Should we give up on marriage? Some very smart people have apparently reached this conclusion. The latest and possibly most prominent is my friend Isabel Sawhill, whose new book is "Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage." Her basic premise is that “marriage is disappearing in America.” Accordingly, we should replace the old ideal of “don’t have a child outside of marriage” with a new ideal of “responsible parenthood,” which means “not having a child before you and your partner really want one and have thought about how you will care for that child.”
I admire Isabel Sawhill deeply, but I respectfully disagree with this recommendation.
First, American marriage isn’t disappearing, it’s fracturing along class lines. In upscale America — about one-third of the society — marriage is thriving. Most people marry, few children (fewer than 10 percent) are born to unmarried mothers, and most children grow up through age 18 living with their two married parents. Among the more privileged, then, marriage clearly functions as a wealth-producing arrangement, a source of happiness over time, and a benefit to children.
Indeed, scholars today increasingly identify America’s marriage gap — in which the affluent reap the benefits of marriage while the non-affluent increasingly do not — as an important driver of rising American inequality. Wouldn’t it be odd, and sad, if American elites, at the very moment in which the role of marriage as both an indicator and producer of high status in their own lives is crystal clear, decided to throw up their hands in resignation when it comes to marriage in the rest of the society?
Second, changing what we support from “marriage” (a social institution) to “responsible parenthood” (a piece of advice) means downplaying the role of society and putting all responsibility on the individual. According to many scholars, a primary reason why humans invented marriage in the first place was to create a social structure that fosters responsible parenting. But now we’re supposed to ignore the structure and simply remind people to be responsible? Is that a realistic strategy for producing more responsibility?
Individual responsibility doesn’t begin and end with the individual — it also depends for its success on social institutions that encourage and guide it. Certainly we want people on our highways to drive responsibly. But does that mean we can or should stop stressing the importance of getting a driver's license and following traffic regulations?
Third, abandoning marriage as a social standard will do nothing to address the actual problems caused by the weakening of marriage. Several decades ago Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously described the futility of what he called “defining deviancy down,” by which he meant imagining that we’ve addressed a problem simply because we’ve re-labeled it as no longer a problem. It doesn’t work that way. An abundance of evidence tells us that marriage matters, whether we say so or not. Put another way, if society’s elites decided tomorrow to stop promoting marriage (except for themselves), what problem will be solved or reduced?
Fourth, upholding marriage doesn’t mean that you can’t uphold anything else. People who advise giving up on marriage usually favor something else. Isabel Sawhill wants more effective use of contraception. So do I. Others want better jobs or more educational opportunity. So do I. One reason for seeking these changes is that they’d likely contribute to a stronger marriage culture. Certainly there’s no reason to imagine that fighting for any or all of them means that you can’t also fight for marriage.
Finally, one reason for Sawhill’s resignation is her worry that liberals and conservatives will never come together on marriage. But she shouldn’t give up now. A new, broadly based marriage coalition is within our grasp.
Conservatives are longtime champions of marriage. To help lead a new and broader marriage coalition, the only thing conservatives need to do to is make their peace with gay marriage — a process that is already occurring. (And I speak from experience: I used to oppose gay marriage, but I’ve changed my mind.)
Liberals can help lead this new marriage coalition on the basis of their deepest values, such as the fight for a more equal society, as regards both sexual orientation and social class. For the first time in decades, liberals today can unashamedly embrace marriage — marriage for all who seek it and marriage as one important creator of wealth and opportunity for those at the bottom.
And consider this new-coalition possibility: Gays and lesbians, having fought bravely and successfully for the right to marry, can now by their leadership and example help the nation as a whole to rediscover marriage’s promise. But how sad if, on the very eve of their astonishing victory for marriage, the nation’s elites decided to declare with passivity that “marriage is disappearing.”
David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.