January 4, 2011

How to Put Kids First

Justin Katz

I'm always happy to see commentators bring first principles to the table, because that's where deep discussion must begin, but I'm not sure the principle of "putting the kids first" (in paraphrase), as Julia Steiny advised in her Sunday column, is helpful in reformulating our approach to civic institutions.

In our current fiscal crisis, we’ve come to the point where our commitment to the institutions — think public pensions and unsustainable labor contracts — are so huge we can hardly afford to bother with the kids.

But, in fact, we could vastly improve our state, local and even federal problems by adopting a laser-like focus on the needs of our country's children. Putting their health and welfare first would, in time, virtually guarantee success in all the areas where we're currently struggling. It's about a point of view. Take the kids' perspective for a moment and see how powerful the solutions look.

Steiny roots her argument in the American prison system, which affects children both in the way the government disciplines children and in the effects of having parents locked up, but any government operation would serve as a fair example. The underlying reality is that a change in perspective to consider the support of children is cultural. Our entire problem is that we've tried to transform our conclusions into practice by creating civic institutions and charging them to put mushy priorities into concrete practice... while giving them the power of police and the power to tax. There simply is no way to prevent the focus from shifting to the institutions with such an approach.

If we really put children first, culturally, we'd need fewer laws, because society in general would be more likely to, for example, encourage stable marriages, shift in ways that would free up parental time to stay home with children (rather than providing subsidies to take care of children apart from their parents), and begin again to express disapproval at unacceptable behavior (that old judgmental stigma thing).

There's a key distinction between using the term "institution" to mean an actual organization with managers and employees and revenue bases and using it to mean a general social construct, like the "institution of marriage." In the former case, the institution is a structure to which we give instructions; in the latter case, the institution is defined by its instructions. In the former case, ensuring the survival of the institution can be entirely disconnected from its ostensible mission; in the latter case, it cannot.