Podcast: Andy Smarick on What the Government Can and Can’t Do to Help American Families

There’s been a flurry of new ideas to help American families. This week’s podcast guest explores the problem they’re trying to solve, and whether any of them can actually work.

Two babies at the annual twin festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, on August 3, 1997. Photo by Georges De Keerle via Getty Images.

Two babies at the annual twin festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, on August 3, 1997. Photo by Georges De Keerle via Getty Images.

March 24 2022
About the authors
Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where his work focuses on education, civil society, and the principles of American conservatism.

A weekly podcast, produced in partnership with the Tikvah Fund, offering up the best thinking on Jewish thought and culture.

This Week’s Guest: Andy Smarick


In recent years, family policy—what the government can do to strengthen the formation of American families—has come to occupy the minds of many political and cultural figures. That’s a good thing, since the family is the first and most important human institution, and children who are born into healthy families generally turn out far better than those who aren’t. It makes sense, then, that the government should try to help families flourish, or at least make sure it doesn’t make it harder for them to do so.

This week, the policy researcher Andy Smarick joins the podcast to explain what’s behind the many new proposals to help the American family, drawing on a recent essay he published in Mosaic. In conversation with Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver, he explains that few of the ideas being discussed in Washington lately have actually bolstered families in other countries that have tried them, and that the left and the right have different conceptions of what the family actually is and what it’s for, which makes coming up with policy ideas they can agree upon very difficult.

Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.



Excerpt (20:03-22:22):


We have a reason why the government has leaders and they should advance the common good. I seldom if ever would end a discussion by saying the federal government should be limited just because it shouldn’t put its thumb on the scale, or shouldn’t have a view; however, it is a huge leap to then say now that we agree that the federal government shouldn’t be limited, that the federal government should send checks to everybody every month if they have kids. My view is that the federal government and state governments have an important part to play in society, but it is a limited role. 

We see this in the Constitution—there’s a reason why the federal government has enumerated powers; there’s a reason why there’s a Tenth Amendment that explicitly says that power not given to the federal government is reserved for the states and the people; there’s a reason why we have in America what’s called the Tocquevillian tradition, of civil society, non-profit organizations, voluntary associations helping people; there’s a reason why we have a tradition of localism, of states deferring power to lower levels of government; there’s a reason why families have certain duties. We have learned through experience, not just through reason, that if you bifurcate society into individuals and the state, and get rid of everything in between, a whole host of awful things happen. You and I could have a podcast sometime talking about socialist revolutions, the French Revolution, why it’s dangerous for the state to take on our responsibilities and just have relationships one-on-one with individuals. 

My view is that the best thing the federal government can do is to do the things it needs to do as well as possible, but also while respecting the sovereignty of states, localities, non-profits, churches, families. Then the way that I think about policy is how can policy be used by the federal government not just to solve problems, because I don’t want a statist, authoritarian federal government, but how can the federal government use federal policy to empower others to solve our problems. That requires us to think about how Uncle Sam can help states or help localities or help non-profits, and that’s quite different from some of this New Right thinking, which is that we need a muscular Uncle Sam that just has the will to spend a bunch of money and solve our problems for us. I think history tells us that when a central government tries to solve problems, it doesn’t.

More about: American family, Family policy, safety net, Welfare