Former president and conservative icon Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) famously said about conservatism and libertarianism in 1975,
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals — if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.
When conservative politicians try to get libertarians and “libertarian-leaning” Republicans to vote for them, they tout the supposed affinity between conservatism and libertarianism. Conservatives will even use libertarian rhetoric to portray themselves as advocates of libertarian principles. But their mantra of the Constitution, private property, the free market, individual liberty, and limited government is just that — a mantra with no basis in reality.
The current issue of family leave is one of many issues that can be used to illustrate the differences between conservatives and libertarians.
Some conservatives forthrightly support not only the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) — which requires that companies with fifty or more employees allow their employees to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid family leave — but also paid, government-mandated family leave.
The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, joined with the left-leaning Brookings Institution to form the AEI-Brookings Working Group on Paid Family Leave in 2016. They jointly issued a report a year later titled “Paid Family and Medical Leave: An Issue Whose Time Has Come.” The diverse members of the group were all united in the belief that “the United States needs a paid parental leave policy.”
Republican senators Mike Lee and Joni Ernst recently introduced the Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment Act (the CRADLE Act) to enable new parents to access their Social Security benefits to help them take paid time off from work following the birth or adoption of a child. The CRADLE Act would
allow both natural and adoptive parents to receive one, two, or three months of paid leave benefits by giving them the option to delay activating their Social Security benefits for two, four or six months. Expectant parents would simply fill out a form to notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) of their intention to take paid leave before an expected birth or adoption. Then, after the birth or adoption, the SSA would begin payments two weeks after parents applied for their baby’s social security number.
To be eligible, “parents must meet certain work requirements.” Benefit levels “would be determined by using the same formula used for determining Social Security Disability benefits.” However, “the formula is progressive, meaning that monthly benefits would be more generous to those least likely to have the luxury of an employer-sponsored benefit.”
Said Senator Lee (one of the most conservative members of the Senate),
Families are the bedrock of our society. If young people can’t afford to marry and start a family then the American dream literally has no future. We need to make sure our existing social insurance programs are doing all they can to work for working families. The CRADLE Act will give working families the flexibility they need to make sure Social Security is working for them.
Conservatives should support the CRADLE Act, says an article in National Review, because it “simply reforms an existing entitlement program” and modernizes “the safety net.” It “isn’t a step away from the conservative principles of limited government and economic liberty, but a way to make good on those ideals by making government better, rather than bigger.”
Another article in National Review in defense of the CRADLE Act argues that conservatives “should cheer budget-neutral policies that give new parents the flexibility they deserve.” The author laments that “the United States is the only country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — an intergovernmental economic alliance of 36 member countries — that doesn’t have a national paid-leave program.” The CRADLE Act “is an effort not to expand the government but to protect and cultivate family life, which ought to be the chief goal of any country that cares about its future.” Conservatives should “embrace efforts to incentivize family growth and offer parents more flexibility in caring for their newborns.” After all, “The Republican politicians offering these paid-family-leave bills in recent years are also some of the most conservative policymakers in the Senate.”
Other conservatives say that America can’t afford paid family leave. A recent article in the Daily Caller points out that “even organizations that advocate for government-mandated (and taxpayer-financed) paid family leave programs do not prioritize paying for these benefits for their own employees — and that’s because such programs as they currently exist simply cost too much.” The article’s authors maintain that “rather than imposing such an expensive, one-size-fits-all program on everyone, politicians should learn whether Americans truly want a program — enough to pay the price.” They suggest that “the most effective way to do that is to put the option on income tax forms, along with an amount required for each person’s share of paying for the program.” As they go on to explain,
People would pay directly in exchange for benefits, just as they currently pay for babysitting services or daycare. That’s the only way to determine if the American people truly want family leave, as opposed to seeking a new government entitlement program. And that option would also ensure that only those who want the program will pay, while those who get no benefit from the program will pay no increased tax.
The authors conclude that “politicians should be honest about the inability of America’s swollen, deficit-ridden budgets to sustain the types of paid leave programs being proposed.”
Although some conservatives would hesitate to call Donald Trump a true conservative, he has expressed his support for a proposal “to provide six weeks of paid family leave through the Unemployment Insurance system to new mothers and fathers, including adoptive parents, so all families can afford to take time to recover from childbirth and bond with a new child.”
Although they may disagree among themselves regarding the nature of a conservative family leave policy, conservatives have no philosophical objection to government-mandated or government-provided, paid family leave.
Contrast the conflicting views of conservatism with the consistent position of libertarianism.
It doesn’t matter what the cost of paid family leave is, who recommends it, how beneficial it is to parents, how badly anyone “needs” it, whether businesses can afford it, how many Americans want it, whether participation in it is voluntary, whether young people can’t afford to start a family without it, or how many other countries mandate that employers provide it.
It doesn’t matter whether government-mandated paid family leave will lead to the government’s mandating that employers provide their employees with other fringe benefits (although it certainly will).
It doesn’t matter whether a government-provided paid family leave program will expand in size, scope, and cost (although it certainly will).
It is simply an unconstitutional and illegitimate function of government to have anything to do with family leave, fringe benefits, or employer-employee relations. There should be no government-mandated or government-provided family leave, any more than there should be any other government-mandated or government-provided fringe benefits. The government should never under any circumstances dictate the type and nature of fringe benefits that employers provide their employees. Questions of family leave, vacation pay, holiday pay, sick leave, jury-duty pay, paid time off, and any other fringe benefit are strictly matters between employers and employees.
Government entitlement programs don’t need to be reorganized, reformed, modernized, or made better, more efficient, or more family friendly. And they certainly don’t need to be expanded.
The issue of family leave shows that there is a huge chasm between conservatism and libertarianism. Conservatism is conservatism, and libertarianism is libertarianism, and never the twain shall meet.