Saturday, June 09, 2007

Economist article on marriage in America

The sedate and objective British periodical The Economist, in the May 26 2007 issue, offers an essay on U.S. marriage, called “Briefing: Marriage in America: The Frayed Knot: As the divorce rate plummets at the top of American society and rises at the bottom, the widening “marriage gap” is breeding inequality.” There is a humorous cartoonish picture of a suburban church with a sign that reads “Candelight Wedding Chapel: Marriage Info.”

The article mentions author Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute, and her book “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age” (publisher Ivan R. Dee, 2006). The title communicates what she has to say. (Review on blogger.) Typically, in stable middle class to upper middle class America, marriage works very well as an institution, and kids growing up in stable two-parent families do well in life, and often tend to follow the pattern of their parents. In lower income “families,” as conservatives have documented for decades, there are perverse incentives (including welfare) that keep mothers single, and their kids do not learn the social skills (including those related to marriage) necessary to get our of poverty. (Of course, real caste systems in other societies deserve explanations.) It is also generally true that, at any education level in the West, married people (especially with children) accumulate (per person) more wealth, not only because of "economies of scale" in a household, but because when people have other dependents (especially their own lineage) they tend to "compete" better and may be more aggressively inclined to manipulate their environments to the advantage of their own families.

The public policy question has always been, of course, how much should government get involved in all of this? The article has subsections with inviting titles like "Children of the sexual revolution" and "A little help from the government." There are many niches to explore, in tax and public school policy. All of it sounds well intended. But, it seems, only those who are more libertarian leaning are willing to pop the ethical question: is it right to force those who are not emotionally inclined to marry and beget (through natural biological procreation) their own lineage support, with their own “sacrifices”, those who do? Face it, this is one of the most important questions for gays and lesbians. But it goes way beyond LGBT; also important is the issue of women who postpone childbearing (sometimes at medical risk) to further their careers (say, medical school, which does take years) and who want to earn as much as men. The deeper question is that human beings can define other psychological goals for themselves that don’t involve the matching of 23 sets of chromosomes. But marriage seems to be an institution like no other; it socializes the deepest intentions of people, and makes them see their worlds and personal goals differently. Those who live productively outside of the institution can become serious competition or at least distractions.

That’s the problem: most articles on supporting marriage (whether from more conventional social conservatives like Maggie Gallagher or Jennifer Roback Morse) don’t take the question far enough. What do you want from people whose emotional makeup is really different? That’s not limited to homosexuals.

I just watched a tape of a 1977 performance of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town (1938) on a substitute teaching assignment. The play is famous for demonstrating the socializing aspects of marriage. I’m renting a couple of other performances from Netflix and will have more details to impart soon. But one point that comes out is that most men can only take “culture” by themselves so far. They need a partner, and they need an organic purpose. Marriage and children often (but not always – that’s the caveat) provides that purpose.

As someone who is “different” I can sketch a characterization of an emotional world that does not require marriage, or even a committed partner. It does, in fact, depend on art and human culture – in my case, music is very important to it. Of course, however, that culture depends on a stable and technological civilization offering personal freedom – what I know as “democratic capitalism” – so much a debate on the international scene. It is a backdrop that I cannot take for granted.

There is the sensitive matter of filial responsibility. This can become an especially troubling issue as, in certain economic classes, people have fewer kids and people can live longer. It can invoke generational conflict and, if population growth is more in previously disenfranchised groups, security issue (as in Europe where the Muslim population could become politically more powerful). People without kids may find they have as much or more responsibility for eldercare (or even sometimes sibling care) than others with their own kids. This gets beyond the legal and financial arguments (which could be considerable). It demands that “singletons” become receptive and responsive to the emotional demands of extended family whether or not they really want to or personally need to. This dynamic has become more significant again in the Internet age as lives are not as “private” as they were (especially in the big cities) thirty years ago.

Back in the 1970s, the Ninth Street Center in New York City explored the idea of personal growth through polarized relationships that, in a psychological sense, could “imitate” marriage. In today’s context, this sounds like a preview of same-sex marriage, but the Center (and its central philosopher Paul Rosenfels) insisted that relationships should exist for their own sakes and for the well-being of the participants, not for the social supports and formal approbation of legal marriage. It seems a bit of a paradox that Rosenfels insisted that relationships would be earthy and seem real to the participants, and not an intellectual construct to be viewed apart by splitting off the personality. To have real partnerships, one needed to overcome the psychological defenses (like sadism and masochism) that make the single life appear judgmental about conventional society and conventional marriage. One needed to grow into “real life.” One observation was that in the 1970s, Center aficionados tended to live in lower Manhattan (often the East Village, where it was located) and led lives that didn’t leave the City in a meaningful public sense (people would brag that they never ventured north of 14th Street or Union Square).

One paradox is that during the age of individualism (from the late 60s on) marriage has become “privatized” and viewed as an arrangement that mutually benefits the participants, emotionally and financially. The philosophy of the Center certainly reinforces this idea with respect to same-sex couples. As a legal and public institution, marriage, more than any other purpose, serves as the vehicle to provide a socially stable environment to raise children and the next generation. There is no problem with respecting that view in and of itself. The practical problem is that there is no way to separate providing a safe environment for children without providing preferential and protective treatment for the adults in the marriage, and without demanding “sacrifices” from those who don’t get marriage. The concept of marriage in more tribal cultures, in fact, with the emphasis on “honor”, tends to shelter individuals within the tribe or extended family from cognizance of shortcomings in their own competitive abilities (despite all the emphasis in pressuring young men, through rites of passage, that they will become suitable suitors for women and protectors of lineage). That is one reason why the culture wars and even “clash of civilizations” has become so emotional with some people. Sexual attraction usually experienced (especially by men) as having self-serving purposes (that may become judgmental), until a social context gives it meaning (especially openness to new life) that benefits others. That's one reason why the rituals of dating, courtship and marriage used to involve so much "non rational" pampering.

On balance, it is a difficult controversy whether the social supports of marriage are really best for the relationships for their own sake. We don’t like to admit that a lot of people get married and have children because they think that they have to.

Correlated post today: Will the military DADT policy finally fall? Entry here.

Picture: a couple generations ago, a man would fix a woman's car. Maybe not so much today. Ironically, this picture was taken at Washington DC LGBT Pride 2007.

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