Thursday, July 7, 2011

Should government do more to encourage marriage and prevent divorce?

That's the subject of this week's Scripps Howard column. It's prompted by news in several states of social conservatives leading legislative efforts to make it more difficult to divorce, as well as the unveiling of a new "Marshall Plan for marriage" by the conservative Heritage Foundation. My 300-word limit only lets me scratch the surface of the creepiness involved, but here's my shot at it:
Let's talk about freedom.

Republicans use that word -- and its cousin, "liberty" -- quite often.

Usually they're talking about financial matters. Individuals should be free from taxes. Businesses should be free from regulation. So it's odd that when the topic turns to marriage, conservatives rush to embrace the kind of nanny-state infringement on adult decision-making they otherwise decry.

What Republicans have failed to do is consider how their supposedly freedom-oriented policies may have undermined marriage in this country. One of the prime benefits of wedlock -- beyond the uniting of two persons in love -- is the economic security that comes from partnering. But such security has been increasingly difficult to come by: America's median household incomes have stagnated since 1980, even though many more households now have both a mother and a father working outside the home. That stagnation is easy to attribute to conservative policies that have steered more money to rich individuals and big corporations at the expense of workers.

In other words: It's much harder to raise a family. No wonder more middle-class Americans are "retreating from marriage," choosing cohabitation or divorce over the increasing economic strains of commitment. Rather than face those factors, though, Republicans would rather clamp down on freedom -- repeal no-fault divorce and require counseling sessions of couples that have already decided they're better off apart.

Marriage is, generally, good. That's why so many gays and lesbians have fought for that right in recent years, and why weddings and anniversaries are so significant to the rest of us. The conservative instinct to protect and promote healthy marriages is a good one.

But activists would be best served by offering carrots -- in the form of tax incentives and other economic assistance -- rather than using the stick of government to force couples to remain yoked. There's no reason to choose between promoting marriage and protecting freedom. We can do both.
Ben, needless to say, is more optimistic than I. Forget about gay marriage, though: I suspect plain ol' marriage marriage is the next front in the culture wars.


KhabaLox said...

"In other words: It's much harder to raise a family. No wonder more middle-class Americans are "retreating from marriage," choosing cohabitation or divorce over the increasing economic strains of commitment."

I'm not following the logic here.

It's harder to raise a family because household income has stagnated - that I get. But why would that lead to people retreating from marriage? Is it cheaper to be divorced parents? Or are you saying people are forgoing procreation to begin with? I think such a claim would be hard to back up. Even if birth rates are declining, they could be doing so not because of flat incomes, but one of a variety of other reasons (greater education, for example).

And what are the "economic strains of commitment."

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I had the same questions as KhabaLox, Joel. But I went and skimmed the document, and I think there's much more ick to be had there, most especially their favorable opinion of the bill before the New Mexico legislature that seeks to implement an eight-month pro-marriage propaganda course for couples with children who are seeking to divorce. This course would be paid for by potential divorcees themselves.

Not to mention the inherent assumption that marriage should be the default state for adults. But I have LOTS of opinions on that one, so I should probably just blog it over at my place.