Saturday, July 03, 2004

Revisiting marriage policies

Questions about marriage policy are hot topics lately, but most of the debate seems to miss the point.

Some things we learn from simple observation:

  • The institution of the family predates every government or ideology.
  • Everybody is part of a family. Some of the members may currently be dead, but they were family once.
  • Governments exist to support people and families, not vice versa. I'll grant that this isn't perfectly obvious. This notion was pretty revolutionary when it was introduced, and megalomaniacs in halls of state and halls of academe the world over still reject it.
  • Left to their own devices, people tend to form families.
  • Left to their own devices, people often try to get the benefits of relationships without meeting all the obligations. (And so they duck child support, "Why buy the cow...", etc). This is both unjust to the other individuals and bad for society as a whole.
  • Culture is not codified, but is usually more potent than laws for determining behavior. Chesterton once said that an English gentleman would rather commit any crime than walk down the street without his pants. Times and customs change, but the force of custom doesn't.
  • Laws can modify culture over time. We went through a long and deliberate effort to demolish racist laws and racist customs, and have had substantial success. There's still racism, but much less (just read the history if you doubt it) and the force of custom represses expression of racism.
  • It is easier to make things worse than make them better. Always.
  • There are always unintended consequences for any law. That doesn't mean you don't need the law, but it does mean that you have to be alert for problems and for loopholes. It was never the intent of the Great Society policy-makers to discourage welfare recipients from marrying or to keep them from getting part-time jobs or to create a culture of dependency; but they did all three. It took us an unconscionably long time to start trying to tune the laws to fix the problems.
  • The nuclear family of husband and wife and children is only part of the family. A family also has brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins of various degrees.
  • A marriage not only unites a man and woman, but also links two families.
  • Although children are dependent when young, all other family relationships involve obligations of mutual support. The degree of support is greater the closer the relationship, but brother and sister, grown child and parent, cousins, etc have varying obligations to help each other. This is recognized around the world, but we usually neglect it in popular culture and in law here in the US.
  • You pick your spouse, but not the other members of your family. That does not excuse you from your obligations to them. You are not free to abandon your family, like them or not.
  • Your obligation to live honestly outweighs family obligations. A criminal must not be sheltered just because he is family. I'll grant that this is not a universally accepted principle. In some cultures family ties are more important than any law of man or God. I'm going to stipulate that they are wrong, at least insofar as the laws of God go.
  • Family obligations are huge. As Maggie Gallagher pointed out, the duties of parent to child or the duties of taking care of a sick spouse demand a degree of commitment that cannot be enforced by laws. Only love supported by custom proves adequate to motivate the sacrifices required. In traditional families it is normal to find parents working extra jobs, giving up luxuries, and so on to provide good educations for their children. What kind of law can you enforce to make a father work a second job to pay for a better school for his children?

The obvious objection to my sketch of the "big picture" of families is that it doesn't reflect the situation on the ground. The idealized lily-white suburb is peopled with nuclear and sub-nuclear families who send Christmas cards to their cousins; and the black enclave may have few marriages of any description and a lot of grandparents caring for children.

Perhaps this "situation on the ground" describes the people you know. Nevertheless we're still a nation of immigrants, and the recent immigrants still have and respect the normal human family structure: the "extended" family.

It seems self-evident that our customs and laws ought to support family structures and obligations of the usual "extended" type, and not just the nuclear family. At the moment we seem to disparage it.

Even if we set aside the obligation of government to provide the mechanisms that recognize and encourage families, the social and economic benefits of "extended" families seem clear enough:

  • Fallback support for nuclear families when someone loses a job or gets sick. You can have targetted support, with no administrative overhead. We would potentially have fewer who needed welfare (The last time I checked, most welfare recipiants only needed support for a few months.)
  • Encouragement and training for new parents. Parenting skills don't come automatically. Experienced relatives are a great boon. Those of you who've been parents: imagine a sister or cousin taking a few days "family maternity leave" to help out when your first was born.
  • The increased security and stability for children has immense payoffs: children of divorces, with little other family support, are far more likely to be unsupportive of their own children, and far more likely to be criminals. The social cost of uncared-for children is very high.
  • There are some economies of scale when families try to afford housing, for instance. If your objective is to sell as many houses as you can, encouraging people to buy large houses as a family is bad; but if your objective is to have people housed, then its a good thing if several income-earners chip in.

Tax law doesn't recognize any kind of family mutual support obligations besides that between spouses, and no other kind of support except that of "dependent." Tax law doesn't recognize what you and your three siblings each contribute to your widowed mother's support unless one of you gives over 50% of the total.

Insurance rules are similarly restricted.

When we tried to suppress racism, we used a combination of laws and moral arguments to change actions and attitudes. If we decide that we ought to support the "extended" family we will likewise need to change not just the laws but the attitudes. That's not easy, but as we've seen already we can deliberately change the culture.

There are consequences of this sort of effort. Emphasizing family obligations means that divorce should be very hard if there are children to be supported. We would be deprecating the irresponsible drift from sex partner to sex partner that young men find so popular. For a substantial fraction of the country, we would be reminding them that they have obligations to people they haven't seen in years. We probably wouldn't get the right model of joint ownership on the first try. And if we try to shoehorn civil unions into this we'll wind up with a dog's breakfast of a mess. Civil unions focus on adults, not children.