Here is the third and final part of my discussion with reform conservatism advocates Yuval Levin, Peter Wehner and Ramesh Ponnuru. Parts 1 and 2 can be read here and here.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) talks about the “other” marriage debate. How does government and should government work to promote marriage, delayed childbearing and other behaviors that keep people out of poverty? 

Levin: Obviously the role and the potential of public policy is always going to be very limited when it comes to these kinds of issues, but there are ways that government could do far less damage and some modest ways of making it easier for people to make constructive choices. Several of the chapters of this book address those kinds of questions, and in particular the chapters by Brad Wilcox and Scott Winship. You can read summaries and the full chapters here.

Ponnuru: It might be helpful merely to publicize the “success sequence”: Your odds of living in poverty are pretty low if you complete high school, get married and have children in that order. Policy might be able to help at the margin, by ending the marriage penalties that are implicit in various government programs — including Obamacare — and by lowering the tax burden on parents.

Wehner: This is an area where the government’s capacity to improve things is especially limited. The truth is we don’t really know what government can do to strengthen the institution of marriage and a marriage culture. As the marriage scholar Ron Haskins has pointed out, as the rates of single parenthood have risen and the consequences have become clear, all levels of government from local to federal have attempted to implement policies to address the problem — and all have met with very limited success. I agree with Ramesh; good policies might make some difference on the margins. But we’re dealing with something extraordinary and unprecedented. In 2000, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was asked to identify the biggest change he had seen in his 40-year political career. He responded that it was that the family structure had come apart all over the North Atlantic world, that it had happened in a historical instant, and that something that was not even imaginable in 1960 has now happened. What we have learned is that wise public policies in areas like crime, drug use, welfare and education can limit some of the damaging effects from the collapse of marriage. But that is quite a different matter from government being able to rebuild the institution of marriage.

Last question: In stressing experimentation do conservatives need to make a federalism pitch on practical grounds (better services, highlight success stories) rather than on a theoretical basis citing the 10th amendment? Other than block granting what would a surge in federalism require?

Levin: Experimentation involves much more than federalism, of course, but to the extent it’s about federalism it is certainly about more than just block grants. In areas like health care, education, employment and the like it would also involve removing federal regulatory barriers that prevent the states from trying different approaches to addressing public problems, and it would involve making the relationship between the federal government and the states much clearer and much less entangled, so that each level of government is acting where it has some comparative advantage and we don’t have the kind of deeply problematic intermingling of responsibilities, funds and incentives that now distorts so much public policy in America. Here again, the relevant chapters (by Jim Capretta, Rick Hess, Andrew Kelly and Scott Winship, among others) put the matter very well, and Ramesh’s chapter on conservative constitutionalism really helps to clarify the issue.

Ponnuru: The first thing it would require is that we get federalism right in our own minds. The point of federalism is not to empower state governments; it’s to promote accountability and choice and in that way to encourage limited and effective government. That means: no more expanding state governments on the federal dime. In education, I think we’d be taking a step forward, as Rick Hess explains in the book, by making the goals the feds set for states to receive federal money clearer while freeing the states to meet those goals however they want.

Wehner: When I worked for Bill Bennett when he was Secretary of Education, we put out a series of booklets on What Works in American education. As a general matter that is, I think, a very good way to approach governing, with emphasis on experience, on empirical evidence, on real-world successes. And we can certainly learn a great deal from the states. The argument for federalism, then, is practical, not just theoretical, and we should do more to publicize what works in the states. I’d only add one other thought: federalism is consistent with conservatism in that it assumes a certain degree of modesty and humility. We don’t pretend politicians in Washington, D.C. know all the answers, that one size fits all, and programs that work in some states might work less well in other states. After the arrogance of the Obama years — when the president and those in his administration have acted as if they are all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise – there is something refreshing about a more modest approach to governing.