A reader recently asked if I’ve moved away from my prediction in More ominous than a strike that we will eventually see some dialing back of the worst excesses of the family court:
…ignoring the problem will become more and more difficult because of the impact on the bottom line. Because of this, we can expect to see more of what we already see. Feminists will continue their handwringing tentatively asking if perhaps we have gone a bit too far, and conservatives will redouble their efforts to convince men they need to man up and stop sabotaging the glorious feminist progress. Less conspicuously I also expect we will see some dialing back of the worst excesses of the family courts. However, because of the momentum involved and the reluctance to acknowledge the fundamental problem, these changes will at best only slow the problem, and they will always run the risk of initially accelerating it.
The short answer is I haven’t changed my view on this. However, as I stated previously we should expect a slew of divergent responses to the problem of declining marriage rates, and the dialing back will follow a period of continued denial. In fact, we can see this happening today. On one side we have feminists Claire Cain Miller and Justin Wolfers at the NY Times declaring that fears about high divorce rates are unfounded. It is fear of divorce, not divorce itself, that is the real problem. This is the same set of talking points Shaunti Feldhahn is advancing to the delight of modern Christians.
Yet at the same time we also have periodic bursts of fear that all is not well coming from both liberals and conservatives. The recent Washington Examiner piece Shock study: Marriage rate declines with porn use, threatening economy, society is an excellent example of this. 45 years of policies designed to eject fathers from the home? Boring. But pornography is a problem both conservatives and feminists can get behind! Weak men are screwing feminism up! Pornography must be dealt with because fathers matter:
“stable marriages create substantial welfare improvements for society, especially to the degree that marital stability produces high-quality children.”
The problem is fathers don’t matter enough to challenge our new family structure. We can see this same pattern in quotes from Glenn Stanton in The Atlantic’s Sperm Donor, Life Partner (H/T pavetack). Stanton argues tepidly that fathers matter, but then casts around when trying to explain why marriage is essential but divorce is not that big a deal:
It’s true that sometimes people marry and have children with the best intentions and then split up, but they raise their children “doing the best they can in spite of the curveball life has thrown them,” he said. “The idea of putting yourself intentionally in that situation is a whole other matter.”
To be fair to Stanton it is possible The Atlantic is misrepresenting his stance. But I hope this isn’t the case, because Stanton’s tepid defense of marriage in the article is an improvement over his own writing and speaking on the topic. There is no quote in the article of him declaring single mothers heroic, for example. Stanton also appears to now recognize the possibility that men aren’t always to blame for single motherhood, unlike his framing of the problem in his book:
If women can’t find good men to marry, they will instead compromise themselves by merely living with a make-do man or getting babies from him without marriage. Unfortunately, this describes exactly the new shape of family growth in Western nations by exploding margins…
Women want to marry and have daddies for their babies. But if they can’t find good men to commit themselves to, well… Our most pressing social problem today is a man deficit.
But even the new and slightly improved Stanton can’t seem to bring himself to call our epidemic of wife initiated divorce evil for the terrible harm it is doing to children. Instead, we learn that sometimes life throws women curveballs. According to Stanton it is better to make a solemn vow and break it than to never make the vow at all.
When Focus on the Family’s Director for Family Formation Studies can’t be relied on to stand up for traditional marriage, it isn’t surprising that secular conservatives aren’t willing to rock the boat as well. The latest conservative conventional wisdom on marriage is that since our new definition of marriage is a disaster for all but the Upper Middle Class (UMC), the solution is to get everyone to become like the UMC. W. Bradford Wilcox, a scholar for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and director of the National Marriage Project, argues that we need to teach everyone to emulate what he has coined the “success sequence” by delaying marriage and children to focus first on education and work. This, along with suggestions on tax incentives is the foundation of the AEI’s advice on how to save marriage in the report For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America
Civic institutions—joined by a range of private and public partners, from businesses to state governments to public schools—should launch a national campaign around a “success sequence” that would encourage young adults to sequence schooling, work, marriage, and then parenthood. This campaign would stress the ways children are more likely to flourish when they are born to married parents with a secure economic foundation.
Willcox is in my opinion the leading public policy figure arguing that marriage is in trouble and if we don’t change course the economic and human costs will be enormous. The problem is, right now making meaningful changes to the legal structure designed to remove fathers from the home (child support and no fault divorce) is unthinkable. This is the case because the true costs of our system are still not evident. So far nearly all White women are still able to marry, and we haven’t seen the full dysfunction large scale multi-generational fatherlessness will cause. But as the costs become more undeniable we will first see more and more calls for men to man up and make our feminist redesigned family structure work, and eventually we will start to see more and more calls to dial back the worst excesses of the family court. But at least at first these will only be half measures, moving from denial to bargaining as reality sets in.
What isn’t clear to me is how much economic and social pain our elites will be willing to bear before starting to acknowledge the problem. It also isn’t clear that when the half measures they then grudgingly propose fail, they will be willing and able to reform the system enough to turn around both the family and the economy. We are squandering an incredible amount of goodwill by men regarding marriage, and the longer we wait to seriously address the issue the harder it will be to turn the problem around.