The Corner

Hooray for Marriage Inequality?

In the New York Times, Claire Cain Miller records some good news:

It is no longer true that the divorce rate is rising, or that half of all marriages end in divorce. It has not been for some time. Even though social scientists have tried to debunk those myths, somehow the conventional wisdom has held.

Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time. The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.

But wait! Is it really good news? Maybe not, no:

The marriage trends aren’t entirely happy ones. They also happen to be a force behind rising economic and social inequality, because the decline in divorce is concentrated among people with college degrees. For the less educated, divorce rates are closer to those of the peak divorce years.

Of college-educated people who married in the early 2000s, only about 11 percent divorced by their seventh anniversary, the last year for which data is available. Among people without college degrees, 17 percent were divorced, according to Mr. Wolfers.

So, because marriage is not being strengthened in all our income brackets, and because the improvement in some people’s situations might improve their position relative to others, this promising development might in some sense be bad news — or, at least, not “entirely happy” news. What a thoroughly bizarre way of thinking that is.

Alas, what an increasingly typical way of thinking that is. We seem now to be living in an era in which public figures rail against inequality as if it were an ill in and of itself — and, indeed, as if all other civilizational blessings should be ruthlessly subordinated in pursuit of its eradication. As Jonah noted a few months ago, Thomas Piketty took this idea to its extreme in his recent book, coming mightily close to making the argument that the twentieth’s century’s two world wars were a Good Thing because they served to limit the gap between rich and poor:

Piketty places enormous emphasis on the role of the world wars as a great leveler of inequality and the primary driver of the postwar “golden age.” But ask yourself a question: If you were a remotely sane human in 1900 and you were given the choice of

(a) getting richer, though at a slower rate than the very wealthiest, so that in 1950 there was a lot of economic inequality but you and your kids were still much better off; or

(b) facing two horrendous and cataclysmic global wars in which whole societies were razed and a hundred million people died violently and you (along with the rich) were made poorer for it, and would die at a younger age,

What would you have chosen? It appears Piketty finds Option B awfully tempting. And that is madness.

Naturally, I can grasp — and share – concern about the plight of the poor. I can grasp — and share – concern about factory conditions, access to healthcare, lack of shelter, and so forth. I can even comprehend the irritation of those who erroneously believe that fat men are fat because thin men are thin. But to worry about the gap between the rich and the poor independently of any other factors strikes me as being downright suicidal. Why? Well, because, as Mrs. Thatcher noted in 1990, this way of thinking inevitably leads one to trade the unequal sharing of blessings for the equal sharing of miseries. “What the honorable member is saying,” Thatcher told a Liberal Democrat MP who had criticized her sterling economic record,

is that he would rather that the poor were poorer, provided that the rich were less rich. So long as the gap is smaller, they would rather have the poor poorer. You do not create wealth and opportunity that way. You do not create a property-owning democracy that way.

Nor, I’d venture, do you rebuild a healthy culture of marriage by complaining that the gains are creating inequalities. It would, of course, be better if all parts of the country were experiencing a matrimonial renaissance, and if all Americans were reaping the benefits that family stability brings. Hopefully, with time, they will. But that we are seeing some improvement will have to do for now. Let’s not rain on that progress in the name of abstract and childish gripes.

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