In his State of the Union address, President Obama unveiled a tax plan. With a Republican-controlled Congress, it almost certainly won't pass. It is purely a bit of politics — but that's what makes it interesting. It is less a policy agenda than a statement by the most progressive president in a generation about what the good society looks like. And it is telling indeed.
The plan includes some provisions to help families, particularly low-income families, raise children. Smart conservatives have been calling for action on this front for a while now, and so it is to be applauded. But the best way to do this is for families get a simple refundable child tax credit. That way, in some families, both parents can decide to work full-time and use the money to pay for childcare; in other families, one parent can decide to work less and spend more time with the kids.
Instead, Obama's proposal mostly takes the form of an expanded child care tax credit, and of a new "second-earner credit" for families in which both parents work. While the double income trap is real, its root causes won't be fixed by a tax credit.
But what's interesting is what kind of families the plan favors, and what kind of families it doesn't. There's nothing wrong with families, like mine, in which both parents work, but it's still striking to see a proposal specifically engineered to favor those families at the expense of single-earner families.
This is of a piece with contemporary progressivism. Usually, progressives portray themselves as people who simply want to give everyone an equal chance to fulfill their potential, contrary to conservatives who want to tie everyone to the Procrustean bed of their very specific model of "the good life." But in the case of the family, we see that it increasingly isn't the case. Smart conservative proposals like those of Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Mike Lee (Utah) wouldn't privilege one kind of family over another. It is progressives who put forward a specific model of "the good life" and who are using government policy to nudge — or virtually force — people into it.
Indeed, President Obama is also the politician who gratuitously decided, in flagrant disregard of the Constitution, to pick a fight with religious institutions over a government mandate to subsidize contraception for everyone. A society where contraception is seen as so essential that it is not only made available but mandated and subsidized is one that has in mind a very specific picture of the good life — and is willing to use government force to bring it about.
Another progressive obsession is funding day care for everyone (for the record, they often point to France as a model, even though the model doesn't work in France), which, again, is a proposal that specifically favors one type of family over the other.
(Not everything is bad about this vision, far from it — witness Obama's proposal for mandatory paid maternity leave.)
This has always been a conservative paranoia: that progressive talk of open-handed pluralism is really just a different kind of authoritarianism, one just as interested in coercing people to embrace their visions, and just as liable to.
Now, there's nothing totalitarian about a going-nowhere proposal for a few tax credits. But it is still a reminder that contemporary progressivism is not about a neutral vision of securing people's negative and positive rights; it represents a very specific political, moral, and — dare I say it — metaphysical worldview that, like every other one, contends for power over society.