Family & Economy, Left & Right
Ross Douthat points to a Foreign Affairs essay that comes at the connection between marriage, family, and economic opportunity from a left-of-center stance, and finds useful common ground. Douthat writes:
Here I think Kenworthy combines a dose of useful skepticism about efforts to promote marriage via social pressure alone with a dose of unwarranted optimism about the current trajectory of working-class childbearing. He’s clearly right to note that while marriage can dramatically improve the socioeconomic prospects for parents and children alike, this only holds if the man is actually bringing something to the table, and isn’t just a drain on his wife’s financial and emotional resources. (Anyone interested in pondering the latter problem should combine repeated viewings of “Teen Mom” with this depressing Jonathan Rauch article.) Sometimes the institution of marriage stabilizes feckless men, and helps them become real fathers and providers, but sometimes it doesn’t — and the material foundation available to the couple can make all the difference. This is why social conservatism without some kind of economic agenda focused on working class interests is at best woefully incomplete: To encourage a virtuous interaction between family stability and economic opportunity, policymakers have to work both halves of the circle.
Douthat is right about that, and it’s why the either/or framework of so much of our arguing over this issue is misleading. The left is correct that material conditions have something to do with family formation and family stability. And the right is correct that material conditions do not explain everything (which is why every attempt to boost childbearing by offering financial incentives has failed), and that moral, social, and religious practices that discipline sex and childbearing play an important role in providing for economic progress.
It’s frustrating to me to watch both sides talk past each other. It’s as if the left holds sexual autonomy to be such an idol that it cannot accept the idea that prescriptive social codes (i.e., “thou shalt not”) informing and governing sexual behavior can be useful and important to building decent lives for the poor and working classes. It’s as if the right were so devoted to the idea of economic autonomy (i.e., a market bounded only by choice) that they cannot or will not see that market conditions really do affect the prospect of family formation.
The Catholic radical Peter Maurin, I believe it was, defined a good society as a society that made it easier to choose to be good. This is as succinct a definition of the relationship between liberty and order as I can imagine — and it illuminates why neither side in our American argument has the complete answer. But it also raises the question: what is “good”? That we can’t agree on that definition anymore suggests that the other problem is unsolvable.