The Agenda

Social Democracy and the Post-Marital Future

This morning’s Wonkbook includes the following observation:

According to a new report, 48 percent of all first births are now to unmarried women — and the trends suggest that will soon be a majority.

Until now, our main approach to dealing with this new reality has been to lament it. Our political discourse has mostly treated these families, be they single mothers or cohabitating 30-somethings, as disappointments, or symptoms of cultural decline. But perhaps, as the norms that write off all family arrangements save for traditional marriage break down, space will emerge for a more practical conversation about how to best support America’s increasingly nontraditional family units.

It is not clear to me that our main approach (much depends on the “our” we have in mind) has been to lament this new reality, for at least two reasons: (1) the people who tend to set the terms of the policy debate are by and large insulated from the human consequences of this new reality, and while some are inclined to lament it, many others are either unaware of the extent to which non-college-educated Americans are already living in a “post-marital” culture or (2) ideologically uncomfortable with the paternalism implicit in crafting public policies designed to discourage non-marital child-rearing. 

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, has written extensively on what he calls the “deinstitutionalization” of marriage, i.e., the “weakening of the social norms that define partners’ behavior.” In a 2004 article, he raised the question not of why fewer U.S. adults are married, but rather why so many marry, plan to marry, and aspire to marriage. Unlike cohabitation, a private commitment that is comparatively easy to break, marriage represents a public commitment to a long-term and at least potentially lifelong relationship, and as such it offers the benefit of enforceable trust. Yet as Cherlin explains, the gap in the enforceable trust offered by marriage as opposed to cohabitation continues to shrink, and so there is good reason to expect that marriage will lose its distinctive status.

Marriage continues to have considerable prestige, and the wedding itself is seen as a status symbol. But instead of serving as a foundation of a successful adult life (a “cornerstone”), it is seen as a culmination of a successful young adulthood (a “capstone”), according to the authors of the Knot Yet report on delayed marriage. 

Cherlin’s “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage” ends with three scenarios. In the first, marriage is reinstitutionalized: the share of adults who enter marriages increases, these marriages prove more durable, and we shift away from the individualistic orientation to the family that has arguably been the central cultural development of the last century. Cherlin also suggests that this scenario might entail a decline in female labor force participation and a return to a more traditional gendered division of labor, a development that is extremely unlikely. In the second, something like the status quo endures: marriage remains common and distinctive, though it does not recover to mid-20th-century levels, and it retains its status as the most prestigious type of family relationship. At the same time, the stability of marriage continues to erode, and the share of intact marriages among white Americans continues to converge with the lower share among black Americans. Cherlin is skeptical as to whether this second scenario is realistic, and he is more skeptical still about the first.

And so he leaves us with the third scenario, in which marriage fades away. The premise is that the persistence of relatively high marriage rates reflects an institutional lag, as people fail to realize that the benefits of marriage relative to cohabitation are far smaller than had historically been the case. In this world of nonmarital relationships, family disruption will become even more common, as commitments are more private, voluntary, and informal than public, ritualized, and governed by law. This model might fit the needs of childless college-educated adults relatively well, yet the lack of enforceable trust poses challenges to individuals who face resource constraints, and even greater challenges to parents who aim to provide a stable and supportive environment for children.

In my view, the future of the social-democratic policy agenda, which I briefly discuss in a forthcoming article for National Review, is best understood in the context of a post-marital society, in which the transition from relationships built on enforceable trust to “pure relationships,” or relationships in which enforceable trust is absent, is complete. If families can’t provide a stable environment for children, universal early education is designed to help fill in the gap. That is, the job of cultivating noncognitive and cognitive skills is to be outsourced from households to the public sector. Marriages have traditionally constituted small risk pools, in which both partners are able to support each other in adapting to changed economic circumstances. The evaporation of marriage thus creates a demand for measures like wage insurance and increased levels of social assistance, to allow families to provide for their children in the absence of savings.

A more atomized society will tend to demand higher levels of public service provision, which is why libertarian skepticism towards the project of reinstitutionalizing marriage is (arguably) misplaced. Or perhaps libertarians are right to try to build a market-oriented policy agenda that can be reconciled with a post-marital society — e.g., one in which the retrenchment of public social provision gives rise to innovative private sector alternatives, including new vehicles for enforceable trust. My suspicion is that it will be very difficult to construct such a post-marital libertarian agenda, but that’s not to suggest it’s a futile effort. 

What I find interesting is the emerging tension between two tendencies on the center-left: (1) the civil libertarian desire to protect the autonomy of families, particularly families rooted in minority cultural traditions, as a post-marital culture yields ever more children raised in the context highly fragile, unstable family relationships; and (2) the egalitarian imperative to do more to build the human capital of children raised in the poorest households, an effort that may well require increasingly intrusive, heavy-handed, paternalistic interventions. Some societies, like France, have embraced paternalistic strategies, in part (one might argue) because they’ve been less protective of family autonomy. My intuitive sense is that Americans, and in particular American left-liberals, might find these approach discomfiting and fraught, as well as (secondarily) expensive.

Advocates of reinstitutionalization are often characterized as moralistic scolds, but one wonders if they’re better understood as defenders of an autonomous sphere of family life. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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