The Crisis of the American Family: A Polemic on Liberal Rationalism

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Consider the American family, never so vexed. Take marriage in particular. Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Stephanie Hanes reports:

“In 1950, married couples represented 78 percent of households in the United States. In 2011, the US Census Bureau reported, that percentage had dropped to 48 percent . . .

[In 2014], for the first time, the number of unmarried American adults outnumbered those who were married . . .

Meanwhile, only 30 percent of Millennials say that having a successful marriage is ‘one of the most important things’ in life, according to the Pew Research Center, down from even the 47 percent of Generation X who said the same thing in 1997. Four in 10 Americans went ever further, telling Pew researchers in 2010 that marriage was becoming obsolete.”

Nor is that all of the sad statistics. Between 40 percent and 45 percent of marriages end in divorce, a figure that does not account for the proportion, now greater than ever, of people who cohabitate without marrying, or for the number of cohabitating couples having children, which has increased 10-fold in the last decade. And on and on. Four out of ten children are illegitimate. Among blacks, the proportion is nearly three-quarters. The birth rate has fallen to a record low, and is hundreds of births short of the population replacement level. In short, as Hanes puts it:

“American society is in the midst of a fundamental social and demographic shift, the ‘greatest social change of the last 60 years that we haven’t already named and identified,’ according to New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg . . . It is a shift that goes well beyond the dynamics of relationships, affecting everything from housing and health care to child rearing and churches.”

Anchoring this shift, and serving as a terrible axis for it, is no-fault divorce, so harmful in its effects on children. Thomas G. West observes:

“Beginning in the 1960s, our laws have abolished marriage as a meaningful legal contract. In the founding, husbands and wives had important rights and duties, and divorce was only available for serious misbehavior of a spouse . . . Today, the older ‘marriage model’ for raising and caring for children has been replaced by a ‘child support model.’ Marriage can now be dissolved at the whim of either partner, and government mandates child support whether or not the parents were ever married. Marriage loses its significance when the mother knows she will probably receive custody and child support if she expels the father from the house.”

When it was “a meaningful legal contract,” marriage was founded on a lifelong commitment to one’s spouse, not to be broken, as West reminds us, without good reason. Alas, it is no longer so. Divorce is common, with 7 out of 10 being filed by women, who are effectively rewarded, in many instances, for quitting on what they undertook with their husbands. Of course, there are plenty of men who deserve to be divorced. Nor has marriage become simpler or easier or for women since they joined the work force en masse, as they continue to do the majority of domestic duties. But there are also many men who, though they are not guilty of any “serious misbehavior,” are nonetheless unjustly punished, losing their home and savings, paying alimony and child support even though it is not they who are in the wrong. Perhaps worst of all for such men, women get custody of the children 82% of the time.

In view of these grim realities, we should be able to appreciate the special value of conservative traditionalism, as opposed to liberal rationalism. For there used to be, I will say after my wise correspondent Amy Wax, a marriage script for people to follow. We recognize it from those hoary old precepts: meeting a woman’s father before taking her out, not having sex before marriage, not having children out of wedlock, and so on. Liberal rationalists, it seems fair to say, do not grasp the special value of that script. Still, without it what we have is a different type of person, one with different perceptions, evaluations, and judgments, as can be seen from the profound changes in lifestyles in our time: rises in divorce, in illegitimate children, and in familial pathology in general. Today it is an open question, as fewer people are conditioned by and answerable to the marriage script, whether the institution of marriage, as a vital component of the state, can even survive, let alone flourish. And if, as seems likely, current trends continue apace, what does this entail for children? Is there a culture worth having if marriage is not a strong institution?

Indeed, in Sex and Culture (1934), his study of 80 primitive tribes and six civilizations during 5,000 years of history, J.D. Unwin explains a remarkably consistent pattern: as societies become prosperous, they eventually become liberal in regard to sexuality, and steep cultural decline invariably follows. Says Unwin, “Any human society is free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom; the evidence is that it cannot do both for more than one generation.” In The Inevitability of Patriarchy (1973), Steven Goldberg argues that the male dominance of social institutions derives from biological sex differences, namely, men being higher in motivation (on average) than women. It is primarily men who will do virtually anything to make it to the top of dominance hierarchies. Goldberg also shows that, contra popular misconceptions peddled by feminists, there have been no matriarchal societies in history. Meanwhile, here in America sexuality has never been so unrestrained, just as male authority and leadership have never been regarded with such insidiousness suspicion and resentment.

In 2007, Amy Wax debated Louis Michael Seidman on gay marriage. The purpose of marriage, Wax argued, is to “reproduce society.” She thus comprehended marriage’s tremendous value for the state. Seidman, as one should only expect from a man who has published a New York Times op-ed titled “Let’s Give up on the Constitution,” took the position of what I will call liberal rationalist autonomy, which holds that the purpose of marriage is to allow people to pursue “happiness,” or some such strange thing. For Seidman as for many others today, nobody has “the right” to tell gays they cannot marry. Of course, this belief is very different from how everyone conceived of marriage before recent times, when marriage was determined by the needs of survival and reproduction. And indeed, it is possible only in a late stage in human development, when there is enough prosperity and liberty to enable such thinking. Seidman’s moral world, indeed, is a world of individuals. Says Clifford Geertz:

“The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.”

At bottom the historical change people now take for granted, as though it were perfectly natural and somehow sure to last, represents a perilously selfish sensibility, long ago captured by Jacob Burckhardt in his disdain for “the total egoism of today’s private person who wants to exist as an individual and asks of the community only the greatest possible security for himself and his property, for which he pays his taxes amid sighs, and who also likes to attach himself to the community in a specific sense as an ‘official.’”

The problem with Seidman’s conception of marriage, as with liberal rationalism generally, is that it does not even try to account for long-term consequences. It does not ask what marriage is for in relation to the whole. It is all about what people in their autonomy want. It represents an individual who is not bound to the state or to anything beyond himself. As we read in the famous assertion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991), the great man of the left Christopher Lasch skillfully described how we got here:

“A positive appraisal of the social effects of self-gratification made it possible for interpreters of the new order to exempt modern society from the judgment of time—the judgment previously believed, by Christians and pagans alike, to hang like a sword over all man’s works.”

Occupied with our daily individual concerns and enjoyments, we contemplate neither the fate nor the lasting worth of the whole of which we are a part. Indeed, we forget that there is a whole, or never learn of it, and feel no responsibility for the future. Meanwhile, sickness and death is our common fate. As the body breaks down men and women need care, which historically has been provided by children. The old, moreover, need the young to pay into the social security fund. Gay marriage, and the liberal rationalist attitude in general, do nothing to advance these goods—quite the contrary.

Let us suppose for argument’s sake that Wax’s was the correct position in the debate. Now it follows that it is not for people to decide the purpose of marriage. That value has already been determined, so people must submit to it, and transmit it to posterity, so that there can be a posterity. But alas for America and its future, nothing could be more averse to how most people now perceive, and therefore evaluate and judge, the institution of marriage. Wax’s traditionalist conception is certainly not interchangeable with the liberal rationalist perspective and with the interests of most people in our culture. And while Amy Wax and Louis Michael Seidman strike one as congenial persons, the incompatibility that characterizes the issue is a source of deep animosity between the right and the left. That this trend is likely to worsen is suggested by the sudden rise of gender identity politics. Per the thinking of Louis Michael Seidman and other liberals, Caitlyn Jenner has every right to marry his children (his, because I refuse to call him a woman), or his dog, or—why not?—a bucket of rocks. Such persons tell us they are “forward-thinking.” They are truly that, like a man who, in his blissful freedom, would drive us all off a cliff.

In marriage, as in all other significant cultural institutions, personal autonomy is usually taken to be an unmixed good. Here it is illuminating, I think, to make an analogy to rationalism in politics, which acts as if all life were a kind of game theory, and people adequate for that. Just as people assume that rationalist reason—our modern idol, along with rights and liberty—is an absolute improvement on traditionalist politics, so they assume that personal autonomy is altogether better than the mores that determined eros and marriage in the past. But are they right to do so? Is it really desirable that the individual, time and time again, shall have to make choices concerning situations that following the marriage script once obviated? Notwithstanding my vanity, it seems to me I am not that smart.

Is there no ironic folly in believing that personal autonomy is altogether an improvement on the “oppressive” marriage script? I have always found love to be pretty irrational, myself—the sort of thing concerning which an inherited guide is exceptionally useful. Consider the palpable increase in egoism today. Hook up culture, for example, is brutally instrumental, and the data suggest that it takes an especial toll on women. In language such as “I’m not gonna settle—I deserve better,” said after many a breakup and a divorce, we detect an unrealistic expectation of “personal fulfillment,” that would have seemed bizarre to earlier generations, even as we find that people have never been less inclined to compromise with an incorrigibly flawed fellow human being. The old duty of “sticking it out,” if only for your children’s sake, is now asking too much even of many religious people. A little while back I worked as an editor for a prominent couple’s therapist. In doing so, I learned that a great many adults evidently need to learn how to compromise with others and to be less selfish—or in other words, how to grow up: whereas the marriage script comprehended moral virtues and a clear path to adult behavior.

The marriage script derives from religion. Looking ahead to the future, it is well to ask: Shall a sufficient number of people elect to marry and reproduce, despite ongoing religious decline? As David Goldman and others have emphasized, as religion declines, birth rates invariably follow. Well says Jonathan Haidt:

“Societies that forego the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few.)”

To be sure, religion provides uniquely motivating (in part because so affective) imperatives and practices. It thus precludes many personal choices and complications, though the imperatives and practices may be “oppressive” in certain respects. When people are no longer guided as a matter of course to follow the traditional marriage script by religion, will a sufficient number of them, in their autonomy, use reason to follow it? Judging by current data, the answer would seem to be no.

No wonder, that. The marriage script consisted of customs that were born of need and reflected the collective, organic wisdom of the species. Why believe that enough people, through mere reason, will elect to follow the marriage script, which, needless to say, is not itself the product of reason? Cheap sex ends when women collectively stop yielding to men’s non-committal advances, whereupon men must collectively commit to women. But this situation is now a matter of personal, rationalistic choice, not of expected, enforced submission to organic customs borne of practical necessity. The debasement of marriage therefore seems likely to continue.

This is bad news for everyone, and for lower class Americans, and blacks (who are disproportionately represented in the lower class) in particular, these persons needing the marriage script more than anyone. It is now only among middle- and upper-class Americans, we learn from the data, that marriage rates remain strong, the others “coming apart.” Here too we see a connection to rationalism in politics, or again, to what I call modern idolatry. How much changes when reason and choice replace tradition and habit! What irony in thinking this is obviously some great good!


Christopher DeGroot

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Christopher DeGroot is a columnist at Taki's Magazine. His writing has appeared in The American Spectator, The Daily Caller, American Thinker, Frontpage Magazine, New English Review, Jacobite Magazine, The Unz Review, and Ygdrasil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts. Follow him at @CEGrotius.