David Brooks’s Mistaken “Mistake”
The Top Five Lies We Tell Ourselves about Family in America
Radical ideologies have disfigured our home life. Here’s how to make us whole again.
Conservatives are failing to preserve marriage and family. Fewer people in each generation are marrying, and, though fewer are having children, an increasing number of children are born out of wedlock. To fix this, we need to take an honest look at the shortcomings of the conservative movement.
Marriage is at the heart of family. Intact families are more likely to raise children to honorable, productive adulthood. Married people are “happier, healthier, and better off financially,” as one recent book on the topic argues. Nevertheless, more and more people are forgoing family life or watching the opportunity slip by.
Men and women may have different priorities in a world where feminism and sexual liberation theory are powerful and popular. These cultural trends can seem immovable and irreversible. Even defenders of the family and marriage tacitly accept these ideologies, which undermine our essential institutions.
Conservatives have therefore tried to accommodate family policy and analysis to the dominant cultural ideologies. For two generations we have sung comforting lullabies to ourselves, believing we can defend marriage and family without challenging the ideological hegemony of feminism and the sexual revolution.
Here are the top five comforting lies we tell ourselves. Though each is premised on a partial truth, in the aggregate they obscure the big picture: people aren’t abandoning marriage because of money, and we can’t bribe them into getting married. No progress can be made unless we face up to the ideological reasons why more people choose to forgo family life.
Lies We Tell Ourselves
Lie #1: Car seat laws and college costs are to blame for declining fertility and delayed marriage. Car seats, it is said, are one example of myriad tiny regulations that discourage large families. Backseats in most American cars can accommodate only two car seats, so Americans forgo or delay having a third child. Studies supposedly prove that car seats act as “contraception.”
Similarly, couples think they must delay marriage or postpone having kids until they pay off their debts or have a house. Children are expensive after all, and a couple has to earn enough to pay the bills. So, conservatives assume, child tax credits or loan forgiveness could increase fertility and encourage early marriage. This assertion presupposes lie #2: Most Americans want more kids, but can’t afford them.
Surveys show that Americans want to have 2.5 kids, but only have 1.7 kids. This gap is traceable to costs—couples either must or want to spend money on things that are not children. Perhaps public provision could fill the gap and make having the ideal number easier…
But the fact that people have only 1.7 kids tells us more about their priorities than a single question on a survey. What people perceive as necessities are often luxuries. Expensive cars are luxuries, as are vacations, good wine, and expensive clothes. No people in the history have been blessed (or cursed) with a more luxurious view of what is “necessary” than contemporary Americans. Feminism, which teaches that women must find meaning in careers, plays a huge role in shaping peoples’ priorities. People aren’t too poor to have kids. Rather, feminism teaches them to value ego-driven consumerism and careerism above family life.
Lie #3: Good men are discouraged from marriage because custody patterns and divorce and harassment laws badly disfavor them. Women file for most divorces, and most of the time they hold the cards in custody battles. Men can lose everything dear to them at the hands a court system that abets wifely volatility. Female-dominated workplaces, enforced through sexual harassment laws and hiring procedures, hamper male ambition and compromise the ability of men and women to establish relationships.
There is a logic to this lullaby, but it mistakes the effect for the cause. Sexual harassment laws did not pop out full-grown from the head of Zeus. Feminism shaped the moral environment and, as it continues to do, re-structured laws and mores according to its demands.
Lie #4: More stable jobs will swiftly lead to more marriageable men, more marriages, and more children. Whether it is the shipping of manufacturing jobs overseas, the rise of the gig economy, or just the general uncertainty that comes with a market economy, men’s declining economic stability compromises their ability to marry happily. Women want to marry and have babies with economically successful men—whatever undermines that success makes fewer men marriageable…
But economic uncertainty could just as easily point couples toward the commitment to marry and pool resources. And going through the tough times as young marrieds—scrimping, saving, drinking boxed wine—can help forge two people into one. But many today instead wait until everything is “perfect” before marrying. This reflects an idea of marriage as a capstone, not a foundation to life.
Economic success is part of attractiveness, but success is also a consequence of taking on the responsibilities of father and husband. By all means we should seek to reinvigorate American manufacturing if it suits our national interests. But that will not change the way men take responsibility for family life, unless we also make a point of honoring men as providers.
Lie #5. Moderate feminism is consistent with prioritizing marriage and family life. Radical feminists may aim to abolish marriage and family life, but most feminists are more reasonable. These “moderate feminists” just seek incremental reforms that improve women’s “work-life balance,” such as national day care or more protections in the workplace. If the country finds ways of delivering these reforms, moderate feminists will be more likely marry and have children…
But the evidence for this last fond hope is lacking. None of our previous attempts to relieve families of the duty of raising their children (e.g., tax deductions for childcare, increases in the child tax credit) have improved marriage or birth rates.
There’s an old joke: A horse owner asks the doctor what to do about a sick horse. The doctor prescribes a cup of turpentine. The horse dies. The owner complains to the doctor, who responds, “if I’d have known your horse was so sick, I would have prescribed two cups of turpentine.” Policies heretofore have been one cup of turpentine; the latest “moderate” feminist proposals are two.
The Truth Cure
Policies that relieve the family of duties, instead of reinforcing the idea that mothers and fathers have duties to their children, are bound to fail. Reversing family decline demands reinvigorating commitment to those familiar duties, not outsourcing them further. We do not need government programs to replace parents.
“Moderate” feminist proposals further the radical feminist cause of delinking women from marriage and family life. Moderate feminism just implements radical feminist proposals more gradually over time and will only help people live in denial as marriage is increasingly corroded.
Instead, policies should aim to restore a true understanding of human flourishing by restoring the ways of life that illuminate it. There is no shortage of places to start undoing the failure of mass culture to satisfy the aspirations of men and women through empty sex and consumption, but even a few major changes could have outsized results.
We should, for instance, aim at policies that encourage part-time work for women, both to reinforce the economic foundation for an enduring marriage community and to encourage both men and women to prioritize marriage in their lives. This should include support for more entrepreneurship, which gives women greater control of their time—and their minds—than the HR-driven corporate world that demands their primary allegiance of the heart.
More and better support for homeschooling and rigorous classical schooling could help discourage parents as well as children from filling what should be family time with increasingly individualized attention on the fantasyland of television and social media algorithms, where cultural conditioning around sex and consumption is at its strongest.
And policies helping young adult men find and take active, useful jobs near the home would strengthen their salutary pride without discouraging family formation or distancing them unduly from their growing families.
We cannot pretend that feminism doesn’t exist. We cannot hum lullabies about policies that do not truly point men and women to marriage. Instead we should offer policies based on the faith that feminism tells a false story about most women’s lives. To really move the needle on marriage, we have to ensure Americans can and do live out the true story about who men and women really are.