Politics & Policy

Hounding Baskerville

In defense of the president's pro-marriage proposals.

In “Government as Family Therapist,” Stephen Baskerville writes that something’s gone wrong when moderate liberals defend President Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative. Baskerville is one of the most prominent spokesmen for fathers’ rights activists, divorced men who believe they are victimized by ex-wives and family courts. They are a small but vocal group. Write something they don’t like and you’ll be flooded with angry e-mails. But I’ll take that risk, because Baskerville is wrong. Bipartisan support for promoting healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood suggests that something’s gone especially right.

That something is grounded in the growing recognition that marriage matters for the well being of children. Social-science research indicates that kids tend to do best when they grow up with their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. By now, as James Q. Wilson dryly noted, most sociologists — and even the New York Times — have accepted this common-sense conclusion. The bitter “family values” wars of the early 1990s have subsided, leaving the anti-marriage Left on the political margins. Reducing father absence is now a stated goal of both Democratic and Republican policymakers. That’s a good thing.

#ad#What’s odd is that Baskerville implausibly paints President Bush’s pro-marriage plan as a Clinton-initiated imposition of “big government.” Bush-administration officials would beg to differ. In reality, the administration’s proposals are quite modest. They consist of using a small percentage of welfare funds to develop community and faith-based programs that help interested couples develop the skills to sustain healthy marriages. Baskerville echoes NOW when he falsely claims these programs would be “mandated” and “dangerous.” (Indeed, Baskerville is no fan of the president. In fact, he had to be thrown out of the National Summit on Fatherhood in 2001 for screaming at Bush during the President’s keynote address.)

Thus, I’m inclined to believe that Baskerville casts Bush’s proposals as Clintonian in an attempt to discredit them in the eyes of NRO readers. Like most writers, Baskerville adjusts his argument to appeal to his target audience. For example, in a Washington Post op-ed, he criticizes President Bush, worries that a problem “disproportionately afflicts African Americans and other minorities,” and calls for “serious bipartisan cooperation.” In Crisis, a Catholic magazine, he praises the prophets and quotes the pope. Yet regardless of the publication, Baskerville’s overall story remains the same.

What, exactly, is his thesis? It begins with legitimate concerns about no-fault divorce and child support enforcement, but quickly devolves into conspiracy-theory nonsense. On Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, he let ‘er rip:

We’ve created in this country a very dangerous and destructive machine. It consists of judges, lawyers, bureaucrats, bureaucratic police, and many others who all have a vested interest in one thing. And that’s ripping away as many fathers from their children as they can.

[F]amily court judges have learned that the more children they take away from their parents, the more business there is for their courts and for those who are the recipients of their patronage. … And they can dole out a father’s income and many other goodies to an assortment, an entourage, of judicial courtiers who also profit from having children taken away from their parents.

There you have it: The root cause of widespread fatherlessness in America is a cabal of corrupt family-court judges who pay off assorted “judicial courtiers” by tearing fathers away from their kids. Baskerville admitted to a skeptical O’Reilly that “most people don’t realize” this state of affairs. Indeed.

Some might argue that because certain government policies weakened marriage, government policy should work to reverse the damage. Not Baskerville: “[M]arshaling the government to strengthen families seems especially pointless when it is government that weakened the family in the first place,” he writes.

Certainly, some government policies have weakened families. Welfare policies may have contributed to the rise in out-of-wedlock childbearing. No-fault divorce laws have led to more broken homes. But the rise in father absence is a huge demographic shift, which has occurred throughout the West. Social scientists debate the relative contributions of various causes, such as economic trends, the sexual revolution, and so on. James Q. Wilson blames slavery and the Enlightenment. To just point one’s finger at “big government” — let alone the “family law patronage machine” — doesn’t cut it.

This conspiracy theory leads Baskerville to assert, absurdly, that “[pro-marriage] promoters have no interest in bringing [divorce rates] under control” and that “no government really wants to reduce the rise in single-parent homes.” Who is he kidding? Does he honestly believe that Bush-administration officials, religious leaders, and others in the diverse marriage movement are flat-out liars? That people like Wade Horn, former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, and other architects of the Bush marriage initiative are anti-family agents under really deep cover?

And that’s not all. Child-support enforcement is an American “gulag.” Domestic-violence-treatment programs are bad because they require men who abuse women to engage in self-criticism. Besides, Baskerville explains, “[T]he hysteria over domestic violence is largely geared toward one aim: removing children from their fathers.”

Back in the real world, where concern about domestic violence is about domestic violence, promoting healthy marriages seems like a pretty good idea. One-third of all births occur out of wedlock. Up to half of all marriages end in divorce. The social costs of father absence are well-documented. Government programs expand to try to meet the needs of children in fatherless families. Meanwhile, no government program can love, nurture, and discipline a child. Though helpful, child support checks can’t provide a day-in, day-out role model of responsible masculinity.

Spending less than two percent of TANF funds on voluntary programs that might result in more children growing up in intact families does not portend the arrival of an intrusive police state. As Maggie Gallagher has explained, “Strengthening marriage is the key to the ultimate victory of the conservative notion of limited government.” Americans — and our government — ignore the weakening of marriage at our children’s peril. The Bush administration’s innovative proposals to promote healthy marriages deserve wide support.

Tom Sylvester is a research associate at the Institute for American Values and blogs at www.marriagemovement.org.

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