There’s plenty of talk in policy circles about the arrival of “reform conservatism” to the policy scene, most recently and notably in Ross Douthat’s excellent Sunday New York Times op-ed. A consistent feature of reform conservatism is its emphasis on marriage—its potential for social mobility, its ties to predicting social outcomes that liberals and conservatives alike can appreciate. But calls for recognizing marriage as a mobility-increasing mechanism are receiving criticism for the lack of broad-based policy proposals. 

For example New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait has a blistering critique of the Republican approach toward reforming marriage: That there is none.

But first, we can appreciate Chait’s admission that, yes, marriage actually matters:

The conservative analysis of marriage is not ridiculous. Marriage may in fact be the single issue where the conservative analysis has the most power. The rapid growth of divorce and unwed motherhood has produced a huge increase in the proportion of American children being raised by a single parent, a vast social experiment with measurably harmful effects on children.

But Chait then goes on:

Yet the question hovering over the conservative defense of marriage is, so what? If the roots of the decline in marriage lie in a cultural sea change, what role does public policy have in reversing it, save for speeches hectoring Murphy Brown and her descendants? Liberals have a policy agenda that tries to accommodate the decline of marriage. Policies like expanded family leave, child care, and pre-kindergarten education would make it easier for single parents to work while ensuring their children receive decent care.

Conservatives oppose those policies because they involve more government and accept the decline of the two-parent household. What they have in place is . . . very little.

Chait’s simply wants simply the following: policy and program. But this narrowness shows what’s lacking in Chait’s analysis. What’s needed isn’t solely or even primarily a policy agenda—it’s a paradigm. Part of restoring marriage to its cultural primacy really is talking about marriage’s value in itself, on its own terms—what folks like Paul Ryan, Mike Lee, and others are doing. No policy can make people desire marriage; but federal policy can remove obstacles that incentivize not marrying, like the marriage penalty. The conservative reform movement has its policies—but it also recognizes that no policy can fully address what is also and always a cultural issue. 

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