “Medicare-for-all” universal healthcare policy is now a regular part of our political discourse.
Even less-visible departments have expanded far past their original purpose: the USDA, originally established by President Abraham Lincoln to “diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture,” has now grown (with a multibillion-dollar budget) to encompass initiatives like the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, an undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and countless other programs only tangentially connected to its original purpose.
This is what government does: Whenever you propose to spend money on some new type of program or service, it virtually never goes away, and it is all-but-guaranteed to grow larger and ever-more bloated.
A government-funded paid family leave policy would almost certainly function in the same way. Apart from being bad political philosophy, it’s just bad policy in general: There is really no way it would stay small and contained for very long, if it even were small to begin with.
Conservatives who are generally mistrustful of government programs should be mistrustful of any proposal to nationalize family leave. It is simply more of the same.
Daniel Payne is a writer based in Virginia. He is an assistant editor for the College Fix, the news magazine of the Student Free Press Association. He blogs at Trial of the Century.
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