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Individualism Uber Alles

Jonathan V. Last identifies a trend with huge potential effects: Today, the numbers are more striking: 23.8 percent of men, and 19 percent of women, between the ages of 35 and 44 have never been married. Tick back a cohort to the people between 20 and 34—the prime-childbearing years—and the numbers are even more startling: […]

Jonathan V. Last identifies a trend with huge potential effects:

Today, the numbers are more striking: 23.8 percent of men, and 19 percent of women, between the ages of 35 and 44 have never been married. Tick back a cohort to the people between 20 and 34—the prime-childbearing years—and the numbers are even more startling: 67 percent of men and 57 percent of women in that group have never been married. When you total it all up, over half of the voting-age population in America—and 40 percent of the people who actually showed up to vote this time around—are single.

What does this group look like? Geographically, they tend to live in cities. As urban density increases, marriage rates (and childbearing rates) fall in nearly a straight line. Carville and Greenberg put together a Venn diagram which is highly instructive. Of the 111 million single eligible voters, 53 million are women and 58 million are men. Only 5.7 million of these women are Hispanic and 9.7 million are African American. Nearly three-quarters of all single women are white. In other words, the cohort looks a lot like the Julia character the Obama campaign rolled out to show how the president’s policies care for that plucky gal from the moment she enrolls in Head Start right through her retirement. You may recall that because of President Obama, Julia goes to college, gets free birth control, has a baby anyway, sends her lone kid to public school, and then—at age 42—starts her own business (as a web designer!). What she does not do is get married.

How did we get here? Last catalogs the usual reasons — divorce, legitimization of cohabitation, etc. — but says there are two more profound cultural shifts underneath them:

The first is the waning of religion in American life. As Joel Kotkin notes in a recent report titled “The Rise of Post-Familialism,” one of the commonalities between all of the major world religions is that they elevate family and kinship to a central place in human existence. Secularism tends toward agnosticism about the family. This distinction has real-world consequences. Take any cohort of Americans—by race, income, education—and then sort them by religious belief. The more devout they are, the higher their rates of marriage and the more children they have.

The second shift is the dismantling of the iron triangle of sex, marriage, and childbearing. Beginning in roughly 1970, the mastery of contraception decoupled sex from babymaking. And with that link broken, the connections between sex and marriage—and finally between marriage and childrearing—were severed, too.

Where is this trend line headed? In a word, higher.

So what? Well, marriage is good for individuals, good for the children they produce, and good for society. Study after study has confirmed this wisdom at the heart of most religions. Last points out, though, that there will be political consequences to the rapid decline of marriage-and-family culture. People who aren’t married tend to be more focused on the here and now, and not thinking of the future, and the obligations to stewardship future-mindedness imposes. Also, if they don’t have families to help take care of them, the state has to step in.

Marcu$, the reader who sent in the Last link, also passed along this link to a 2011 Economist column, which favorably discusses the way Scandinavian countries use the state and the individual to suppress the traditional family, which it sees as a drag on liberty. Excerpt:

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, the five Nordic governments are to present a really interesting paper on “The Nordic Way”, which sets out to challenge what it calls the “half-truth” that Nordic voters are simply rather left-wing and wedded to a big, intrusive and conformist state. Nordic voters like the state but are also exceptionally individualistic, the paper asserts. The circle is squared because Nordic voters believe that the state (which usually works pretty well in countries like Sweden) is the best referee and guarantor of their individual freedoms.

The most interesting part of the paper, written by Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh, posits that when it comes to things like state versus private ownership or merit versus equality based pay, the Swedes are not especially leftist:

“Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, the workers from their employers, wives from their husbands, children from parents – and vice versa when the parents become elderly…legislation has made the Nordic countries into the least family-dependent and most individualized societies on the face of the earth. To be sure, the family remains a central social institution in the Nordic countries, but it too is infused with the same moral logic stressing autonomy and equality. The ideal family is made up of adults who work and are not financially dependent on the other, and children who are encouraged to be as independent as early as possible.”

Remember that this paper is not some airy-fairy exercise: it was written for Davos and endorsed by the Nordic governments. It goes on to suggest that there is such a thing as a “Swedish theory of love”, which believes:

“authentic relationships of love and friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each other or stand in unequal power relations. Thus autonomy, equality and (statist) individualism are inextricably linked to each other.”

In America, the family has historically been a key mediating institution between the state and the individual. But we are not the country we used to be. With traditional religion weakening — that is, with younger people either abandoning religion altogether, or substituting the ersatz Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for the real thing — and with a political and commercial culture focused on exalting the individual and his desires, achieving stable family formation is becoming an ever more countercultural phenomenon.  The demographic trends Last identifies are taking America into a future of social atomization and dependency on the state.

We are deep into Carle C. Zimmerman territory here. From a column I wrote a few years ago:

Civilization depends on the health of the traditional family.

That sentiment has become a truism among social conservatives, who typically can’t explain what they mean by it. Which is why it sounds like right-wing boilerplate to many contemporary ears.

Carle C. Zimmerman believed it was true, but he also knew why. In 1947, he wrote a massive book to explain why latter-day Western civilization was now living through the same family crisis that presaged the fall of classical Greece and Rome. His classic “Family and Civilization,” which has just been republished in an edited version by ISI Press, is a chillingly prophetic volume that deserves a wide new audience.

In all civilizations, Zimmerman theorized, there are three basic family types. The “trustee” family is tribal and clannish, and predominates in agrarian societies. The “domestic” family model is a middle type centering on the nuclear family ensconced in fairly strong extended-family bonds; it’s found in civilizations undergoing rapid development. The final model is the “atomistic” family, which features weak bonds between and within nuclear families; it’s the type that emerges as normative in advanced civilizations.

When the Roman Empire fell in the fifth century, the strong trustee families of the barbarian tribes replaced the weak, atomistic Roman families as the foundation of society.

Churchmen believed a social structure that broke up the ever-feuding clans and gave the individual more freedom would be better for society’s stability and spent centuries reforming the European family toward domesticity. The natalist worldview advocated by churchmen knit tightly religious faith, family loyalty and child bearing. From the 10th century on, the domestic family model ruled Europe through its greatest cultural efflorescence. But then came the Reformation and the Enlightenment, shifting culture away from tradition and toward the individual. Thus, since the 18th century, the atomistic family has been the Western cultural norm.

Here’s the problem: Societies ruled by the atomistic family model, with its loosening of constraints on its individual members, quit having enough children to carry on. They become focused on the pleasures of the present. Eventually, these societies expire from lack of manpower, which itself is a manifestation of a lack of the will to live.

It happened to ancient Greece. It happened to ancient Rome. And it’s happening to the modern West. The sociological parallels are startling.

Why should expanding individual freedoms lead to demographic disaster? Because cultures that don’t organize their collective lives around the family create policies and structures that privilege autonomous individuals at the family’s expense.

In years to come, the state will attempt economic incentives, or something more draconian, to spur childbirth. Europe, which is falling off a demographic cliff, is already offering economic incentives, with scant success. Materialist measures only seem to help at the margins.

Why? Zimmerman was not religious, but he contended the core problem was a loss of faith. Religions that lack a strong pro-fertility component don’t survive over time, he observed; nor do cultures that don’t have a powerfully natalist religion.