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.