Our slightly tangential question today is, why are people so irrational about marriage? There have been cultures and times when legal marriage was important, and others when it was not. But there will always be people who are convinced that marriage is somehow a magic bullet for our social problems. Missives such as this one from otherwise intelligent columnists (in this case Emily Yoffe) show how weighed down with the baggage of “morality” the issue of marriage is. Yes, morality is involved; unfortunately, it is the definition of what morality is that gets confused and leads to calls for laws and policy that treat symptoms, rather than the underlying condition.
But perhaps in our desire not to make moral judgments about personal choices, young women wholly unprepared to be mothers are not getting the message that there are dire consequences of having (unprotected) sex with guys too lame to be fathers.
Yes, there are extremist meddlers who think truly personal choices should be legislated because God said so. But anyone who actually thinks that everyone living in society should be free to make all kinds of choices that negatively impact society is an extremist in the opposite direction. After all, morality actually is a mechanism for individuals living in societies to interact positively with other members of society, so that they will interact positively with you, which is all to your benefit. Society breaks down when personal desires and needs always take precedence over those of others. Once a critical number of people ignore the children they have and just keep on making more, there is no incentive to do otherwise because everyone is just out for himself anyway – the mark of a dysfunctional society.
Studies have found that children born to single mothers are vastly more likely to be poor, have behavioral and psychological problems, drop out of high school, and themselves go on to have out-of-wedlock children.
Of course, since we don’t have any single-mom laboratory manipulation studies, the only information we have is correlational, not causal. Very likely a lot of the single moms were poor before they had a kid, and in no position to raise one successfully – meaning to produce a contributing member of society, rather than a drain on it who will likely not raise kids successfully because she does not have the experience to know what that means. But the problem is not that the moms aren’t married to the kids’ fathers, it is that they had kids at all.
Yoffe points out that “one key to effective fatherhood is first becoming a husband.” But she is misdirected by her own definition of “husband,” which in her mind, means a legally married man. She would be absolutely right if she defined “husband” as a man committed to one woman, emotionally and financially. When two people are able to commit to each other over the long term, they are much more likely to be successful parents, because they understand how society works – through the establishment and maintenance of relationships which in turn produces “moral” behavior. Thus they can raise their children to understand the importance of relationships, which is the key to avoiding dysfunctional behavior.
Marriage itself is actually a different issue altogether – or at least it would be if meddling politicians didn’t think it was government’s job to legislate morality. But the only true way to legislate morality is to remove dysfunctional people from society – which we pretty much do (albeit imprecisely) with laws against destructive behavior such as murder, theft, etc. Unfortunately tax code, welfare law, benefits rules, etc. put married people in a different economic category than unmarried people, which depending on your situation, either encourages you or discourages you to be married. Thus marriage is often driven by legal rather than personal considerations.
Marriage should be an entirely personal, not legal, decision. All the arguments about gay marriage are absurd because the idea that two people cannot declare themselves “married” if they want to is absurd. The reason that gays feel they have to fight for marriage is because policy makers have forced them to. If people don’t want gays to be legally “married” then fine; fix the system so that there is no benefit to being married. If people want to avoid legal problems to do with benefits, alimony, inheritance, end-of-life issues, etc., there is all kinds of paperwork they can fill out. Legal marriage itself does not solve all of these problems anyway, so it is not clear why it exists, other than to legislate someone’s particular “morality” that is not true morality.
In any case, you cannot legislate emotional commitment. The fact of “marriage” can make it easier to hide or ignore lack of long term emotional commitment, which can in turn lead to unwanted children anyway. Yoffe, as a child of bitter divorce, understands enough to know that marriage just for the sake of marriage makes no sense; but she seems to think that for a truly emotionally committed couple, marriage will somehow make their kids turn out better. But what is it that the kids have for their role model? The actual day-to-day relationship of their parents, or the certificate in their safe-deposit box? Those who argue that the legal hurdle of divorce will somehow force people to reconcile who might have otherwise split up have not checked divorce rates lately. If the emotional commitment is gone, no mere piece of paper is going to conjure it up again.
Save marriage for a symbol of personal commitment. To ceremonially bond with another human certainly has the impact of saying to society that “we are engaging in society through our relationship to each other.” Therefore marriage certainly has societal value. But legally, it continues to be a pointless exercise at best and at worst confuses people about what is actually important.
Don’t blame lack of marriage for the plight of poor neglected kids. Blame the parents who should have used birth control. The way to solve a lot of societal problems is to sterilize immediately anyone who has shown him or herself to be an unfit parent after the first kid. But we could never do that. It would be immoral.