How to Repair Our Society
“For conservatives, a society is ultimately and above all an intergenerational compact — a kind of sacred trust across time — for the protection of fundamental natural rights and the advancement of essential human goods.”
—Yuval Levin, introduction to the 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity
WHEN THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE says that we are all created free and have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it means that government may not impose one religion, lifestyle, or way of thinking on us. The Constitution confirms that government does not have the authority to dictate to us about these matters of conscience.
Therefore, when the federal government dictates that religious charities, schools, or businesses must provide health insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives, it oversteps this boundary.
When Congress directs our tax dollars to organizations accused of treating the body parts of aborted children like commodities for sale, it cheapens the right to life of all Americans.
When the Supreme Court mandates that all states must recognize same-sex marriage, it oversteps its bounds and takes this determination out of the hands of the people.
When bureaucrats fine and punish Americans for not participating in marriage ceremonies they cannot celebrate according to their faith, they anoint themselves priests of a government religion.
Caesar, discontent with what was owed to him, has demanded God’s share as well. But it has always fallen to the American people—even in spite of their government—to exercise charity and foster fellowship: to work, pray, and live honestly. It is the people who must take responsibility for the exercise of virtue, informed by their convictions. Government can help or hinder in this regard.
We are fast approaching a time when our leaders must recognize that the people are the final arbiters of a virtuous culture, and that it is not the government’s job to hinder them. These are the actions President Trump and Congress must take to build a society that honors freedom of religion and recognizes each American’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Protect Every Human Life
Liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and our protections under the Constitution have little meaning if they are not preceded by a right to live and enjoy them.
Since Roe v. Wade imposed abortion on demand on all 50 states, that first precious right has been denied to the most helpless of our fellow citizens—and to every future generation. Ultimately, the damage that Roe v. Wade has done to our society and constitutional order must be repaired by a Supreme Court that overturns that misguided decision and by laws that recognize the right to life of every person.
President Trump can take important steps to eliminate cruelty in the treatment of the unborn and set about correcting the greatest human rights violation of our time.
On day one of a conservative administration, the president can take immediate action by prohibiting government funding of organizations that perform or promote abortions abroad by reinstating the Mexico City Policy, first instituted by Ronald Reagan in 1984. This pro-life policy has been an early executive order of every conservative administration since Ronald Reagan’s—just as it has been rescinded by each liberal one. It can and should be made a permanent law by Congress.
Research shows that an unborn child experiences pain at five months, and that fact makes a strong case for banning late-term abortions. Such a policy would be consistent with the views of a growing number of Americans.
Further, Congress must finally withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood and redirect it to other health centers that are not entangled in the abortion industry and its callous treatment of the body parts of aborted children. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund an organization that is embroiled in these controversial activities.
Abortion advocates must confront scientific advances that reveal the horrific reality of abortion. Research shows that an unborn child experiences pain at five months, and that fact makes a strong case for banning late-term abortions. Such a policy would be consistent with the views of a growing number of Americans, as noted in The Heritage Foundation’s Solutions 2016:
Two-thirds of Americans oppose late-term abortion, including 60 percent of women who generally oppose abortion after 20 weeks, when a child can feel pain and a mother is at increased risk of abortion’s harms.
Ensuring that every woman and child has access to quality health care will require close cooperation between President Trump and Congress, motivated by a clear intention to allow more Americans to live, grow, and reach their human potential.
Preserve Religious Freedom for All Americans
How each of us fulfills our human potential is for us not the government to decide. At best, our laws preserve a free public square within which Americans may work and worship freely, answering this challenge in their own lives, guided by reason and their chosen faith. This is why the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Today, however, our government presumes to dictate which religious beliefs belong in the public square. It provides that people of faith will not be able to buy, sell, or volunteer according to their deeply held convictions, except those that bear the mark of political approval. This coercion has taken two avenues.
Even before the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage, state governments across the country began to prosecute small-business owners—such as cake bakers—who, for religious reasons, declined to use their creative talents to facilitate same-sex wedding celebrations. In Illinois, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C., faith-based adoption and foster care organizations have been forced to cease their charitable activities because they believe that children deserve both a mother and a father.
Additionally, a mandate from the federal Department of Health and Human Services forces religious institutions like schools and charities to offer insurance coverage of contraceptive and abortifacient drugs, even when doing so violates the religious convictions of these groups. Legal challenges to these mandates are still playing out even after the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v Hobby Lobby made clear that the mandate could not apply to family businesses that seek to exercise their faith in the workplace. The government continues to defend the mandate in court despite the fact that one out of three Americans is already exempt from it.
With the cooperation of Congress, a new administration can quickly rectify these offenses and prevent future ones. While state-by-state legislative battles to protect the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment are continuing, Congress can ensure that the federal government does not discriminate against the millions of Americans who believe that marriage is only the union of a man and a woman. Passing the First Amendment Defense Act would forbid the federal government from discriminating in tax policy, grants, contracts, licensing, and accreditation against individuals or groups simply because of their beliefs about marriage.
President Trump can immediately direct the new Secretary of Health and Human Services to rescind the contraceptive mandate and drop any pending legal action against Americans who have refused to violate their consciences by complying with it. The dangerous power wielded by the HHS Secretary and the executive branch must ultimately be eliminated by Congress in a full repeal of Obamacare.
Heal Our Broken Health Care System
Achieving a strong society with easy access to affordable, reliable care is in the common interest of all Americans. This is precisely why the government must be kept out of it.
The Constitution intentionally limits federal involvement in the economy. Every burdensome regulatory regime increases costs and makes innovation more difficult for entrepreneurs. The health care sector is no different.
Unfortunately, just as the federal government has been prone to interfere in other economic arenas previously reserved to the states and their citizens, Obamacare presumes to tax, charge, and fine Americans into compliance with a one-size-fits-all government plan for their health coverage. And just as top-down government planning has proven to be disastrous in everything from energy to education, many Americans are feeling Obamacare’s bitter fruits. Solutions 2016 outlines the problem this way:
Costly insurance mandates and regulations are driving up the cost of coverage both inside and outside the government-run exchanges while the level of choice and competition within the government-run exchanges is worse than before Obamacare. Moreover, the government’s increased role in the delivery of care through rules, regulations, and red tape further frustrates health care providers, undermines the doctor–patient relationship, and tramples on personal and religious freedoms.
Costly insurance mandates and regulations are driving up the cost of coverage both inside and outside the government-run exchanges while the level of choice and competition within the government-run exchanges is worse than before Obamacare.
Therefore, a new administration that places the well-being of the American people above that of central planning will look for ways to leave health care dollars and decisions in the hands of the people.
Obamacare must be repealed in its entirety to clear the field for a market-based health care system that keeps the practice of medicine between a doctor and patient. It must be eliminated not merely because it is an affront to constitutional order, but also because it supresses competition that would lower costs and spur innovation in health care. Congress should devolve health insurance regulation back to the states.
Long-term sustainability also requires that Congress reform Medicare and Medicaid based on the principles of choice and competition. In their paper, “A Fresh Start for Health Care Reform,” Edmund Haislmaier, Robert E. Moffit, Nina Owcharenko, and Aylene Senger lay out a plan for doing just that. They write:
The best path for comprehensive reform is to transition the entire Medicare program from a defined-benefit system to a defined-contribution system (“premium support”) […] [.] The best solution for low-income individuals and families in need of quality health care is to reform the Medicaid program. Medicaid should be broken down into three discrete programs with tailored policies that best fit the unique needs of each population.
Remove Education Barriers with School Choice
The health of our fellow citizens is not limited to their physical well-being; it also includes their intellectual well-being. Whether in the pursuit of truth for its own sake or the instruction of tradecraft, it is a vital national interest that future generations of patriots are molded by the highest degree of scholarship and skill in their formative years.
Just as with health care, the federal government wrongly assumes that it is capable of managing this national interest—and has succeeded in making many things worse. While the United States spends more tax dollars per student than most other nations do, our students are struggling to compete globally. Too often, they are trapped in failing schools with no options for success. When systemic reforms are proposed at any level of government, politically Left-wing unions like the NEA—the gatekeepers of a dysfunctional status quo—hold the education of our children hostage.
The politicization of public schooling has also resulted in absurd national controversies over local curriculum preferences, while traditional observances like the Pledge of Allegiance, prayers before sporting events, and moments of silence are repeatedly attacked in courts under an inaccurate reading of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, subsidized and inflated college tuitions are leaving many students saddled with massive debt for years after they graduate.
America’s students deserve a better system, one that empowers families with education choice and limits federal intervention. As Lindsey Burke explains in her paper “From Piecemeal to Portable: Transforming Title I into a Student-Centered Support System,” Congress can start by transforming federal assistance currently directed to schools in low-income areas (Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) into a “single formula stream based on a set per-pupil allocation,” and allowing states to allocate the funding “to students in the form of a flexible ESA [Education Savings Account].” Such a reform would allow students to carry federal dollars to the schools of their choosing.
Congress, which sets education policy in the nation’s capital, should also create an entirely choice-based school district by putting the funding for the District of Columbia’s schools directly into parent-controlled education savings accounts. Congress can also make states and school districts more accountable by letting states opt out of federal K–12 programs and direct that funding to programs of their own choice.
In the field of higher education, new technologies are letting college students connect with teachers across great distances, offering the possibility of greater customization and personalization of learning. But the accreditation process is slow to recognize these developments. College students should not have to choose between convenience and affordability. Congress should decouple federal financing from accreditation.
The new administration should also repeal the Department of Education’s gainful employment regulations, which penalize for-profit schools that leave their graduates with a large amount of student debt relative to their earnings. Schools whose graduates fail to meet certain thresholds of debt to income will become ineligible for federal student aid. These rules are at best a ham-handed proxy for measuring the quality of a program—a measure that doesn’t apply equally to non-profit schools—and they will result in fewer choices for students interested in attending a vocational school.
Lift Families out of Poverty
Over the past half-century, Americans have paid $24 trillion in tax dollars to provide welfare assistance to their low-income fellow citizens. In that time, our “Great Society” of social welfare has expanded to over 80 means-tested government programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical assistance, and social services to lower-income Americans.
Far from lifting families out of poverty, however, the current welfare regime does not make the poor prosperous and independent; instead, it traps them in a cycle of generational welfare subsistence and shattered families, as Robert L. Woodson explains in his chapter in the 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity:
Throughout the past 10 years, in spite of massive and growing funding invested in America’s antipoverty agenda, the percentage of individuals able to support themselves free of government welfare has declined. The fundamental reason for the failure to effectively reduce dependency and promote self-sufficiency is a misdiagnosis of poverty in America.
This misdiagnosis hardwired two fatal flaws into government welfare programs: a failure to emphasize work as the means to escape poverty, and the undermining of the nuclear family, mankind’s oldest safety net. These systemic flaws have hurt millions of Americans, as Kay Hymowitz details in the 2015 Index of Culture and Opportunity:
In 2014, 40.6 percent of all children in the United States were born to unmarried mothers. That includes close to 72 percent of black children, 53 percent of Hispanic children, and 29 percent of white children.
“Today,” observes Solutions 2016, “the U.S. spends 16 times as much on welfare as it spent in the 1960s—about four times the amount needed to pull every poor family out of poverty—yet the federal poverty rate remains nearly unchanged.”
If President Trump wishes to solve poverty and its bitter fruits he will give an honest accounting of welfare spending in the government’s budget. The massive means-tested welfare system—spread across multiple government agencies—will be reformed only under sunlight and transparency about spending.
Today, the U.S. spends 16 times as much on welfare as it spent in the 1960s—about four times the amount needed to pull every poor family out of poverty—yet the federal poverty rate remains nearly unchanged.
But merely eliminating waste and redundancy will not fix welfare’s core issues. Congress must take lessons from the 1996 welfare reform and tie work requirements for able-bodied adults to welfare programs like food stamps.
Further, our laws will foster healthy communities only when they hold as an ideal that first, smallest, and greatest community: the family. Welfare provisions that penalize marriage should be reduced, and policies to strengthen marriage should be promoted. Marriage is the greatest protector against child poverty, yet the government welfare system penalizes it. If a low-income woman marries the father of her child, her benefits often go down or are ended altogether, making it more economically beneficial to remain unmarried. Removing marriage penalties throughout the welfare system would be very expensive, but there are steps that can reduce marriage penalties. One place to start is with the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the largest cash assistance program. Reducing rampant EITC fraud would yield significant savings. A portion of that savings can be used to expand EITC benefits for married couples, thus helping to offset marriage penalties they face in the rest of the means-tested welfare system.
Enforce Immigration Laws, While Helping Legal Immigrants Become Americans
Emma Lazarus captured the immigrant spirit of our nation when she wrote these lines:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,/ With conquering limbs astride from land to land;/ Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand/ A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame/ Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name/ Mother of Exiles.
The Statue of Liberty’s torch is a beacon of welcome to those yearning to breathe free across the world. It is a promise that a better life awaits those who are willing to share in our society, abide by our laws, and become Americans.
Fulfilling this promise, the United States admits over 1 million legal immigrants per year, far more than any other nation on Earth. Yet for years, the federal government has worked to undermine the very rule of law that makes America a nation worthy of emigration. It has allowed a porous southern border, released felons into our communities, failed to prosecute or deport those who are here illegally, and declined to enforce existing immigration law.
Moreover, the ideal of patriotic assimilation—that no matter where we are from, we are Americans first—has been openly abandoned by political leaders.
The aspiration that a unified nation with one identity would emerge out of many groups served us well from the very start. Immigrants were welcome, but the hope was that, as George Washington put it, they would “get assimilated to our customs, measures, and laws: in a word, soon become one people.” For Alexander Hamilton, national security was at stake. He wrote: “the safety of a republic depends essentially on the energy of a common national sentiment; on a uniformity of principles and habits.”
For decades, our leaders have reversed the Founders’ vision and fractured the country into ethnic groups. Multiculturalism, not assimilation, has been forced into the curricula of schools from one coast to the other. Social cohesion, a goal shared by both liberals and conservatives, is undermined by the creation of separate enclaves within the country.
For decades, our leaders have reversed the Founders’ vision and fractured the country into ethnic groups. Multiculturalism, not assimilation, has been forced into the curricula of schools from one coast to the other.
If President Trump wishes to tackle the challenge of illegal immigration head-on, he will simply start enforcing the laws currently on the books. President Trump should rescind the Obama’s administration’s policies that provide de facto legal status to certain classes of illegal immigrants by deferring enforcement actions against them. These policies have resulted in fewer and fewer deportations from the interior of the United States and increasing lawlessness at our borders.
President Trump should also seek to work with those states and local governments that are willing to help enforce immigration law rather than following the current policy of allowing some localities to use so-called sanctuary policies to undermine and, in some cases, break U.S. law.
But ensuring that our immigration laws are followed is only the start. Our leaders must ensure that we return to the ethos of E Pluribus Unum, a goal that goes back to our very Founding. They must therefore stop cynically stoking division by casting groups of Americans as victims and oppressors.
In fact, we must reevaluate the very practice of segregating Americans by group. President Trump can start by challenging the division of Americans into racial groups in the Census or any of the other surveys the U.S. government conducts.
You can find more information on how to repair American society in the following publications from The Heritage Foundation:
Blueprint for a New Administration: Priorities for the President, November 1, 2016;
The 2016 Index of Culture and Opportunity, Jennifer Marshall and Rachel Sheffield, eds., July 12, 2016;
Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017, February 23, 2016;
Solutions 2016, January 2016;
Opportunity for All, Favoritism to None, August 2015.