Rick Santorum Would Do Less to Strengthen Families Than Ron Paul

Social conservatives are most attune to their importance. But libertarians seek to reverse the policy that harms them most. santorumyellow.banner.getty.jpg 
In a recent Rick Santorum appearance on Hugh Hewitt's radio show, the former Pennsylvania senator talked about the importance of addressing family breakdown in America's lower classes. "Chuck Colson told me when he left prison 30 years ago there were 250,000 people in prison. There's now 2.5 million, and 70 to 80 percent of them grew up without a father in the home," Santorum said. "I mean, there are real world consequences to the actions that people take. And of course, you have politicians who stay away from that. Well, you can't talk about that. The problem is, if you don't talk about it, and if we don't come to grips with the fact that the breakdown of the family and of the culture is going to have a huge impact on our ability to be prosperous."

These comments were aimed not only at the left, but also at the right's libertarian wing. "The idea of just talking about cutting taxes and reducing regulation and everything is going to be fine ignores the fundamental issue that families are a key component of a stable and healthy society," Santorum said. "Unless we have a candidate that's willing to talk about those things and promote that type of healthy family structure, we're talking past some of the biggest problems that confront the country." It's a critique you might hear, footnoted with more sophisticated examples, from smart reform conservatives like Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru and David Frum.

It is therefore striking that libertarians, who are in fact uninclined to talk about family breakdown, seek to overturn a policy that does more damage to American families than any other. 

Santorum laments the staggering number of incarcerated Americans without noting that government is a major cause of their being locked up. Neither absent fathers nor declining traditional values caused legislators to impose mandatory minimum laws on nonviolent drug crimes. But increasingly harsh penalties passed in a failed effort to win the War on Drugs has led to hundreds of thousands of men being imprisoned, left countless kids with absent fathers, and depleted the supply of marriageable men in neighborhoods where family breakdown is most dire.  

As Bruce Western puts it in The Nation:

In neighborhoods of mass unemployment, family breakdown and untreated addiction, punitive drug policy (and its sibling, the war on crime) has outlawed large tracts of everyday life. By 2008 one in nine black men younger than 35 was in prison or jail. Among black male dropouts in their mid-30s, an astonishing 60 percent have served time in state or federal prison.

The reach of the penal system extends beyond the prison population to families and communities. There are now 2.7 million children with a parent in prison or jail. There are 1.2 million African-American children with incarcerated parents (one in nine), and more than half of those parents were convicted of a drug or other nonviolent offense.

Libertarians are sometimes mocked for talking as if government is the root of all our problems, and offering little in the way of policy-making save a desire to shrink it. Were the War on Drugs ended, it's true problems like addiction wouldn't just go away. It is nevertheless the case that excessive government regulation of drugs, in the form of our draconian regime of prohibition and imprisonment, has failed to stem addiction even as it destroyed lower income neighborhoods and families.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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