Libertarians and Marriage

I came across an interesting piece on the Backbencher arguing that libertarians should care about marriage in the same way social conservatives do. The thrust of it is that marriage is the best environment in which to raise children. The arguments here are familiar ones: marriage provides a more structured upbringing for the children, children from divorced families are nine times more likely to commit crimes, while the welfare state is encouraging family breakdown.

This I am in agreement with. I’ve since gotten into an interesting discussion on the matter over on Facebook. I find it funny that libertarians can talk endlessly about the nature of children’s rights or whether a child should be permitted to run away from home, but tend to balk at the idea of promoting the marvelous institution of marriage.  Sometimes, libertarians will say correlation does no imply causation in regards to the benefits married families enjoy. This is reasonable enough, though I believe the statistics bear out the pro-marriage argument. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Far too often, I believe, libertarians use the correlation-causation fallacy response or completely refuse to engage with the issue because they have serious (and in my opinion, needless) hang-ups about promoting marriage. This makes sense when one moots the possibility of using the apparatus of the state in the endeavor.  Scratch them enough, however, and you will often find an outright hostility to even endorsing marriage on a personal level. I contend that this is non-judgmentalism to the point of insanity and wider social detriment.

Benjamin Rush, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, said that without virtue there can be no liberty. Everywhere in the writings of America’s Founding Fathers we see that they believed the success of the American project depended on the goods of marriage, honesty, industriousness, and religiosity. Today, virtue and social capital, the very things that the Founding Founders and observers like Alexis de Tocqueville said made democracy in America work, are being utterly destroyed. The great Charles Murray has brilliantly described this phenomenon among the white lower classes in ‘Coming Apart‘. I do not believe it is enough to merely retrench the welfare state while society itself is ill. There are certain norms and behaviors that are better than others in every meaningful sense, and libertarians should be doing more to promote them.

Now, I don’t want to delve heavily into the statistical benefits of being married, because I blog for recreational purposes and like hell am I going to have footnotes and graphs all over this thing. However, some specific examples are interesting to consider.

Marriage And Men: The Stats Are Sound

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the character of Enkidu is a wild man created by the gods to challenge Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, who is oppressing his people. Enkidu is covered in hair and lives among the animals. Trappers tell Gilgamesh the man/beast is ruining their livelihoods by uprooting their traps. Gilgamesh arranges for Shamhat, a temple prostitute, to seduce Enkidu by a watering-hole. They make love for six days and seven nights, until the beasts, who once saw Enkidu as their own, flee from him. Shamhat takes Enkidu to the city of Uruk, and he becomes  part of the civilized world.

It may sound quaint to suggest marriage tames men, but there is much truth truth in the manner in which Enkidu came to be civilized. On social issues, libertarians too often make the same mistakes as the leftists, in that they believe it is important to respect everybody else’s way of doing things and shun uncomfortable discussions on gender roles.

The left-leaning NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes something I believe applies well to libertarians:

Liberals sometimes feel that it is narrow-minded to favor traditional marriage. Over time, my reporting on poverty has led me to disagree: Solid marriages have a huge beneficial impact on the lives of the poor (more so than in the lives of the middle class, who have more cushion when things go wrong).

One study of low-income delinquent young men in Boston found that one of the factors that had the greatest impact in turning them away from crime was marrying women they cared about. As Steven Pinker notes in his recent book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”: “The idea that young men are civilized by women and marriage may seem as corny as Kansas in August, but it has become a commonplace of modern criminology.”

The 1980’s seemed to have been a good time for studies of the effects of marriage on men. In 1981, the economist Gary Becker published his Treatise on the Family, which applies economic theory to household dynamics and emphasized the greater role specialization that occurs with marriage. In 1986, George Gilder significantly updated his book Sexual Suicide, which says the responsibilities of marriage lead young men to become more industrious, focused, and settled. Gilder was fiercely attacked and faced the usual allegations of sexism, not so much for the substance of his argument, but because of his strong emphasis that men and women are different (emotionally and intellectually, as well as physically). A lot of people call Gilder a nut. I think there’s some substance in that charge, but he’s a damn lovable nut.

Admittedly, this ‘taming’ of the young man works best in a society where options for sex outside marriage are very limited, thus giving men an incentive to marry, and marry early. However, even today, with such easy access to premarital sex and the option of cohabitation, marriage behooves the men who enter it in regards to productivity and income. The “marriage premium” was another element in favor of marriage initially identified by economists in the late-1980’s. It means married men make ten to twenty percent more money than their unmarried counterparts. While men with high earnings are more likely to attract a partner in the first place, the phenomenon has been shown to remain even after controlling for every possible socioeconomic and demographic factor. Two academics even used the example shotgun weddings as a way of diminishing the selection factor. The premium always occurs after the wedding, and I believe this is best explained by the analysis of Gary Becker and George Gilder.

Many libertarians claim the arrangement of cohabitation is superior to marriage as it appears to allow for greater choice and flexibility. I find this argument quite weak, given that marriage is voluntary, and the unfortunate but necessary mechanisms of divorce and annulment do exist. Chesterton’s quip “to admire mere choice is to refuse to choose” might well apply to libertarians here. The marriage premium, interestingly, does not reach cohabiting couples. Worse still, the children of cohabiting parents fare about the same as those raised by single mothers (according to the 2004 National Institute of Child Health and Human Development studies of Stacey Aronson and Aletha Huston, and Susan Brown’s 2004 study of the National Survey of American Families). The ‘good’ news, according to Charles Murray, is that other demographic variables do attenuate the differences somewhat, but not fully.

 So, How Can We Promote Marriage, Exactly? 

Firstly, lets emphasize once more why marriage is important. The evidence strongly indicates that the deterioration of communities is accelerated and protracted by the breakdown of marriage, given that married families, for one, form the backbone of civil associations and communities. A functioning neighborhood is characterized by happy marriages. Its the married parent who goes to school board meetings. I also recommend paying a visit to the men who volunteer to coach your local underage sports teams. Again, you will see its always the married ones.

All those benefits, and yet its hard to think of  a popular song that has extolled marriage as an ideal in recent years. Off the top of my head, only Peggy Lee’s The Folks Who Live On The Hill springs to mind, and that was 1957. Peggy herself never did very well in the marriage game, anyway.

I will now attempt to endear myself to libertarians again.

When it comes to how we promote marriage, I certainly would never entertain the idea that we can just get governments to do it through financial benefits or cultural campaigns. While the welfare state exists, I am open to tinkering with programs where they promote bad behavior. Unfortunately, mothers are often incentivized to live alone in council houses to keep their benefits rather than live with the father of her child. This is inhumane.

Some readers will be aware that I was a member of the Progressive Democrats in Ireland. The PDs once proposed some reforms to address the issue I just mentioned (bravely, or foolishly, during an election year). Such proposals went down like a lead balloon. When the Irish journalist Kevin Myers years later touted the benefits of those ideas, he was shouted down to an even greater extent than he normally is whenever he opens his mouth.  I am not optimistic about using the means of politics and lawmaking to change things. Nor do I believe such an approach is right in the first place.

Ultimately, it is up to us as individuals to promote the virtue of marriage and to be ourselves an example of virtuous living. We must as libertarians, not be tempted to be non-judgmental to the point of civilizational collapse. The sustaining of communities of morality and civility, communities that can survive social and economic breakdown, is a kind of anti-political politics that can be the most powerful force of all.

The government of the United States, for example, has failed to export democracy to the Muslim world in the last decade, even with the aid of trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of troops. Yet 100,000 Americans serve as overseas missionaries. Protestant denominations of American origin are the fastest growing religious communities in the world. Pentecostalism has expanded from a store-front church at the beginning of the last century to number 350-400,000,000 members. By some accounts, six million Muslims per year are becoming Christians. China’s Christian community, perhaps 10% of the country’s population, has largely grown out of house-churches run on an American evangelical model. Poland freed itself from Soviet rule after the resurgence of a Christian civil society. The same could easily happen elsewhere.

In the struggle for liberty, the family and civil society are fronts just as important as the political structure, because liberty cannot exist without the public goods that are strong families and strong communities.

Murray’s ‘Coming Apart’ indicates that marriage is still very strong among the new upper classes, standing stable at 83% in a town like Belmont, Massachusetts (home of Mitt Romney). In a lower-class white neighborhood like Fishtown, Philadelphia  however, marriage continues to slide. As of 2010, a minority of adults (48%) there were married. This is having disastrous implications for community life in Fishtown, along the lines of the problems described very well in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.

Yet non-judgementalism, Murray writes,

is one of the more baffling features of the new upper-class culture. The members of the new upper class are industrious to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for adults who are not industrious. The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for non-marital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals. When you get down to it, it is not acceptable in the new upper class to use derogatory labels for anyone, with three exceptions: people with differing political views, fundamentalist Christians, and rural working-class whites.

According to the Pew Research Center, libertarians tend to be well-educated and relatively affluent white males. I suspect most are going to live more like married folks in Belmont than Fishtown. So why not preach what we practice?