“‘Marriage has become a luxury good.’”

Along with the recent debate over contraceptive coverage, it is clear that not only has sex permeated our politics and cultural life (Kristof couldn’t be more disingenuous), but it has also become completely dissociated from conceptions of human flourishing, relegated solely to the realm of personal (expressive) autonomy. While the wealthy and educated celebrate their libertine gains, the poor and uneducated – and especially their children – continue to be the hardest hit in this grand cultural experiment.

The Times cites a Child Trends report that more than half the children born to women under 30 are born to single mothers. Nor can inadequate access to birth control be considered the reason for this. Indeed, when one considers the significant increase in in the percent of births from 1970 to 2009 that belong to unmarried women, there is no evidence to suggest that access to birth control has improved this condition. The conclusion is that the whole idea of marriage and family itself has been subordinated to the whims of sexual congress. The report itself is worth a look.

Tocqueville predicted that democracy would move toward soft despotism as non-governmental associative life became increasingly tenuous, and under attack by government itself, which would then gather the dissociated individuals under its tutelary care, guarantee to them their private materialistic and hedonistic expressivity, while making itself the sole guarantor of their material well-being. The steady decline of family life thus has an intrinsic relation to the contraceptive flap, for in the latter the Obama administration has clearly attacked the value of associative life, with its contour-giving authority in determining the proper ends of freedom, in favor of isolated individuals poorly and selfishly exercising their sexuality under the protection of a despotic regime which, as Patrick has noted, is a jealous god.

13 comments on this post.
  1. Patrick J. Deneen:

    At least two books that should be consulted on this theme: “A Mother’s Work,” by the Berkeley sociologist Neil Gilbert (which discusses how contemporary feminism works fist-in-glove with the capitalist agenda); and Coming Apart, by Charles Murray, which updates and extends earlier analyses undertaken by Christopher Lasch, David Brooks and Bill Bishop, showing that our upper classes are shaping our political, legal and social world under libertine assumptions, while avoiding its actual consequences of such a lifestyle by living far more “conservatively.” By living apart, and portraying a message that sex should be recreational and marriage and stable two-parent families are optional, they are no longer acting as trustees and exemplars to those without wealth and upward mobility. Wealth insulates them from the consequences of their deconstruction of cultural practices and institutions that are otherwise so desperately needed by those who have not won the meritocratic sweepstakes.

  2. John Haas:

    “. . . democracy would move toward soft despotism as non-governmental associative life became increasingly tenuous, and under attack by government itself . . .”

    Well, that’s a bit garbled, isn’t it? There’s lots of reasons “non-governmental associative life” might become “tenuous.” Men’s clubs might go out of style. The frontier might close. Folk might move to the suburbs and install air-conditioning. Some meddlesome malefactor might invent television. Baseball loses its standing as the national past-time.

    I guess government might expand certain of its functions to take up the slack–of course, in a representative democracy, that would be because that’s what the people want (or think they want). Whether any of that rises to the level of an “attack,” much less a “despotic regime,” seems dubious.

    Last time I checked, churches still get tax-exemptions.

  3. Karen:

    The best book for a popular audience on single motherhood is “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. The authors interview many poor single mothers. They conclude that the women they studied believe that they can raise children, but that marriage to the men available to them are a bad lot: felons, thugs, and generally very dumb. The women want small babies, not tall male ones, which is what they’d get if they married. Simply having a male around isn’t worth their time.

  4. Anymouse:

    That is probably a large part of the problem as well. Neither the men nor the women are very well adept in the arena of responsibility today. And this effects not just the poor, but many of our college educated that are alive today.

  5. John Gorentz:

    “. . . democracy would move toward soft despotism as non-governmental associative life became increasingly tenuous, and under attack by government itself . . .”

    I wish I had read Toqueville and understood this at a much younger age instead of having taken so much of my life to come to this conclusion without his help.

    I guess one thing that helped me understand this dynamic, is watching the government wage war on private charities.

  6. Albert:

    Mr. Haas, what is garbled about it? The rest of your comment does not show. Your examples don’t actually preclude State activity, so they are at best distractions apart from additional information and at worst (e.g. suburbs) examples that actually contradict your point.

    I also have no idea why you characterize the State as “taking up the slack.” Certainly the aggressive activity of the State during the early 20th century Progressive era (e.g. 16th-19th amendments apart from which current trillion dollar levels of State spending and activity and vast majority of 20th century government programs would be impossible) wasn’t merely “taking up slack” the State just happened to find caused by independent cultural forces like baseball going out of style. Unless you are defining away the State since it’s just what “people want” as if any State is mostly made up of causal entities other than “people.”

    Because some rights and good policies remain, like churches getting tax exemptions, does that outweigh multi-trillion dollar State expenditures and activity over the course of decades to re-shape society? The idea that “There are some good things, so that must mean there are no bad things or that the good outweighs the bad” seems nonsensical to me.

  7. John Haas:

    Well, Albert, you’ve misread my intent, if you think I’m saying, “There are some good things, so that must mean there are no bad things.” I’m not sure how you got that from my post, but you need not explain. Let’s move to substance:

    Take a couple examples of Progressive legislation. The PFDA, eg, seems to me to have been a response to the spatial expansion of markets (a result of transportation, advertising, corporate horizontal integration, and so forth) for things such as meat, cereal, canned foods, drugs, etc.

    Once upon a time, if your local butcher sold you bad meat and your family got sick, you could chase the chain of causality fairly easily, and you might mention it to the butcher when you saw him at the local baseball game.

    Your butcher likely was holistically invested in the community–he cared not just about keeping your business, but about his reputation for good citizenship, the effects of scandal upon his family, how he might be treated at church, and such things.

    By the early 20th c. all that had changed. Causality was harder to trace, the opportunities for profit-driven “corner-cutting” at risk to the public’s health were greater, the possibility of detection slimmer, and investment in local communities on the part of corporate decision-makers was vanishing towards zero.

    So, far from being an “attack” on “non-governmental associative life,” I’d see the latter as simply going through some transitions during this period which rendered it incapable of performing the same functions in the same ways it had in the past. Were there other, and viable, forms of “non-governmental associative life” that could have been devised toperform those functions?

    If there weren’t or aren’t, is it a good thing or a bad thing that those functions continue to be performed, evn if by the government (with all the down-sides that will incur)?

    We could ring similar changes on the Federal Reserve. In the decades leading up to 1913, J. P. Morgan had provided the kind of over-sight and policing of the banks that helped, particularly in 1907, avoid banking crises and subsequent depressions. Morgan believed there was no man with his reputation for rectitude to replace him, and the system had become too large for anyone private individual todo it anywway. So, far from seeing the Federal Reserve as an “attack” on the function he had performed, he welcomed it.

    Now we can and should have discussions about the goodness or not of all those things.

    But the original claim, to which I was responding, didn’t reference “bad things” pure and simple, which any sane observer will admit; it positied intentionality behind those “bad things,” hence the language of “attack.”

    My point about tax-exemptions for churches was merely to say, if the government is intent on destroying “non-governmental associative life,” which seems to have become a kind of conventional wisdom in certain circles, well, that’s an awfully odd way to go about it.

    But maybe they’re just doing it to lull us into a false sense of complacency. One day, we’ll be dozing in our pews, and awake with a start tofind the Bibles all gone, replaced with a little red book of the sayings of Chairman Obama . . . What do you think?

  8. Siarlys Jenkins:

    “Tocqueville predicted that democracy would move toward soft despotism as non-governmental associative life became increasingly tenuous”

    Then it would seem that we need to focus less on the details of statutes and regulations, and focus more on reviving non-governmental associative life. I know that a blend of liberal assumptions about government as a positive good, and bureaucratic inertia and self-righteousness, can be a significant barrier. I have some experience with patiently and persistently explaining to both tax and regulatory agencies why a purely voluntary, non-commercial, non-income-generating community organization is simply none of their business and not subject to their jurisdiction. Government, whether monarchies or republics, tend to assume that “what I have not authorized is forbidden,” a standard in direct conflict with the First Amendment.

    But still, restoring non-governmental associative life is a more productive (and satisfying) approach than wrestling with government departments to do their job in a modestly less authoritative manner.

  9. pb:

    “They conclude that the women they studied believe that they can raise children, but that marriage to the men available to them are a bad lot: felons, thugs, and generally very dumb. The women want small babies, not tall male ones, which is what they’d get if they married. Simply having a male around isn’t worth their time.”

    They won’t marry them but they have no problems having sex with them.

  10. JonF:

    Re:: The Times cites a Child Trends report that more than half the children born to women under 30 are born to single mothers.

    Are they just de jure single, or are they in fact single? Many couples with children these days live together in the equivalent of common law marriages (which were once legally recognized for precisely this reason) , and eventually they do marry. If children are being born in two-parent families that simply lack the imprimatur of the state and blessing of a church, that’s a very different (and much smaller) issue than if this increase in unwed motherhood really doesi nvolve women on their own.

  11. Harold:

    As a result of my part-time job, I know a lot of single mothers. All talk about how they are making on their own.

    Except they are not.

    They are drawing food stamps, WIC, AFDC, and other government aid that I didn’t know existed until they tell me about it. IOW, the government, meaning me and you and the other taxpayers, are taking the place of a husband being their provider. Without even getting laid for our efforts.

    Get rid of WIC, AFDC, food tamps, free cell phones, and other such support- and the reate of single motherhood would drop like that proverbial rock. Also, it would enable us to get rid of a bunch of gevenment workers whose sole job is transferring money from the taxpayers to the moochers, skimming their salary off the top.

  12. lhf:

    I think the arguments for “comprehensive family life education” and free access to birth control and abortion for young women was supposed to prevent what the Child Trends report presents. The Washington Post also reported the other day that 1 in 4 teen girls now has a sexually transmitted disease, which the same programs were supposed to prevent. I didn’t see a call for reevaluation of these efforts anywhere.

  13. Anymouse:

    “Also, it would enable us to get rid of a bunch of gevenment workers whose sole job is transferring money from the taxpayers to the moochers, skimming their salary off the top.”
    An excellent thing. That alone would free up a great deal of money in our economy, make it available for better things.

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