The conservative reaction to Dr. Helen’s Men On Strike is interesting because it is the opposite of their general stance on government creating the wrong incentives. When high income taxes discourage investment and production, conservatives point to the Laffer curve and advise lowering tax rates to rectify the problem. The liberal response to conservatives pointing out that high taxes are strangling the economy is to accuse those responding to the current incentives of being selfish or unpatriotic. We see the same pattern across a slew of issues, including stifling environmental regulations, capital gains taxes, minimum wage laws, and rent control. Liberals tend to want to shame actors into going against their own best interest in order to prop up bad public policy, where conservatives tend to point out the folly of using shame and moral coercion to overcome bad policy. The solution to bad policy, conservatives regularly point out, is to fix the policy, not to try to strong arm companies and individuals to go against their own best interest.
But all of this suddenly changes when the bad policy is regarding marriage. Then the same conservatives* who stand ready to offer a detailed lecture on the need to match risk with reward, authority with responsibility, and to have consistent and fair enforcement of contracts suddenly switch to the tactics of a liberal defending a 90% marginal tax rate**.
Sure it goes against a man’s best financial and legal interests to marry under the current system, but making foolish choices regarding risk and reward is what being a man is all about! Where is your sense of adventure, your patriotism?
So what makes marriage different to conservatives? Why instead of pushing to remove the built in incentives for women to legally abuse marriage and the uncompensated risks men take in marrying, do so many conservatives reflexively dismiss the need for reform and passionately respond with bizarre and incomprehensible arguments and calls to duty and patriotism? (H/T SlargTarg)
There are three main reasons for this:
- They are responding emotionally and reflexively to the term marriage strike.
- They have been suckered into the role of enabling feminists.
- They are invested in the current corrupt model of marriage.
Reason one stems from the conservative tendency to dislike unions. The term “marriage strike” conjures up images of corrupt union bosses, a sense of entitlement, and stifling inefficiency. As a fleeting initial reaction by conservatives this is understandable. The term marriage strike is problematic, especially since it doesn’t accurately describe what is going on. The decline in marriage is no more a “marriage strike” by men than the economic malaise during the Carter years was a “business strike”. Businesses under President Carter didn’t shrink in an effort to hurt President Carter, they were simply responding to the incentives at the time. The risks of investment were high, and due to high taxes the potential reward was greatly reduced. Likewise we aren’t seeing men refuse to marry despite wanting to marry under the current system. Men aren’t engaging in collective bargaining to hold out for a better deal; individual men are simply making their own cost/benefit decisions, and as women have collectively upped the ante fewer men (on the margin) are now motivated to marry.
While the term marriage strike is problematic, Dr. Helen is using the term in the context of “going Galt”, referring to Ayn Rand’s famous book Atlas Shrugged. In Atlas Shrugged, the productive class find themselves torn between their natural instinct to work hard, produce, and to solve problems, and the fact that continuing to do so ultimately enables a perverse regime. There is no collective decision in the book by capitalists to refuse to continue to solve the problems the regime creates; this is something each character must agonize over individually. This same problem is something conservatives are struggling with today, and unfortunately large numbers are still stuck in the mental mode of trying to find a way to make feminism work.
But there is a final reason why so many conservatives forget their passionate belief in fair and predictable courts and in balancing risk and reward whenever the topic turns to men and marriage. Just like a liberal arguing that capital holders have an obligation to risk their capital no matter how unpredictable the courts are and how confiscatory the taxes on investments are, many conservatives are defending a system of perverse marriage incentives for men because they like the system. Of the three reasons conservatives turn into liberals when discussing men and marriage, this is by far the strongest.
While being invested in the current system is the primary reason so many conservatives suddenly become irrational on the topic of marriage, it is also greatly misunderstood and surrounded by a thick fog of denial. On the surface it seems impossible. Conservatives are after all, conservative. Surely they support traditional marriage! However, the modern conservative has bought into the lie of feminism. They see marriage as a zero sum game, and fear the oppression of women more than they yearn for traditional marriage. Reforming the corrupt family courts and corrupt churches would in their mind lead to widespread oppression of women. In short, they don’t believe that traditional marriage and traditional sexual morality are good for women. The idea of women marrying young with little or no sexual experience frightens and even repulses them, as does women being encouraged to focus on being wives and mothers over education and career, as does the idea of wives submitting to their husbands.
This is where our opportunity to engage conservatives lies. Part of the issue is that conservatives aren’t used to being challenged on their misplaced fear of traditional sexual morality regarding women and marriage. They see themselves as arguing for traditional sexual morality because they are measuredly critical of slutwalkers and oppose abortion and gay marriage, all the while supporting serial monogamy as a woman’s sacred path to marriage. The other part of the issue is that conservatives are misunderstanding the true nature of sexual morality as well as the nature of men and women. We need to help conservatives understand that romantic love doesn’t confer morality on sex and the choice for wives isn’t between happy rebellion and miserable submission.
This won’t be easy, and we won’t be able to convince large numbers of conservatives that traditional roles and traditional morality aren’t oppressive to women all at once. But when forced to truly face the issue I’m convinced that more and more conservatives will ultimately adopt a conservative position on marriage and sexual morality.
*Not all conservatives are like that.
**Not all liberals are like that.