Ross Douthat responds to an essay by Matthew Yglesias that itself is a commentary on the argument over Charles Murray’s new book.

There’s plenty to discuss, but I’d like to focus on one point that Yglesias makes:

The obvious place to look for an explanation of the declining marriage rate is the vast increase in the economic opportunities available to women. Newly empowered and less dependent on male economic support, women have become somewhat choosier and are now less likely to be married than in the past. You can perhaps make the case that this is bad for kids, and that as a society we should return to total economic disempowerment of women in order to force people into two-parent households.

He also argues that many of our indicators of social success (for example, educational attainment, teen pregnancy, and violent crime) are headed in the right direction.  So what’s the problem?  If we’re headed in the right direction with fewer intact two-parent families, who needs the family, especially if the price to be paid for the traditional family is the “total economic disempowerment of women”?

“Bracketing” the needs and interests of the children, Douthat points to a “happiness gap” between affluent and working-class whites (to former of whom are more likely to have stable marriages than the latter), not to mention a decline overall in women’s happiness.  I won’t argue with that evidence or with those considerations, but how is it possible to “bracket” the needs and interests of children?

Yesterday in class I was discussing Alexis de Tocqueville’s presentation and analysis of American associational life as a prophylactic to individualism and the ” soft despotism ” that might ensue from our failure to take responsibility for “civil society.”  I asked my students—almost all of whom had participated in youth sports growing up—how many of the coaches, officials, and other volunteers they had encountered in these programs were government employees.  The answer was none.  Then who were they?  As I expected, the answer was parents.  Can a typical single parent coach or volunteer in these programs?  (To be sure, I know some who do, but I also know that all the programs with which I’m acquainted would collapse without the time and energy that certain parents—men and women both—give to them.)

If, as we must, we think about our obligation to care for the welfare of our children, I don’t see who we can regard the intact two-parent family as optional or dispensable.  Our social indicators may be moving in the “right” direction, but I have my doubts about many of those statistics.  For example, one of the reasons for the decline in rates of violent crime may be the decline in the number of young men.  And don’t get me started about “educational attainment” when there’s so much evidence suggesting that years in school don’t necessarily imply actual education.

But I return to Yglesias’ assumption that “family” requires the “total economic disempowerment of women.”  Why?  To be sure, a happy family requires sacrifices from both partners.  The men I know who take fatherhood seriously also make economic and career choices that are “suboptimal” if the goal is simply to maximize income.  That is, they recognize their responsibilities as men and fathers (which, by the way, are affirmed by their wives); they aren’t children who believe that the one who dies with the most toys wins.

Yglesias seems to think that human life is all about wealth and leisure (understood as play, not as the cultivation of human excellence).  Perhaps on that impoverished view he can think of marriage as not necessarily a good bargain for contemporary men and women.  But if happiness is more than consumption and if we’re meant (dare I say called?) to cultivate the full range of our capacities (including those for love and caring), then perhaps men and women both can only truly flourish in marriage.

In the end, as most of the readers of this websire know, the argument isn’t just about marriage; it’s about the nature of human fulfillment.

Articles by Joseph Knippenberg

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