Getting Zapped for a Good Cause: A Review of Home Economics

By Jennifer Roback Morse, PhD
August 16, 2013

Have you ever seen a dog race up to the boundary of a yard, and abruptly stop?  It looks very odd, until you realize that the dog is wearing a fancy collar.  There is an invisible electric "fence" embedded in the yard. The dog has been shocked so often that it stops before actually touching the invisible fence line.HE 2

This image flashed in my mind as I was reading Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure, by Nick Schulz of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Schulz does a fine job laying out the harmful effects of the deconstruction of the family on individuals, the economy and the larger project of the free society.  But he studiously avoids anything that might have even the remotest chance of "zapping" him with the label of "moralizing."

It’s an odd position to take—the avoidance of moralizing—considering how destructive are the trends tracked in the book. I should think we would all wish to condemn vigorously something we knew to be harmful to large numbers of people, especially the poor and uneducated.

The family trends are, by now, pretty well-known.  Fewer people are getting married and staying married. More people are cohabiting.  More children are born out of wedlock.

The disastrous consequences of these trends are well-known too.  Higher probability of social pathologies. Lower levels of human and social "capital" for the children born into unmarried or unstable households. Bigger problems for the lower classes than for the educated classes.

Experts are also even aware of this politically incorrect fact: The family behavior of the educated classes is pretty much the same as the people of those dreaded fifties, with low levels of divorce and non-marital childbearing.  The major difference between these two demographics is that today's educated couples start their families almost ten years later than June and Ward Cleaver would.

Given that this is all well-known, why did the American Enterprise Institute see the need to recount these facts?  True, Mr. Schulz ties them together with the economic thread: family breakdown is bad for the economy.  But even this is well-known. I said it back in 2001, in Love and Economics.

So, why write about a well-known social trend that is well-known to be destructive, and then studiously avoid moralizing? This is, to me, the interesting question raised by this compact book.  Mr. Schulz gives a clue as to what he fears when he quotes a young female blogger, who dismissively refers to some unnamed people who wish to "restore the patriarchy to a perceived '50s-era heyday."

I find it instructive that Mr. Schulz chooses to include this comment in his own book. He does not attempt to challenge or refute it.  He merely calls it "interesting."

I believe this comment is his way of throwing out the obligatory protective covering, when he promises to refrain from "passing judgment about divorce or out-of-wedlock births."  I suppose he, and his boss at AEI, are hoping that the data will speak for itself. If we just put out enough data, often enough, every reasonable person will draw the conclusion that we should discourage divorce and out-of-wedlock births.  Or at the very least, we should refrain from encouraging these behaviors.

I would like to say to Mr. Schulz:  You need not appease the moralizing self-described "feminists."  They aren't speaking for all women.  They are certainly not speaking for all mothers. And, let's get real: They are moralizing all over the place.

Take a look at this female blogger's comment. In less than ten words, she blasts out an amorphous blob of disapproval. The fact that she is not too specific about what she is saying is very important. That way, she does not actually have to prove or disprove anything. She makes tacit moral arguments and implicit empirical claims.  But since you don't know what those arguments and claims actually are, she doesn't have to defend them.

While the argument is tacit, the moral disapproval she conveys is quite explicit. Anyone who disagrees with her not-very-specific point is morally defective. Everyone gets the picture that they're not to be on the side of the fearsome "patriarchy," or defend the dreaded "fifties."

Zap!  This is the invisible electric fence. Don't say anything negative about out-of-wedlock births or divorce, or you will get a shock!

Some of the sources Mr. Schulz quotes use the passive language so typical of the discussion around the social issues.  For instance, he quotes one study called "The Decline of Marriage and the Rise of New Families."

This language is designed to convey the notion that no one took any actions that caused marriage to "decline" or the "new families" to "rise."  These things happened on their own, like so many forces of nature.

Or how about this line: "Some scholars argue that in the past five decades, the basic architecture of these age-old institutions has changed as rapidly as at any time in human history."  No one is responsible.  The institutions just "changed."

Really? All by themselves.

No human agency is involved whatsoever. Only the mindless inevitable March of History.

The fact is that particular people advocated particular policies, both public and private, that led to these behavioral changes.  The fact is we could make some policy changes—if we really wanted to—that would be very helpful and not particularly intrusive.

For instance, the government could do something about out-of-wedlock births by ceasing to promote artificial contraception.

Zap! Dr. Morse, how could you say such a thing?

Yes, you heard me. And yes, you know I'm right.  The widespread practices of contraception and abortion have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of out-of-wedlock childbearing. That's because acting as if sex is a sterile activity will lead people to have sex when they cannot possibly sustain a pregnancy.  When these pregnancies occur, as they inevitably will since no contraceptive is perfect, the woman in the impossible situation will either abort the child or become a single mom.

Mr. Schulz quotes one particularly shocking statistic, which reveals far more than he probably intended.

What percentage of never-married young adults use birth control "every time" they have intercourse?

According to Figure 5-2 in the book, only 55% of "highly educated" young adults use contraceptives "every time."  A mere 19% of the “least educated” use contraceptives "every time."

People don't use contraceptives “every time,” despite its massive subsidy and promotion by the government.

Nevertheless, people still act as if sex is a sterile recreational activity.

(And people call me "unrealistic" for saying that the world would be a better place if people only had sex with the person to whom they were married. But I digress.)

Ergo, the government should stop promoting contraception. Let people use it if they want to. But stop trying to create a world where sex is sterile. It can't be done.

We could do something about the divorce rate.

Zap! Dr. Morse, have you lost your mind?

We could end the government policy of taking sides with the partner who least wants to be married.  That is what "no-fault" or, more accurately, "unilateral" divorce does.  The government enters into marital disputes on the side of the least committed partner.

The moratorium on moralizing benefits the people who are trying to keep a defensive wall around a set of policies that are morally indefensible.

Listen up, Mr. Schulz.  You can get a good running start, and blast through the electric fence.  It stops hurting once you get on the other side. It actually only stings for a minute.

So come on through with me.  I ran through it a long time ago!  And now that I'm outside that little fenced-in yard, I'm free.