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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

My Latest Column: Rick Santorum’s Flawed Strategy for Moral Uplift



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In my latest column for The Daily, I argue that Rick Santorum’s approach to addressing America’s changing family structure is flawed. Like Santorum, I believe that the growing of children born outside of marriage represents a serious social problem. But Santorum seems to believe that the way to address this problem is to make the intellectual case against contraception, abortion, and sex outside of marriage. This might make sense if Santorum had a great deal of cultural authority. Yet I don’t think he does, outside of a relatively small minority of Americans who, frankly, are already disinclined to have children outside of marriage, or who are too old to have children outside of marriage. Rather than advance his cause, Santorum may well be alienating the young people, and particularly the young women, who are the most relevant audience.  

In a similar vein, Charles Murray has offered a call to arms to America’s new upper class:

There remains a core of civic virtue and involvement in working-class America that could make headway against its problems if the people who are trying to do the right things get the reinforcement they need—not in the form of government assistance, but in validation of the values and standards they continue to uphold. The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending “nonjudgmentalism.” Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn’t hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.

Changing life in the SuperZIPs requires that members of the new upper class rethink their priorities. Here are some propositions that might guide them: Life sequestered from anybody not like yourself tends to be self-limiting. Places to live in which the people around you have no problems that need cooperative solutions tend to be sterile. America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people. If you’re not part of that America, you’ve stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special. [Emphasis added]

This is in many respects an attractive vision, yet I fear that it won’t work, partly due to America’s diversity. Murray’s model suggests that working-class Americans need moral reinforcement from elites. But this implies that there remains some shared framework between these disparate groups. Recently, Ed Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor found that racial segregation has declined across U.S. metropolitan areas as, among other things, a growing number of college-educated black Americans have moved into racially integrated neighborhoods. One implication of this, however, is that the social distance between college-educated and non-college-educated black Americans may well have increased. A predominantly white new upper class that embraces a more vigorous moral mission might have a difficult time reinforcing non-college-educated black Americans who want to encourage a return to a marriage-centric vision of family life. 

Another way to think about encouraging constructive social change in America is to think about who really has the power to shape and influence the opinions of young people. Celebrities play a role, of course. But more broadly, I’d argue that we need to think about people who have a great deal of what Catherine Hakim calls “erotic capital,” a theme we’ve discussed in the past:

Most of us are familiar with the concept of human capital, which refers to the skills, work experience and credentials that individuals collect over a lifetime. No one disputes that human capital is essential to productivity and upward mobility in an advanced economy, which is why education is considered so important. And more recently, we’ve come to understand the value of social capital, the network of relationships we draw on to achieve various economic and personal goals. This, in turn, has led to an appreciation of the importance of maintaining a large and diverse social circle, and introducing children from disadvantaged backgrounds to the social practices of the better-off. Yet very little scholarly attention has been devoted to the many ways in which heightening one’s attractiveness can contribute to economic outcomes.

Hakim convincingly argues that women are more richly endowed with erotic capital then men, due in large part to what she calls the “male sex deficit.” Basically, the sexual appetite of men starts quite high and dwindles slowly, if at all. That of women, in contrast, starts at a lower level and tends to drop off steeply after age 30, thus creating a large and growing imbalance over the life cycle. To oversimplify, most men badly want what women have, and this creates an enormous economic opportunity for women.

For most of human history, however, the cultural dominance of men has led us to undervalue women’s erotic capital, and to put in place social codes devoted to restraining and even stigmatizing its use.

Erotic capital can be a source of economic power. But it can also be a source of social power. Rather than focus on “remoralizing” the new upper class, a more effective approach might be to encourage the formation of what we might call erotic capital cartels, in which those who have erotic capital deploy it to secure a society that is more conducive to the interests of children. I should stress that it’s not just women who have erotic capital, though there is a decided gender imbalance. 

As fanciful as this might sound, the idea of the erotic capital cartel is fairly pervasive. Ralph Richard Banks of Stanford Law School recently touched upon a related idea in the context of the “racial marriage gap”:

“I’m trying to unpack all the different things that keep black women segregated even as other groups are becoming increasingly integrated,” he said. “It’s a conversation about things that we don’t usually talk about.”

“African-American women want black babies because they want to uphold the black race,” he continued. “Because they have fear of their community and families not being accepting, and because the women don’t want to be confused as nannies of their different colored babies.”

Banks said, however, that by not excluding individuals who are of a different race, African-American women would have more options and, as a result, better matched relationships in terms of socioeconomic statuses and shared educational experiences — making their marriages more stable and more empowering.

“Rather than having the men be the ‘dealmakers’ and the women be the ‘dealtakers’ of a relationship, women can achieve relationships with men that are more to their liking,” he said. “This is the ultimate paradox. Some people see it as an abandonment of the race, but really the best thing individual women can do is to open themselves to those outside of their race.”

Banks is arguing that black women can greatly facilitate black advancement by pursuing a different approach to intimate life. This is, suffice it to say, a discomfiting argument, as it implicitly criticizes choices that are deeply personal.

But I’d argue that Banks’s approach makes far more sense than Santorum’s. 



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