If marriage is considered only in the context of the happiness of consenting adults, who’s to say any arrangement is wrong? But even if we “bracket the interests of children” do we really appreciate what we’re asking for?
I know I largely wrecked several years of the middle of my parents’ lives; added together with the years my 3 brothers* (but not my sweet sister) wrecked, and I’d have to say that mom&dad tossed away the middle of their lives for a bunch of ingrates! What was in it for them – some nice grandkids down the road?! Thank God – literally, praise Him! – that they didn’t bracket my interests for whatever reasons motivated them. They both were (mom – you still are, praise Him again) are pretty smart cookies, so I’d wager they knew what they were doing. I’m taking the same gamble, and my kids are ahelluvalot better to me than I was to my folks (so far – my eldest only recently became a teenager), so I remain hopeful. And as a good friend of mine loves to say, half-jokingly, “I’m not unhappy.”
Ross Douthat is nowhere near as funny as Steyn, or even Jenkins, but he rivals them both for the tightly reasoned/worded argument. He doesn’t spill a lot of ink here but sure packs a wallop.
A good father makes all the difference (I lost mine 10 yrs ago this month) in the development of boys and girls; so what type of civilization will we enjoy after a few generations are raised (largely) without them? At least we’ll have free health care and bullet trains that run on algae…
February 22, 2012, 3:22 pm
Marriage, Self-Interest and Happiness
Matt Yglesias has an interesting intervention in the debate over Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart.” In nutshell, he suggests that the decline of marriage in the American working class doesn’t necessarily reflect a social or an economic crisis. Rather, it’s a rational — and in certain ways, laudable — response to an age of female empowerment and material abundance. In the current socioeconomic landscape, the sexes simply need each other less: Women are “newly empowered and less dependent on male economic support,” he notes, which has made them them “somewhat choosier” about their mates; men, meanwhile, are less likely to do the hard work necessary to be solid marriage material because hard work is unpleasant, and it’s easier to lead a life of leisure than ever before. “To a certain puritanical frame of mind that views toil as a virtue in and of itself,” he writes, “this may seem unfortunate,” but leisure is one of civilization’s great achievements: “George Jetson, after all, only worked nine hours a week. Why should we aspire to anything less?” Yes, the new order may be somewhat harder on children, but absent evidence of true social disintegration (soaring crime rates, collapsing educational attainment, riots in the streets), ”why not just look at progress and call it ‘progress’?”
I suppose one rejoinder would be, progress toward what end? If the argument is that per capita G.D.P. will probably keep rising even in an America where most births are out of wedlock, then I suppose that I agree (and so, I imagine, does Charles Murray). But the world Yglesias is describing is a world where the short-term rational self-interest of both sexes — the understandable female desire to have children without taking on the burden of husbands who are often basically children themselves, and the understandable male desire not to take a steady but low-paying job when they can work part-time, goof off on the XBox, and still find willing sexual partners — conspires to keep some of the crucial ingredients of long-term happiness out of reach for a larger and larger share of the population. So yes, it’s a good thing that many working-class women can make enough money to support themselves and raise a child without a husband, rather than being forced into destitution instead. But it isn’t “condescending” to these mothers (as Kate Roiphe implausibly suggests) to note that raising a child is personally and psychologically stressful like almost nothing else in life, that raising a child alone or semi-alone compounds the stress, and that many if not most single mothers would probably be happier and more secure, both in the work lives and their home lives, if the males in their social circles seemed reliable enough to marry. Likewise the men: The fact that being a slacker and a layabout in your 20s and 30s is easier, more fun and more economically rational than ever before doesn’t change the reality that men who don’t make the effort to make themselves marriageable are missing out on an institution that’s generally good for their health and well-being in the long run.
It’s true that for all its socioeconomic costs, the decline of marriage hasn’t led to immiseration and upheaval on a grand scale. But at the very least, it’s been associated with a growing happiness gap between the well-educated and the poor (35 percent of Murray’s “Fishtown” whites called themselves “very happy” in 1970; by the mid-2000s it was more like 17 percent), and a decline in female happiness overall. Which suggests that even if we bracket the interests of children entirely and just focus on parents, there’s a strong case that both sexes would be better off if working-class women demanded more of the men in their lives and working-class men demanded more of themselves.
If our only goals are some form of continued growth and a relative social stability, then the new social order isn’t necessarily a threat to progress. But if our goals are human happiness and human flourishing and a life well lived, then the future Yglesias is welcoming seems considerably darker.
*My baby brother was pretty decent, so I should probably say 2.5 instead of 3, but I don’t want him to know I feel this way about him so I’ve buried it down here.