Edging Closer to the Truth

by W.F. Price on January 29, 2014

Ross Douthat, the NY Times’ token youngish conservative, came out today with an op-ed provocatively titled “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare.” This is a theme I’ve been hitting on a lot recently because I think it’s an overlooked but nonetheless very important component of politics in the US. Douthat, in his usual roundabout, overly-sensitive and borderline deferential way (I wouldn’t count on that kind of kid glove treatment from the other side), argues that the values espoused by upper class elites are toxic to the middle and working classes.

In his piece, he addresses an argument made by Randy Waldman, who called efforts to resurrect traditional marriage a “cargo cult” (you see, Mr. Douthat, these are not very nice people), and points out that while socially liberal norms may work fine for those with plenty of money and connections, they have had disastrous consequences for the rest of us.

What people contemplating marrying down clearly should fear more than in the Eisenhower-era past are interpersonal problems — a spouse who comes from a broken home, who doesn’t have positive models of marriage and parenting in her past, who carries a cloud of suspicion into wedlock because his own parents’ marriage fell apart. Economic redistribution can help mitigate those problems (which is why I favor it, to a point), by creating a firmer material foundation for families. But the problems themseves just aren’t exclusively material: They have a cultural element, and reflect a cultural change, that can’t simply be ignored.

This is where I look at Waldman’s critique of how elite self-interest has contributed to marriage’s decline and see a case study in what liberals are inclined to leave out of this story, and what implications they are unwilling to draw from their own premises. Because if the heart of your social analysis, the core of your conclusion, is the idea that the homogamous new elite’s social behavior is essentially (if perhaps unknowingly) self-interested — that the pursuit of meritocratic success has led the mass upper class to “walk away without a care … from people who in other circumstances, even in the not so distant past, would have been our friends and coworkers, lovers and spouses” — then perhaps you need to apply the same cold-eyed perspective to that elite’s cultural assumptions and attitudes as well, and to the blend of laws and norms those attitudes incline its members to support.

By which I mean … is it just a coincidence that this self-interested elite holds the nearly-uniformly liberal views on social issues that it does? Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together — uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side — is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family? Is the upper class’s social liberalism the lone case, the rare exception, where our self-segregated, self-interested elites really do have the greater good at heart?

Obviously, they do not have the greater good at heart. Their clear hatred for the majority bears this out. As a resident of a deep blue city filled with people with elite pretensions, the viciousness toward anyone not on board with the socially-liberal, politically correct message is right out in the open. Unabashed, naked hostility toward dissenting points of view and advocacy for traditional values is what passes for progressivism in Seattle. No “live and let live” here… But I’ll let Douthat make his point.

if we’re inclined, with Waldman, to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. Waldman, for instance, makes the (completely valid) point that just telling a single mother to go get married to whomever she happens to be dating isn’t likely to lead to happy outcomes for anyone involved. But is that really just because of wage stagnation and the truncation of the potential-mates bell curve? Or could it also be that the decision to marry only delivers benefits when it’s part of a larger life script, a way of pursuing love and happiness that shapes people’s life choices – men as well as women — from the moment they come of age sexually, and that exerts its influence not through the power of a singular event (ring, cake, toasts) but through that event’s place in a larger mix of cues, signals, expectations, and beliefs?

If it’s the latter — and if you’re not an economic or genetic determinist, I really think it has to be — then it’s worth recognizing that much of what the (elite-driven) social revolutions of the 1970s did, in law and culture, was to strip away the most explicit cues and rules linking sex, marriage, and childrearing, and nudging people toward the two-parent bourgeois path. No longer would the law make any significant effort to enforce marriage vows. No longer would an unplanned pregnancy impose clear obligations on the father. No longer would the culture industry uphold the “marriage-then-childbearing” script as normative, or endorse any moral script around sexuality save the rule of consenting adults.

And following our hermeneutic of anti-elite suspicion, let’s ask: If the path to human flourishing still mostly runs through monogamy and marriage, who benefits the most from the kind of changes that make that path less normative, less law-supported, less obvious? Well, mostly people who are embedded in communities that continue to send the kind of signals that the law and the wider culture no longer send.

That can mean a religious community: In those red states with high divorce rates that liberals like to cite, frequent churchgoers are an exception to the pattern, or course Mormon Utah is the high marriage-rate (and, not surprisingly, high social mobility) exception to every post-1970s trend.

Or, more importantly for our purposes, it can mean a community low in explicit moralism but high in social capital and social pressure, where the incentives not to date or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time are sharpened by the immense rewards for not making personal mistakes, where divorce and single parenthood are regarded as major threats to the all-important intergenerational transfer of success, where young people are inculcated with the kind of self-control required to dabble in libertinism but not take major risks, and where the influence of a libertine culture is counteracted by the dense network of adult authority figures whose examples matter more than what you watch and read and consume. A place where the norms and rules and script don’t have to be made explicit to carry immense weight. A place where everyone understands the basic secret of success.

A place like, well, the modern meritocracy.

Ah, there’s that word “meritocracy” again. Am I still the only one who fails to see the merit in these people’s values and lifestyle?

Now do I actually think there’s some kind of elite-liberal cultural conspiracy to keep the masses in their social place? No, of course not – there’s nothing so conscious and cynical at work. But then again, neither do I think there’s a meritocratic conspiracy to withdraw into walkable-urban enclaves and leave the rest of society to fragment and decay. Yet that withdrawal and its consequences are still important facts for understanding the decline of marriage, just as Waldman says. An approach to life doesn’t have to be calculated to be effectively self-interested, and in the context of a stratified country that self-interest is well worth pointing out.

And the same is true of an approach to politics and culture. Again, I’m not alleging cynicism: Social liberals are entirely sincere in their belief that even self-censorship is unnecessary censorship (or, perhaps, that the internet has rendered cultural standards obsolete); in their conviction that laws banning abortion or restricting divorce are too punitive, illiberal and inherent sexist to be just; in their abiding sense that economic paternalism is morally acceptable but social-moral-sexual paternalism is not. But it is still the case that when we legalized abortion and instituted unilateral divorce, we helped usher in a sexual-marital-parental culture that seems to work roughly as well for people with lots of social capital as it did sixty years ago, while working pretty badly for the poor and lower middle class. It is still a reality of contemporary life that when anyone can get a divorce for any reason, the lower classes seem to get far more of the divorces, and that when anyone can get an abortion for any reason, the poor end up having more abortions and more children out of wedlock both. And it is still a fact that if you tallied up winners and losers from the sexual revolution, the obvious winners would tend to cluster at one end of 1975’s income distribution, the obvious losers at the other.

This post’s title is a provocation, of course: What I’m describing isn’t literally a class war. But it really does have winners. And they’re the ones most likely to insist, with great passion and conviction, that we can’t possibly learn anything from the social rules and laws and norms that held sway in America’s more equal and more mobile past.

Here’s where Douthat constructs something of a strawman on behalf of social liberals. He’s saying, essentially, that there’s no conspiracy at work, and that they do in fact sincerely hold the beliefs they profess even if they don’t act on them. Well, this may be true, but you don’t need a conspiracy to explain a collective effort to do harm. There’s a much simpler explanation: malice.

These meritocrats just don’t like us. That’s why they use terms like “cargo cult” to explain our values. That’s why they instinctively take positions that are the exact opposite of ours. When they push policies that harm their lessers, it’s because it makes them feel good to see us brought low. Maybe some people think this is a far-fetched explanation, but who can deny that hostility toward outgroups is a fundamentally human characteristic?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Laguna Beach Fogey January 29, 2014 at 10:19

They fear us, they hate us, and they want to kill us. They want us gone.

Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 1
chinesefootsoldier January 29, 2014 at 10:59

Class warfare has always been the intent of the left, they just won’t admit it. While most people are tribalistic for the sake of protecting commonalities, leftists are tribalistic only to spite people who don’t want to be part of their cult.

Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1
Anonymous Reader January 29, 2014 at 13:03

Douthat
Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together — uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side — is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family?

I can draw the point even more starkly. All the groups mentioned above are on one side of the immigration “reform” debate at a time when unemployment in the US is higher than at any time in the last 60 to 70 years. Working class men, regardless of skin color, have been harmed in a real and quantifiable sense by the ever larger number of competitors from outside the US. It is obvious that the “meritocrats” would like nothing more than to replace the US native population with a different group of people. People who will reliably vote for the Party, who will reliably work as nannies, gardeners, berry pickers, etc. without too much complaint.

From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, the issue for some is not the good of the country, it’s how to solve the “servant problem”, and wide spread unemployment is one way to accomplish that.

Mr. Douthat is too kind. The elites are creating a US society more like parts of Brazil, with a rather tiny monied class in gated communities, and ever growing favelas of “others”.

Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 0
Vektor January 29, 2014 at 18:12

What held women in check before the modern era? Financial dependence, social pressure, religious pressure, a more patriarchal legal system, etc. I doubt all the grandparents who made it married 50+ years made it solely on love alone. All those binding forces have been eroded to almost nothing. Much of this eroding was deliberate.

What holds the women at the elite level in check? A desire for power and social status… above all. Exhibit A: the Clintons. Bill publicly humiliated Hillary, and this was far from his first indiscretion. Why did she stay? Love? No.

Unfortunately, this kind of binding pressure doesn’t mean much to women below the upper middle class. The middle is shrinking. Some people are going up, but most are going down. When women become single moms, they are dooming themselves and their children to poverty. Truly, the largest gathering of foolish, entitled, ungrateful assholes in history.

The ‘elites’ on the right and left have nothing to offer. Neither care about the have-nots. The damage is done. The world has changed. It’s time for men to look out for their own self interest. Free men will do well in a meritocracy.

Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1
Nemo January 29, 2014 at 21:07

Liberalism has created a positive feedback loop of negative consequences for the average citizen.

In the 1960s the “Great Society” expanded Social Security and Medicare significantly. The demographic projections made at that time showed that the nation could afford the added expense.

Today Social Security is running a deficit, the so-called trust fund is full of nothing except IOUs from Congress, and Medicare is an ongoing crisis that has helped to spawn Obamacare.

What went wrong?

The Baby Boom went bust.

Why?

In 1973 abortion was legalized. About 55 million babies have been aborted since then. The current rate is about a million a year. The live birth rate is about four million a year. A conservative estimate is that about 20% of all babies that would have been born each year have been aborted. This actually underestimates the carnage (a million a year for 40 years is 40 million and the actual number is about 55 million), but let’s use a conservative figure.

That means that the cohort of 20 year old women in each of the years after 1993 was about 80% of the size that it would have been with no abortions. The cohort of 20 year old women in each of the years starting in 2013 will be about 0.8 * 0.8, or 64%, of what it would have been if their mothers and grandmothers had not aborted a fifth of their potential sisters and aunts.

We are trying to fund pay-as-you-go retirement and medical care systems with an influx of workers that is less than 2/3rds as large as expected. Small wonder that the systems are failing.

The real insult added to this injury is that the liberals then use this as an argument in favor of … you guessed it … MORE liberalism!

“We need more immigrants to increase the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare.” That’s an actual argument made for immigration ‘reform’.

It’s like someone kills your sister and then demands that you adopt a stranger to take her place.

It is a Mobius strip of illogic. No matter which side you look at, it always leads to more liberalism.

Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0
cxj January 30, 2014 at 20:47

“What people contemplating marrying down clearly should fear more than in the Eisenhower-era past are interpersonal problems — a spouse who comes from a broken home, who doesn’t have positive models of marriage and parenting in her past, who carries a cloud of suspicion into wedlock because his own parents’ marriage fell apart.”

Ugh, I know all about this from personal experience… poor, hot girls are bad news for middle class guys. This was exactly how I got my false accusation :(

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sestamibi January 31, 2014 at 10:54

All of this proves what I’ve been saying for at least twenty years: one can’t be “either” an economic or social conservative, because the characteristics of both beliefs are mutually reinforcing.

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sestamibi January 31, 2014 at 10:54

All of this proves what I’ve been saying for at least twenty years: one can’t be “either” an economic or social conservative, because the characteristics of both beliefs are mutually reinforcing and mutually dependent.

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FTLOTBP February 2, 2014 at 22:16

A conspiracy of malice. Just like there is also a conspiracy of stupidity.

Also, the path to perdition is paved with good intentions.

It’s OK as long as we only edge towards the truth without actually seeing the truth.

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