The following is adapted from remarks delivered at the Life in America After Roe conference, co-hosted by The American Conservative and Belmont Abbey College on September 20, 2022.
As we discuss family policy, and mean by that how we can support and promote family formation in the United States, I am reminded of what is alleged to be an old 19th-century newspaper classified that periodically gets shared on social media. It reads:
CHANCE FOR A SPINSTER. — A young man in Aristook County, Maine, advertising for a wife, speaks of himself as follows: “I am eighteen years old, have a good set of teeth, and believe in Andy Johnson, the star-spangled banner, and the 4th of July. I have taken up a State lot, cleared up eighteen acres last year, and seeded ten of it down. My buckwheat looks first-rate, and the oats and potatoes are bully. I have got nine sheep, a two-year-old bull, and two heifers, besides a house and a barn. I want to get married. I want to buy bread-and-butter, hoop-skirts, and waterfalls for some person of the female persuasion during life. That’s what’s the matter with me. But I don’t know how to do it.”
The advertisement is an endearing snapshot of a very different America, and the sort of sourceless internet detritus one hopes is real in a concrete, historical way. But if we look at marriage rates today it is also a familiar cry for help. When it comes to forming families, too many young Americans, and American young men especially, “don’t know how to do it.”
This is troubling to conservatives, and it should be. The family—as Aristotle told us, but also as almost all of human history has shown us—is the basic political unit of a stable society. Genesis, too, shows us the first family—a man, a woman, and their children—and with it the first civil war. It also tells us the story of a husband and a wife becoming a nation. Abraham is called by God to become a patriarch, to go to the land the Lord will show him, in order to be fruitful and multiply, with Sarah, and take dominion.
Efforts to dismantle the family, to pretend that it is an arbitrary construct that occludes rather than mediates the relationship between the human person and sovereign political power, are largely recent—though we ought perhaps to acknowledge Plato and a certain famous city in speech here. And these efforts have—over and over again, and still today—dehumanized and degraded us, whether or not they are acknowledged to be totalitarian.
Totalitarian is a neologism, and should generally be replaced with tyrannical, the older and better word. But it does get at a sense of claustrophobia relevant to family-policy discussions, and so I use it here. If politics, and civilization, is fundamentally built on families, then families need space to grow, to become that foundation, and policy interventions should be aimed at giving them that space. Thinking in terms of space, of open fields and fertile garden beds, of trellises and fences, also gets us away from what has been called the reign of quantity in modernity, and of conservatives resorting to monetary values to measure everything. It helps us to think more clearly of the natural family as it is—an organic, integral whole—and the human beings that make it up as what they are, too—animals, rational and political, made in the image of God.
And so, while I support direct economic support for families—the financial incentives, bonuses, and tax tweaks that make up much of family-policy discourse, both here and in D.C.—I want to remind us to think of the human animals involved and in particular to think of men without college degrees, and how we can help them, like the young farmer from the classified advertisement, again make marriage a cornerstone rather than a capstone.
At this point, a disclaimer is appropriate, or perhaps rather a clarification. Family formation still mostly works for men like me, or at least marriage does. I am only recently engaged, so don’t have first-hand experience of children and homebuying yet. But I have peers, and they are making it work. But we are not normal, even if we might wish to be in certain ways normative. I have a brainwork laptop job with a comfortable salary and the prospect of advancement. I have a graduate degree on top of my bachelor’s. I come from an intact, church-attending, middle-class family and attend services weekly myself, and the same is true of my fiancée. From a policy-making standpoint, then, I am not who needs the most help, and I am not who I hope creative thinking about family policy will primarily help.
Pro-family policy must begin as pro-marriage policy. The young farmer of our classified has what so many American men today—approximately 16 million as of 2015 and probably much more today—do not have: namely, a job. More than a job, our homesteader has an occupation. He knows what his work is for, as he farms, to grow buckwheat, oats, and potatoes, and he can see the fruit of his labor with satisfaction. He knows what his work is worth, too. It makes him marriageable.
Men without college degrees are not all going to be able to join the trades, or to become truckers, or, under current conditions, to be farmers. Interventions are required, and we must learn to think of pro-male-employment interventions, and anti-diploma-industrial-complex interventions, as pro-marriage interventions. Surely the biggest disqualifier for men seeking marriage in America today is not just the financial insecurity of underemployment in low-wage service work, setting aside for a moment full-on unemployment, but the dispiritingness of it all. Male educational outcomes are just as dispiriting. The pathologies that plague Americans—of obesity, of substance abuse and addiction, of crime and incarceration, of endless video games in proverbial and literal basements—stem in part from miserable work for miserable pay with no prospect of growth, no space to roam in. American men have lost their mojo; they’ve noticed, and so have the women.
Our Maine homesteader has space that has let him become marriageable in a more literal sense, too. He owns property. By a state program he has acquired 18 acres and cleared them, at 18 years of age. He has a house and a barn. Do you have a house and a barn? I think you’re very fortunate if you do. I’d like a house and a barn. But as you’ve probably noticed, there is a mismatch in America between places where there are reasonably good jobs to be had and places where there are 18 acres to fill with shouting children. This area might be one of the lucky places, but nationwide, we can hardly expect married American couples to do their fair share of baby-making if they can only look forward to decades in a tiny apartment.
This is perhaps where I get more pro-monetary-intervention and more self-serving in my family-policy recommendations. We have got to make homeownership affordable for young people, one way or another—better yet, some real acreage. To hearken back to Genesis: for human beings, space to subdue and fruitful multiplication go together. But even as we talk about direct cash support or worry about repeating the 2008 financial crisis, let’s also consider the major distorters in America’s real estate market. That we don’t build enough is a given. But Chinese nationals and Bill Gates and BlackRock also own enormous portions of American farmland and American single-family housing. The Feds still own much of the west, not all of it national parkland or leased natural resources. A confident pro-family statesman can probably think of a few things to do about that.
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Work and property conditions are a couple material reasons American men don’t have the space to grow into husband material. Farmer boy has them and men today do not. But it’s also true that in all his room to roam our young farmer doesn’t have something that they do have: a kind of negative space, in the supposed freedoms of no-fault divorce. The statistics make clear, the vast majority of divorces are initiated by women. Our homesteader is seeking a wife in a world where—not just culturally, but legally—there will be more ties that bind him and his bride together. Like the fish in the ocean, there’s true freedom in limits, and space to grow in the fence of a socially reinforced marriage. There is a confidence to it that it would be hard for us to approximate. Marriage is placing a bet on the future, and the odds are partly worse today because the rules are simply different in a very important way.
In the end, though, the farmer doesn’t know how to get married, so he asks the newspaperman to help him. Material and legal conditions aren’t enough, though they’re not nothing. It takes a culture of marriage and a culture of children to make a culture of family. And that requires hope, a real sense of hope in the future and gratitude for the present, a belief that the world is worth giving to another generation. The homesteader believes in “Andy Johnson, the star-spangled banner, and the 4th of July”; he wants to get married because of “bread-and-butter, hoop-skirts, and waterfalls” but also because he has confidence in his country.
The American baby boom occurred in two decades of American triumph, and during the space race, the new frontier. I do not think that was an accident. Cultural Christianity and old normative social expectations gave a script, but a confident optimism in the country’s capacity for growth, in a sense of genuine open space, gave the American man, and the American woman with him—for the sexes rise and fall together—something to aspire to, and the boldness to bring many children into this world. I don’t think Mars can be that frontier for us today; we’ve lost too much of the shared vision for the poetry of engineering we had during the space race for outer space today to capture the country’s heart. But in the time of population contraction that we are entering, real space here in North America, real frontier, will again open to us, and it is for American men and their families to fill it.