Mag Reads the Mag

Marriage maven Maggie Gallagher has a long and thoughtful response at the Marriage Debate blog to my review-essay from the June ish on her favorite topic. First, I'm gratified both that she took the time to reply, and in particular that she seems to agree with what I saw as my central contention that it's too simplistic (and not a little unfair to poor unmarried mothers) to view the problems with marriage in the U.S.--which are largely the problems of the poorest and least educated--as centrally being problems of "values" or diminishing respect for marriage as an institution. There are, however, a few points she takes issue with, so let me respond on those points. (Moved after the jump, for those of you who don't care for long posts...)

I still would like to know, from Julian whether he thinks that it would be good if fewers children were born out of wedlock, and if more marriages lasted.

Sure; insofar as there's good evidence this is better for kids, I'd like to see more marriages last and fewer children born out of wedlock, though in the latter case it seems as though more women's postponing childbearing until they're settled and mature enough to have picked suitable spouses (as opposed to their still having the kids young and marrying the fathers) would be the preferable way for that to happen. Or, to be a little more precise, in the many cases where a particular couple's marrying seems likely to yield a more stable and healthy environment for the child, I would (of course) be glad to see them make that choice. I thought something like that was implicit in the various things I said about ways marriage often benefits kids.

Sanchez asks: When people choose to marry, or not to marry, or to have a child out of wedlock, or to divorce, on what grounds can any outsider judge this decision as right or wrong, given it expresses the revealed preferences of someone with more information than we have about particular circumstances? [....] One might as well, on this ground, abandon the idea of moral norm altogether. "Systematic attempts to alter the revealed preferences of individuals in a given society" would be a good law and econ definition of culture. By the terms Sanchez sets out culture itself appears to be an illegitimate enterprise. [....]Here's what striking to me: Libertarians tend to be let's say, not pessimistic about much, theoretically. Why so fatalistic about the possiblity of reducing unwed childbearing or divorce? Sanchez I think lapses into marital fatalism because he cannot really embrace the idea that increasing number of children born out of marriage (or experiencing divorce) is a good thing, so it must be a Complex Thing, about which external judgments are not possible. He can't really bring himself to condemn the idea of marriage education for the poor as horrible, so he mus explain (before we try it) that it cannot possibly help.

A couple points. First, I am not sure what picture of my ideological commitments Maggie holds, but it's apparently such that what I really wanted to do was celebrate divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth, but since (perhaps despite my best efforts) I couldn't quite manage that, I had to fall back on the consolation-prize argument that the problems with marriage for poor women are complex. (Didn't Maggie herself just agree with that last part?) In the event that anyone else came away from the piece with that impression, this is not the case.

Second, while I suppose libertarians, at least of the Reason stripe, do tend to be generally optimistic by disposition, I don't think libertarian pessimism about the prospects for solving social problems through well-intentioned government social programs is very unusual at all. I might go so far as to say it's the distinguishing feature of libertarian thinking... though it was less of a distinguishing feature back in those halcyon days when conservatives tended to share it. (I suppose that's one way I *do* think things were better in the 50s.) I don't know how much Maggie tends to disagree with conservatives who regard government as typically incompetent at teaching poor people basic skills and help them find jobs, but if the answer is "not much," then I'd think what's really striking is that she's more sanguine about its ability to help them navigate dysfunctional intimate relationships.

Let me also emphasize that the basis for my skepticism about the wisdom of second guessing revealed preferences isn't just a kind of broad Millian confidence in people's general ability to judge best their own needs and interests--though I'll plead guilty to harboring a measure of that. Rather, it was rooted in the thought that the particular accounts the women themselves gave (in the sociological study that was one of the subjects of my review) of why they aren't marrying the fathers of their children often involve what are at least prima facie quite good reasons for not doing so, and that lack of appropriate respect for the idea of marriage, or even lack of the kind of "relationship skills" that programs funded by the Healthy Marriage Initiative seek to teach, are not the central problem--a point with which Maggie herself seemed to agree at least somewhat. (As for giving up on norms, need I really point out that the way culture genuine evolved norms reciprocally shape and interact with individual preferences is different from an attempt to shape preferences through government-sponsored classes and public awareness campaigns?)

I do say, incidentally, that insofar as it's federal rather than state or local government spending money trying to help families stay together (probably suboptimal, but that's another issue), it probably isn't, in itself, doing any *harm* to make available some kind of voluntary, non-intrusive class that advises people who are eager to make their relationships work. (Though had I more time to do a broader piece on the topic outside the context of a book review, I would have been interested to visit some of the programs, especially those run by faith-based initiatives, to see what they're actually teaching; if we're using tax dollars to hard-sell theologically-frieghted views of how to conduct relationships, I would have separate issues with that.) I just think the stories the women themselves tell give us ample reason to think that the problems with marriage are to a large extent epiphenomenal--a function of a series of other problems with violence, drugs, and high male-incarceration rates--and so trying to cure the illness by focusing on one particular symptom is likely to be of limited usefulness at best and a seductive distraction at worst. I suppose we'll see soon enough.

Well, there's my pessimism; but I also tried to separate myself, at least a bit, from Coontz's particularly extreme brand of fatalism, which frankly struck me as odd in light of her own findings. Where she seemed to be saying "Well, marriage is over, let's just cope," I was trying to say "Look, marriage has gone through all these upheavals and changes that Coontz herself chronicles, and maybe before carving the tombstone, we should consider the possibility that we're just in another period of change and adjustment: People on the ground will adapt the institution, but it will survive... even if what comes out on the other end doesn't look like the 1950s version any more than 1950s marriage looked like 1650s marriage or 350 BCE marriage."

One final, somewhat distinct issue. Maggie writes:

I cannot resist noting here as a sideline that 'institutions must change from the ground up', unless a liberal Massachusetts judge decides to order them changed from the top down, in which case resistance is apparently also futile, and attempts to interfere with this top down rule reformulation in the only possible way (a constitutional amendment) gets recast as a nonHayekian lack of respect for the bottom up nature of social institutions. . .

To the extent I had a point about gay marraige there--and past the introduction, I don't really talk about it much--it was that marriage has changed in all these ways over the centuries, and so saying that we're going to have the law take a snapshot of the most recent vintage and freeze it there (and on the rather bizarre grounds that this relatively novel variant is "traditional" marriage) isn't any less "technocratic" than saying it should look some other way. To extend an analogy I used in the piece: It's as though we'd had a free market for a few hundred years, and then legislators said: "Ok, there! Henceforth, the firms currently in existence will produce the same quantities of goods, and sell them at the same price." And if, after a bit of this, someone suggested that perhaps we should let new firms form and choose how much to sell at what price, we objected: "No, no, you're tampering with the evolved wisdom of the market!"

If individual communities and churches could decide what to recognize as a "marriage," gay marriage would already be pervasive. Making it a matter of law that those choices don't get to count is no less a case of "imposing" than saying they will count. Just as, I suppose, the First Amendment "imposes" the expression of unpopular political views on communities that might want to forbid them and unpopular religious practices on communities that might prefer not to countenance them. I don't think it's all that mysterious why we might regard "imposing" one sort of rule rather than another as more in line with the ideal of bottom-up change.

Addendum: Of related interest, there's an interesting-looking essay in the Cambridge Journal of Economics (I've only just started in on it) which tries to sketch what a Hayekian theory of the family would look like.

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  • ||

    Longest Post Ever!

  • ||

    I respect you for being so cordial to a person that otherwise I find to be just another dishonest, attention-seeking screechy "values" pundit.

  • Warren||

    Seriously Julian, learn to use the "more" feature. Furthermore, your style here strikes me as long winded and pretentious. Though, once I parse it out I find myself in agreement with what I think you are saying.

    Re:
    It's as though we'd had a free market for a few hundred years, and then legislators said: "Ok, there! Henceforth, the firms currently in existence will produce the same quantities of goods, and sell them at the same price."

    Sounds a lot like "The New Deal"

  • ||

    To extend an analogy I used in the piece: It's as though we'd had a free market for a few hundred years, and then legislators said: "Ok, there! Henceforth, the firms currently in existence will produce the same quantities of goods, and sell them at the same price." And if, after a bit of this, someone suggested that perhaps we should let new firms form and choose how much to sell at what price, we objected: "No, no, you're tampering with the evolved wisdom of the market!"

    Well, I'm a little skeptical of an analogy that compares institutions to markets. A market tells us the value of a commodity at fixed point of time, it doesn't pretend to be predictable. An institution is foundational: it's function is to provide a predictable function or action over time. I put my money in the bank with the confidence I'll be able to withdraw it in currency at some point in time. If the legislature were in the habit of arbitrarily mandating I'd have to take my withdrawal in goats, chickens or bananas, I'd be a bit more reluctant to put my money in a bank.

  • ||

    ...we're going to have the law take a snapshot of the most recent vintage and freeze it there (and on the rather bizarre grounds that this relatively novel variant is "traditional" marriage)...

    The whole panning of gay marriage as a horrendous deviation away from "traditional" marriage always seemed like a spectacularly dumb tactic, since anyone with even a cursory familiarity with (say) the Bible (in which seemingly every other episode involves so-and-so and six or eight of his wives) could point out that there's not much "traditional" about "one man + one woman". But! A few weeks ago I read an essay by one of the women who regularly write for the National Review (don't remember who, natch) in which she argued against gay marriage on the grounds that it would wreck not traditional marriage but MODERN marriage. She then tossed in some facts about why the latter was a better deal than the former - it was better for women, worked better with the modern economy, so on and so forth. I'm being fuzzy here because I can't remember the specifics, but the point is that the family values crowd might abandon the "defense of tradition" tactic in favor of a "defense of our advanced, modern institutions". I have no particular objection to gay marriage and so I disagree with their overall point, but I must admit that that is a smarter argument.

    If individual communities and churches could decide what to recognize as a "marriage," gay marriage would already be pervasive. Making it a matter of law that those choices don't get to count is no less a case of "imposing" than saying they will count.

    I have been making this point for years in arguments with those who see the spectre of gay marriage as some horrible product of "judicial tyranny" or some such thing (as have many others). It seems to me to be a pretty obvious and devastating answer - so why do people like Gallagher keep pushing the "blame the judges" button? Don't they know that, once a particular line of reasoning has shown to be bogus, they're supposed to quit using it and find another one?

    Anyway, Julian, good post (even though it wasn't supposed to be about gay marriage...).

  • ||

    I'm pleased that Maggie didn't threaten to cancel her subscription :)

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    I'm canceling my subscription.

  • ||

    The Little Woman and I should have something useful to say, having tied the knot back in 1965, but, what is the topic here?

    Wake us if you need us.

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    Way to point out the common fallacy when considering family/marriage statistics. Even if you successfully conclude that those who marry have it better, you cannot prove that those who don't would have had it better if they did.

  • Robert||

    If individual communities and churches could decide what to recognize as a "marriage," gay marriage would already be pervasive. Making it a matter of law that those choices don't get to count is no less a case of "imposing" than saying they will count.

    That's what I've been thinking too. The marriage amendment I'd like would be worded, approximately, "The prima facie legal meaning of `marry' and terms appurtenant thereto, including `spouse', shall be their customary meanings at the time those words became part of the legal documents in question."

  • Larry A||

    Don't they know that, once a particular line of reasoning has shown to be bogus, they're supposed to quit using it and find another one?

    You're implying that people who want to run other peoples' lives are reasonable.

  • ||

    Where's the obligatory "fucking" joke?

  • J Peron||

    "I'm so old," he said.

    "How old are you?" replied the sidekick.

    "I'm so old I remember when conservatives believed government was the problem not the solution."

  • ||

    Maggie criticisms are telling. In addition, I have set forth an economic approach to this issue at:


    http://www.lewrockwell.com/orig7/safranek1.html

    and more fully at TrueMarriage.net

    The essence of the problem is that children are not accurately seen as the economic asset or liability that they become. The "best interests" of the child issue where the state can and does take control of children and the fact that children have no obligation to parents -- but only to the state via taxes -- once they reach maturity would not be accepted in dealing with any other asset that we wanted persons to develop.

    Until and unless we recognize this issue, we cannot even begin to solve it. I think that the resolution is actually easier than many want to think - parents should have first rights to the benefits that kids create for society.

  • ||

    I can't help but feel like I'm watching a sport without knowing the rules when I read comments like this:

    "I cannot resist noting here as a sideline that 'institutions must change from the ground up', unless a liberal Massachusetts judge decides to order them changed from the top down, in which case resistance is apparently also futile, and attempts to interfere with this top down rule reformulation in the only possible way (a constitutional amendment) gets recast as a nonHayekian lack of respect for the bottom up nature of social institutions. . ."

    Conservatives and liberals throw this argument back and forth as though it were meaningful, and I just don't get it. When we talk about respect for precedent, we clearly mean up to some limit, otherwise we'd just rubberstamp all decisions saying "You know, what the last judge said."

    My $.02 is that we get exactly the set of laws we want, if not exactly when we want them. The Mass law is a blip, but if it takes hold nationwide and overcomes DOMA, we shouldn't look to Mass judges as instigators of social change. Social change can only occur when people are ready for it. I'm becoming more and more convinced that the courts are a side show.

  • ||

    Jason Ligon,

    You are absolutely right. Shoving gay marriage down people's throats via judicial fiat isn't going to do anything but create a lot of hostility and backlash. The issue is not about whether churches and communities recognize gay marriage, it is about legislatures. The states can recognize any form of marriage they want to. They haven't recognized gay marriage because most voters don't want it. Instead finding friendly judges, gay marriage activists ought to be concentrating on winning social acceptance and support. Face facts, this is a rich white man's issue. The large majority of both Hispanics and Blacks do not support gay marriage. When the Bubbas, Blacks and Hispanics all agree on something, you better start figuring out a way to convince people rather than just judges. Further, using the language of civil rights is probably not going to do anything but rightly insult and enrage the black community. The political process may be slow but it does eventually work out compromises that everyone can live with. Trying to do it through the judiciary is just going to piss people off and create the impetus for things like Constitutional Amendments that will circumvent the political process and ensure that there will never be gay marriage period.

  • ||

    WB Julian, I missed you.

    I like the style. Every time I read one of Julian's posts, I learn at least one new English word and sometimes "foign" ones too. This time he learned me 10+ words. Vocabulary enhancement hour. If just my memory were better....

  • ||

    I like Jason's point. The courts are important as a check, of course, but on social controversies they mostly accelerate or decelerate a course, and turn the wheel slightly. They don't generally set the course, they just moderate it.

    People might get upset over various court rulings, of course, and rulings might even be overturned. But if a controversial ruling endures it's because beneath the vocal outrage there's little in the way of genuine resolve.

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