It's really the absence of people so socialized, or so disposed, at the heart of Interfluidity's well-footnoted response (by S. R. Waldman) to the culturally conservative suggestion that finishing high school, land a job, stay attached to the labor force, and marry first, then have children might be easier said than done, in neighborhoods where that advice is mostly honored in the breach.
“Marriage promotion” as a means of address social problems at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder is a bad idea. It’s not a neutral idea, or a nice idea that probably won’t work. It’s inexcusably obtuse and may be outright destructive. It is quite literally a cargo cult.Not a bad metaphor, apart from the absence, historically, of good things that used to be present, which is the basis of the cargo cults.
The case for marriage promotion begins with some perfectly real correlations. Across a variety of measures — household income, self-reported life satisfaction, childrearing outcomes — married couples seem to do better than pairs of singles (and much better than single parents), particularly in populations towards the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder. So it is natural to imagine that, if somehow poor people could be persuaded to marry more, they too would enjoy those improvements in household income, life satisfaction, and childrearing. Let them eat wedding cake!Put another way, it is the cluster of institutions and norms that reinforce middle-class habits that matter; any one, without the others, might not work. Consider, for example, lottery winners who, because of prior experience or bad luck in finding responsible relatives, go broke within a few years. That appears to be where Mr Waldman goes.
But neither wedding cake nor the marriages they celebrate cause observed “marriage premia” any more than dances on tarmacs caused airplanes to land on Melanesian islands. In fact, for the most part, the evidence we have suggests that marriage is an effect of other things that facilitate good social outcomes rather than a cause on its own. In particular, for poor women, the availability of suitable mates is a binding constraint on marriage behavior. People in actually observed marriages do well because they are the lucky ones to find scarce good mates, not because marriage would be a good thing for everyone else too. Marrying badly, that is marriage followed by subsequent divorce, increases the poverty rate among poor women compared to never marrying at all. Married biological parents who stay together may be good for child rearing, but kids of mothers who marry anyone other than their biological father do no better than children of mothers who never marry at all.
Because the stakes are now very high and the information very solid, good marriage prospects (in a crass socioeconomic sense) hold out for other good marriage prospects. The pool that’s left over, once all the people capable of signaling their membership in the socioeconomic elite have been “creamed” away, may often be, objectively, a bad one. Marriage has a fat lower tail. When you marry, you risk physical abuse, you risk appropriation of your wealth and income, you risk mistreatment of the children you hope someday to have, you risk the Sartre-ish hell of being bound eternally to someone whose company is intolerable. More commonly, you risk forming a household that is unable to get along reasonably in an economic sense, causing conflicts and crises and miseries even among well-intentioned and decent people. It is quite rational to demand a lot of evidence that a potential mate sits well above the fat left tail, but the ex ante uncertainty is always high. When the right-hand side of the desirability distribution is truncated away, marriage may simply be a bad risk.Is the uncertainty enhanced or reduced, these days, in that people are free to demonstrate their transgressivity, and thus their risk, under the general rubric of "do your own thing?" How many times do I have to invoke the village that combines the redeeming features of the projects and a hippie commune?
Ross Douthat concurs in part.
What people contemplating marrying down clearly should fear more than in the Eisenhower-era past are interpersonal problems — a spouse who comes from a broken home, who doesn’t have positive models of marriage and parenting in her past, who carries a cloud of suspicion into wedlock because his own parents’ marriage fell apart. Economic redistribution can help mitigate those problems (which is why I favor it, to a point), by creating a firmer material foundation for families. But the problems themseves just aren’t exclusively material: They have a cultural element, and reflect a cultural change, that can’t simply be ignored.It's a long column, which will reward careful study. Let me highlight the direction Mr Douthat is taking his argument.
This is where I look at Waldman’s critique of how elite self-interest has contributed to marriage’s decline and see a case study in what liberals are inclined to leave out of this story, and what implications they are unwilling to draw from their own premises. Because if the heart of your social analysis, the core of your conclusion, is the idea that the homogamous new elite’s social behavior is essentially (if perhaps unknowingly) self-interested — that the pursuit of meritocratic success has led the mass upper class to “walk away without a care … from people who in other circumstances, even in the not so distant past, would have been our friends and coworkers, lovers and spouses” — then perhaps you need to apply the same cold-eyed perspective to that elite’s cultural assumptions and attitudes as well, and to the blend of laws and norms those attitudes incline its members to support.
In upper class circles, liberal social values do not necessarily lead to libertinism among the people who hold them, and indeed quite often coexist with an impressive amount of personal conservatism, personal restraint.Yes, exactly, the institutions and conventions that are more important in the emergence of a culture than the clothes or the food. Note also, dear reader, that these columns date from 2014, before Donald Trump rode that escalator, setting off a sequence of events that ultimately leads to soul-searching among the Gentry who rely on votes from the Victims. Mr Douthat steers things in a different direction.
But if we’re inclined, with Waldman, to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. Waldman, for instance, makes the (completely valid) point that just telling a single mother to go get married to whomever she happens to be dating isn’t likely to lead to happy outcomes for anyone involved. But is that really just because of wage stagnation and the truncation of the potential-mates bell curve? Or could it also be that the decision to marry only delivers benefits when it’s part of a larger life script, a way of pursuing love and happiness that shapes people’s life choices – men as well as women — from the moment they come of age sexually, and that exerts its influence not through the power of a singular event (ring, cake, toasts) but through that event’s place in a larger mix of cues, signals, expectations, and beliefs?
If it’s the latter — and if you’re not an economic or genetic determinist, I really think it has to be — then it’s worth recognizing that much of what the (elite-driven) social revolutions of the 1970s did, in law and culture, was to strip away the most explicit cues and rules linking sex, marriage, and childrearing, and nudging people toward the two-parent bourgeois path. No longer would the law make any significant effort to enforce marriage vows. No longer would an unplanned pregnancy impose clear obligations on the father. No longer would the culture industry uphold the “marriage-then-childbearing” script as normative, or endorse any moral script around sexuality save the rule of consenting adults.Perhaps that was necessary, there being reasons to question traditions being followed simply for their own sake, and that might have been what the Consciousness Revolution was all about. But when evidence accumulates that your experiment against reality has failed, maybe it's time to restore the norms and the signals. I repeat: restore. It's not about turning clocks back, it is about achieving a state of good repair.
And following our hermeneutic of anti-elite suspicion, let’s ask: If the path to human flourishing still mostly runs through monogamy and marriage, who benefits the most from the kind of changes that make that path less normative, less law-supported, less obvious? Well, mostly people who are embedded in communities that continue to send the kind of signals that the law and the wider culture no longer send.
It’s certainly unacknowledged in the main pop-cultural iconography of our age – the obsessive coverage of celebrities and pop idols and reality stars, whose marrying and babymaking and splitting-up is treated with a mix of prurience and sentimentality that admits of only the haziest sort of moral judgment. It’s a little more visible in the pop-cultural genres that deal directly with dating and mating, from pop music to sitcoms to soap operas, where you do sometimes see more conservative treatments of sex and marriage — whether embodied in Apatovian comic raunch or rom-com sentimentalism. But these genres tend to portray personal responsibility as something that can be taken up almost randomly in your late 20s or early 30s, when circumstances finally call for it, and treat any debauchery that precedes it as relatively cost-free. And even this limited, occasional conservatism coexists with enough straightforward valorizations of libertinism, both male and female, to make me very strongly doubt Waldman’s dismissal of these attitudes as strictly “marginal” – especially given the dark-matter influence of pornography on how young people are taught to think about their sexuality.Yes, and having the resources of a Murphy Brown or a random Kardashian provide a cushion that people in straitened circumstances won't have. Perhaps all the tabloid baby-daddy stories ought come with a privilege check.
I was compiling citations for this post for some time, and thought David Brooks, weighing in on a similar point, again, before that escalator ride, got to the heart of the matter.
We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.Which meant that a random entertainer or athlete could shag someone without having to think about the consequences, never mind that a random person in straitened circumstances might think carefully about the consequences, and might benefit from a modicum of better behavior from the people you read about at the checkout line.
But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.
Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?No doubt, he took stick for victim-blaming. Tough. The experiments against reality run afoul of ... reality.
Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less educated are behaving irresponsibly and the more educated are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.
Perhaps, though, as Jeff Spross of The Week suggests, the material conditions as well as the moral matter.
The upper class inadvertently maintains bourgeois norms even as they stump for more libertinism, and the lower class helplessly absorbs that libertinism to the max even as they declare their allegiance to those same bourgeois norms. Even worse, it paints the lower class as empty vessels, perpetually and inescapably helpless before the cultural influence of the elite, despite their own stated values.Perhaps so, although it's the economic security that lets Murphy Brown or a random Kardashian push the envelope. "Do your own thing" emerged as a cultural phenomenon about the same time the last victory dividend checks were cashed.
At the very least, it's an insanely convoluted mechanism that fails the Occam’s Razor test. It's much simpler to conclude that bourgeois economic security is the necessary underpinning of the bourgeois social fabric.