America has a two-party political system, but that doesn't mean we have two perfectly coherent and consistent parties. Inside each party, of course, are a variety of diverse factions. Within the GOP, for instance, are social conservatives eager to maintain "traditional" cultural forms, and fiscal conservatives who want to install laissez-faire economic policies.
On good days, these two broad goals do not come into conflict, and the conservative coalition works together in harmony. But this is not always the case. The goals of traditionalism and laissez-faire economic policy inevitably collide from time to time. And it is in those instances that the dominant faction of American conservatism is revealed.
The prediction last week that ObamaCare would enable individuals to reduce their work hours presented precisely this core conflict. According to the Congressional Budget Office, American workers, freed by ObamaCare from dependency on their employer for health care, will reduce the number of hours they work by up to 2 percent. When you add all those hours up, you get an hours reduction that is equivalent to 2.5 million full-time jobs.
From a traditionalist perspective, you can see how this might be good news. It enables more people to reduce their market labor and spend more time tending to the household — something traditionalists would surely prefer working mothers to do.
In a truly multiparty system, you might expect the social conservative faction to come out in favor of ObamaCare — or at least this aspect of ObamaCare — on this basis. The laissez-faire faction of the GOP would surely come out against it. But as both factions are crammed together in our system, consistent messaging demands that one give way. And in this case, as in most others, it is the traditionalists that give way to the laissez-faire advocates.
Fox News has been blasting this ObamaCare development as proof of that the law is a job-killer, even though the reduction in hours worked is a function of people opting out of work, not being unable to find any. Paul Ryan, whose wife quit her job to tend a traditionalist household, decried the news as indicative of ObamaCare interfering with the dignity of work.
Among the conservative commenting classes, the primacy of laissez-faire institutions over traditionalist outcomes received clear endorsement. Charles C.W. Cooke at the National Review conceded the point that ObamaCare's effect on labor supply would, in some sense, free people to work less, but that it is no freedom at all "for a person to choose not to work because others are being forced to subsidize his well-being." For Cooke, laissez-faire economic distributions are deeply real (as opposed to socially constructed) and deviations from them, even when they generate otherwise positive traditionalist results, are intolerable. With the narrow exception of Tim Carney, this has been the consistent conservative line.
It does not have to be this way.
Consider Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Speaking broadly, women tend to work less, if at all, while men are the primary breadwinners. According to Lane Kenworthy, these countries have the lowest numbers of hours worked per working-age adult in the developed world. The proximate causes of this are very strong unions that push for more vacation, shorter work weeks, and earlier retirement. Additionally, their dominant Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties construct welfare states that dwarf our own, and include generous paid maternity leave as well as robust public health insurance systems.
This is what a serious political effort at supporting traditionalist family structures looks like. In the United States, more than half of all dual-earner families would be in or near poverty if the woman stopped working. Robust social provision is necessary to permit the kind of labor force reductions that widespread adoption of traditionalist structures would require. The kinds of economic outcomes laissez-faire institutions generate are in direct conflict with such widespread adoption, but conservatives in America keep on pushing these institutions nonetheless.
So while the conservative coalition certainly carries the torch of the traditional family in America, that torch-bearing is bounded by its more primary commitment to right-wing economic institutions. Whenever the two come into conflict, the dominant conservative priority is made crystal clear.