Sunday, July 20, 2014

Are liberals rescuing marriage?

(This post originally appeared at Bloomberg View.)
When we think about the issues of family, sex, and morality there’s a standard story that frames our thinking. Ross Douthat, writing back in January, did a good job of telling that story:
[Liberals might want to] acknowledge the ways in which liberalism itself has undercut the two-parent family — through the liberal-dominated culture industry’s permissive, reductive attitudes toward sex, and through the 1970s-era revolution in divorce and abortion law.
It seems obvious that sexual permissiveness discourages marriage. In the old days, marital sex was the only socially acceptable kind of sex, so if you wanted to have sex, you had to get married; allow people to have sex outside of marriage with no social sanction, and you take away a big part of the impetus to get married. Liberal values, therefore, are corrosive to families.
But is this true? Last year, I read a book that changed my outlook on American society: Charles Murray’s ``Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” In that book, Murray convincingly argues that a class divide has emerged in America, between educated people (“Belmont”) and uneducated people (“Fishtown”). The surprising thing is that Murray finds that the educated Belmonters, despite being much more socially liberal than their Fishtown counterparts, actually have more traditional family values -- they get married more, get divorced less and pay more attention to their children. After a period in the '70s and early '80s when educated people dabbled in single parenthood and high divorce rates, they went back to a traditional-family structure. Uneducated Americans, on the other hand, are abandoning marriage and two-parent child-rearing in droves.
It isn't just Murray finding this. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution has identified something very similar. In a landmark article in Atlantic magazine, he gave a detailed, data-driven case that educated Americas are rebuilding the institution of marriage:
[C]ollege graduates in the United States are reinventing marriage as a child-rearing machine for a post-feminist society and a knowledge economy. It’s working, too: Their marriages offer more satisfaction, last longer, and produce more successful children.
The glue for these marriages is not sex, nor religion, nor money. It is a joint commitment to high-investment parenting…Right now, these marriages are concentrated at the top of the social ladder, but they offer the best—perhaps the only—hope for saving the institution.
How can this be? How can the people who preach sexual license be the same ones who have rebuilt their families, while lower-class people who profess more conservative values are seeing their families crumble?
Social conservatives have a few hypotheses. One is that high-investment parenting is only for the wealthy -- that in our stratified society, lower-income people know that investing a lot of effort in the kids won’t pay off, so they just don’t bother. A variant of this is the idea that lower-class men are too risky for lower-class women to marry.
In his book, Murray implies that educated liberals are a bit hypocritical. He calls on them to “preach what they practice,” in the hope that they can spread their newly recovered family values to the Fishtown masses. But a thought occurs to me: What if that’s exactly what they’ve been doing all along? What if sexual permissiveness and feminism, instead of being toxic to the institution of marriage, are the key to saving it?
That might sound crazy, but here’s the case in a nutshell. If you wait until marriage to have sex, you’re taking an enormous risk. What if you’re not compatible? Or what if you regret not having shopped around?
Sexual permissiveness means that sex isn’t about marriage. But that means that marriage isn’t about sex. Most of the upper-class liberal educated Americans I know who are in stable, happy marriages had their share of premarital sex. Knowing what that lifestyle is like -- and realizing that they wanted more -- allowed them to be more content in their marriages, and more realistic about what marriage is all about (i.e., lifetime companionship and raising kids).
Feminism may be even more important for families. With traditional gender roles, only a man who can be a sole breadwinner is a worthwhile mate. That rules out a lot of men, and it might be a reason why less-educated Americans’ conservative values are holding them back from getting married. Feminism, on the other hand, rewards fathers for sharing child care and housework, and frees them from the heavy burden of antiquated expectations.
In other words, maybe liberal morality is simply better adapted for creating stable two-parent families in a post-industrialized world. Maybe conservative family values are hard but brittle, like diamond, while liberal family values are strong like titanium -- able to bend without breaking.
If this is true, then I feel hopeful about American families. In many cases, educated and upper-class Americans are social trend-setters, while less-educated Americans catch up eventually. Perhaps America’s “Fishtown” class is simply doing the same thing the “Belmont” class did 30 years ago -- experimenting with single parenthood -- and will eventually learn how to do gender-equal marriage and high-investment parenting.


  1. I mostly agree with this article, but it seems to me like one reason the Fishtown parents aren't engaged in high-investment parenting is that they can't afford the investment. There is no way my more impecunious relatives could have put the level of investment, in time or money, that my wife and I have put into our daughter. Which might be a reason for conservatives to support more public spending on child care and early childhood education.

  2. Shadow_Nirvana12:53 PM

    But aren't liberals socialist cultural marxists? Weren't Cultural Marxism and the Frankfurt School (that is the foundation modern liberals) created to destroy traditional marriage and thus end Western Civilization? I'm writing this from a secret location so the Cathedral won't find me, btw.

    1. Anonymous6:05 PM

      Christianity was a influence on "cultural marxism". Western values have changed over the last 10,000 years.......over and over again.

    2. Was it really not obvious that I was making a Dark Enlightenment/neoreactionary reference? The Cathedral isn't related to Christianity.

      I have failed with my satire.��

  3. Shadow, don't call any Frankfurt Schooler "liberal" unless you want to see a Mt. Vesuvius of rage. If you can find one, that is.

    Matt, what on earth are you doing wasting brain bandwidth on Ross Dimwit? You're too young to realize it, but take it from someone far older than you: life's too short.

    1. Shadow_Nirvana2:24 PM

      It was obviously a joke, sort of a Dork Entitlement impersonation.

  4. Anonymous2:20 PM

    Great article, Noah. Though after reading, I am filing it under "duh."

  5. "Most of the upper-class liberal educated Americans I know who are in stable, happy marriages had their share of premarital sex. Knowing what that lifestyle is like -- and realizing that they wanted more -- allowed them to be more content in their marriages, and more realistic about what marriage is all about (i.e., lifetime companionship and raising kids)."

    This passage really captures what the religious prophets of doom and gloom don't seem to understand. They believe their religious view of morals was actually revealed by God, and is dependent on God. Without it humans are rudderless, they believe. But experience seems to show that the prescriptions of religious morality were derived from descriptions of human experience based on a human biology that pre-dated religions. Our religions are derived from how our biology shapes our psychology. I include, as many religious people may not, our emotions, our social instincts, our moral instincts, and our powers of reason as properties of our biology.

    1. Ie, Liberals rescued morality from Authority. Nuff said.

  6. You think people in fishtown have less premarital sex than those in Belmont?

  7. This discussion is full of minefields, so I'll tread limitedly. Obviously, I'm not afraid to go into some minefields, but I pick my battles (and mixed metaphors).

    First off, Belmont and Fishtown, Yeah baby! Yeah! So glad to hear this, powerful and so important. I first heard of this reading The Second Machine Age. I've quoted their summary in comments. Here again:

    "In his 2012 book Coming Apart, social researcher Charles Murray put numbers to the problems Wilson described and also showed that they weren't confined to the inner cities or largely minority neighborhoods. Instead they were squarely part of mainstream white America. Murray identified two groups. The first comprises Americans with at least a college education and a professional or managerial job; these are dubbed the residents of the hypothetical town 'Belmont', named after a prosperous suburb in Boston. The second group consists of those with no more than a high school education and a blue collar or clerical job; these are residents of 'Fishtown', named after a working-class suburb of Philadelphia. In 2010 approximately 30% of the American workforce lived in Belmont, 20% in Fishtown.

    Using a variety of data sources Murray tracked what happened in Belmont and Fishtown from 1960 to 2010. At the start of that time span the two towns were not that far apart in most measures that tracked the health of a community—marriage, divorce, crime, etc.—and they were also full of people that worked. In 1960, 90 percent of Belmont households had at least one adult working forty or more hours a week, as did 81 percent of Fishtown households. By 2010 the situation had changed drastically for one of the communities. While 87 percent of Belmont households still had at least one person working that much, only 53 percent of Fishtown households did.

    What changed in Fishtown?...In 1960, only about 5 percent of Fishtowners between the ages of thirty and forty-none were divorced or separated; by 2010 a third of them were. Over time many fewer children in Fishtown grew up in two parent homes; by 2004 the figure dropped below 30 percent. And incarceration rates skyrocketed; in 1974, 213 out of every 100,000 Fishtowners were in prison. The number grew more than fourfold, to 957, over the next thirty years. Belmont also saw negative changes in some of these areas, but they were tiny in comparison. As of late 2004, for example, fully 90 percent of children in Belmont were still living with both of their biological parents."

    -- The Second Machine Age, pages 235-6.

  8. O/T: A request for Noah: I'd be nice to have a search box on the blog. They're pretty easy to add. Thanks.

  9. @ Noah -- Great post.

    @Richard H. Serlin -- Interesting data

    Sounds like Fishtown could use some help.

  10. Anonymous11:03 PM

    Don't forget about Darwin either. With advances in medical technology, surviving birthrates and easier living, the need for the women to be completely "Homebound" fades. However, Feminism and "feminist" dads are no more natural then trying to restore a dead era. Men will strike back until balance is restored.

    Either adapt or die.

    1. Shadow_Nirvana6:42 AM

      "However, Feminism and "feminist" dads are no more natural then trying to restore a dead era."

      Because reasons.

      "Men will strike back until balance is restored. "

      Rage against the machine!

      "Either adapt or die."

      So ominous.

  11. Anonymous12:42 AM

    "marriage isn’t about sex."

    You sound like a married man.

    This post is a ridiculous example of obvious spurious correlation since it is *wealthy* familes that are stable, not *liberal* wealthy families are more stable than *conservative* families. Poor liberal and conservative families are worse off. All of this fantasizing about why liberals are superior reminds me of how Japan funds studies on why the Japanese mind is superior to all others.

  12. David Frum ripped this book a new lower posterior excretory orifice. Basically, Murray is dishonest (quelle surprise!), and started his statistics rather late. If you run them from the 1920's, you'd have found that things got a lot better until the late sixties, paralleling the rise of the (white, since blacks were excluded) middle class.

    In other words, financial security helps families.

  13. Anonymous11:37 AM

    I live in a very socially liberal and affluent area, and was also educated in New England - a perfect example of this article.

    What this piece doesn't state is that many of these are MINO (marriage in name only). Many of the progeny - friends of my siblings - have no guidance, weak values and are simply "drifting," with a large, comfortable safety net to protect them from falling. Many of their parents are not in "relationships" in the humanistic sense, but in the utilitarian sense (the father works in high-powered position; mother works either part-time and occasionally tends to children, but most tasks, including the important work of actually raising children, are done by maids).

    It's all an image.

    1. "...but most tasks, including the important work of actually raising children, are done by maids)."

      IOW, you are talking about the 1%. Also, you are talking about something that is not new.

  14. o. nate1:14 PM

    I'd be interested to read what the Noah Smith who so perceptively demolished the genetic-determinist claptrap in Nicholas Wade's "A Troublesome Inheritance" would think about the cultural-determinist claptrap being peddled by Charles Murray and the clever impostor who wrote this column.

  15. It took Charles Murray to make you realize that UMC people were getting and staying married?! Oy. Te facts are obvious, but your explanation is hardly more sensible than his. Poor people are having just as much premarital sex as rich people. The problem is that they aren't then deciding to get married. To think that this is because they're just 30 years behind the times is a bit ridiculous and totally unsupported by data. A much more likely theory is that there aren't enough decent jobs for people to get married on. In the fifties and sixties men's wages were rising. For the past 40 years--longer than you have probably been alive!--men's wages have been flat to declining. Maybe that has something to do with it?

    1. Anonymous3:52 PM

      Low wages are preventing people from getting married? Wow! I wonder what elaborate argument can support this hypothesis. But yes, unlike Murray's, YOUR theory is so supported by the data. Clearly, marriage was do uncommon centuries ago, when people were quite poorer than they are today. Where have you been you little genius you?

  16. Why are you equating educated with liberal/secular? One of the points Murray made in his book is that church attendance is higher in Belmont than Fishtown. And as Andrew Gelman never ceases pointing out, within states the upper class is more right-wing (the effect is strongest in the reddest states). This is masked by the fact that the wealthiest states tend to be liberal, so it leads to David Brooks writing nonsense about bobos. But the real "culture war" is entirely contested among high SES folks on the left vs right, whereas downscale folks are less politically engaged and more focused on pocketbook politics.

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  17. I don't mean this as any kind of ideological point, but you do need to take into account the very strong incentive the welfare system gives poor mothers to be at least formally unmarried. You literally get paid to not be married, so even young mothers with stable partners who are committed to their children will often not want to marry. In fact fake single motherhood is widespread enough that you need to take statistics with a grain salt.

  18. If all it takes to raise one's social status to privileged is to get a degree, then this really is a classless society.

  19. Anonymous6:41 PM

    If the only way to get ahead is to get a degree, and If it takes good preschool, grade school and high school education, stable parents and a middle class attitude to debt to get a degree, then this really isn't a classless society because many kids wont stand a chance.

  20. zanon5:23 PM

    It's because the denizens of Belmont have the skills and capacity to resist the corrosive effects of liberal policy, while the denizens of Fishtown do not. Therefore, Belmonter's extol the benefits of liberalism knowing that they will be immune to it's negative effects (while enjoying the benefits) and Fishtown tries to fight back with conservative values, knowing that they won't be able to stop at just one and this is what they need to do to preserve their lives.

    It's why, when you go on a diet, you should throw your ice-cream out, even though you always have the option of not eating the ice cream.

    Trust a liberal to declare progressive politics healthy because it's poison only kills off the weak. Is there any scene of widespread social destruction that will make you change your mind?

  21. "Feminism, on the other hand, rewards fathers for sharing child care and housework, and frees them from the heavy burden of antiquated expectations."

    yep, here's where that argument crumbles. Feminism nor women really don't care about that - women will still be attracted to men primarily based on status, men to women primarily based on looks (which may be socially determined). You're not going to change these simple facts about human nature.

    Why liberalism would 'save' marriage compared to conservatism, is basically having a Full Employment economy would provide a higher number of marriageable men for women to be attracted to, not to mention all the marriageable men gained by ending the War on Drugs and brown/black men. Plus you'd have a bunch of pro-family, pro-marriage things like maternity leave (and perhaps even paternity leave as in Sweden). And, perhaps by making the social hierarchy more egalitarian, you increase the number of well-adjusted people, both men and women, creating more cohesion and partnerships (since hierarchy promotes stress and depression in at least low-status men).

    But I did always find it amusing how conservatives bemoan the decline of the family that was hastened and exacerbated largely by their own economic and social policies (anti-union, anti-manufacturing, higher levels of unemployment for lower inflation, etc. and of course 3 Strikes/War on Drugs)... Perhaps we could come to some kind of middle-ground and agree that Libertarians are often the most anti-societal family while Populists (economic liberals, social conservatives) would be the most pro-marriage and pro-natal?

  22. Anonymous1:10 AM

    Without fail, the people making arguments about low class men being "not good enough" might as well say that half of all black men are criminal thugs from birth. They are saying the same thing anyway, might as well make their special mix of sexism, racism and classism clear. Far too often it's upper class white people saying this anyway.

    I know that most people with PhDs in Economics are idiots who cannot understand mathematics and statistics at the level of undergraduates in other fields, but this one is still easy to work out.

    There are something like two single, childless young adult black men for every such black woman in America. It's basic stuff, look up the numbers and do the math. I know Noah should be capable.