It's been linked elsewhere already, but this article by Jonathan Rauch in The National Journal is very interesting. The thesis, based upon scholarly research and likely to the subject of further analysis, is "In red states, families form adults; in blue states, adults form families."
The gist of the argument is that in traditional societies, people start families young and become adults by shouldering adult responsibilities, i.e. marriage, family, kids, and work. Sex is tightly associated with procreation and procreation with family and responsiblity. Starting a family early isn't that big of a deal, as it's assumed that you'll essentially man up and take responsibility for your actions. Get your girlfriend pregnant? Well, shame on you for being promiscuous, but if you get married and settle down, well, no harm no foul, right? Adults are produced by assuming responsibility early. Red states, being of a more traditionalist mindset, tend to strongly prefer this model, as evidenced in conservative tendencies to oppose abortion, birth control, and pre-marital sex.
But in modern societies, this works the other way around: adults form families. I.e., people who have largely finished their growing-up process, most of the time involving at least one post-secondary degree and frequently an advanced degree of some sort, get married and have kids once they're damned well ready to. Starting a family isn't the beginning of the growing-up process, it's the last phase of it. The cardinal sin here isn't extra-marital sex, it's starting a family too early. Sometimes even getting married can be a big black mark here. Blue states, evidenced by their preference for sex education, birth control, abortion, easy access to divorce, and "tolerant" sexual mores, prefer this model.
The thing of it is, the "adults form families" model is far better suited to today's economy than the "families form adults" model. Today, if you want any chance at financial security, you absolutely must have a college degree, and an advanced degree is increasingly necessary. This takes a long time, well into one's twenties, and having a family makes acquiring the credentials preferred by today's employers quite difficult.
That's the argument as it's stated in the article, and I largely buy it. Those seem observable trends. But I'd argue that the "adults form families" model, which prioritizes individual success over family life, is bad for society in the long run. Our culture thinks of children as liabilities, not assets, as expenses which reduce our ability to maximize our own potential. In some sense that's probably true, as the world keeps its ledger: having kids does make it very difficult to acquire an advanced degree or to maintain the sort of mobility that is required to surf from job to job which our economy increasingly requires. But I don't think this is viable over the long term, for a number of reasons.
First, as suggested by the article, liberals have low birth rates, and low birth rates are a problem. If you don't start having kids until your late twenties, not only can you have fewer of them than if you started a decade earlier, but you're likely to choose to have fewer of them because of your values. So by emphasizing one's own potential at the expense of family life, one is essentially choosing not to contribute as much to the next generation. I think Greece is showing us what falling populations can mean for entitlement programs.
Second, I don't think the "Information Economy" is actually viable in the long run. Economists have rightly given up the idea of some kind of objective store of value that moves through the economy, but the idea that economic value is not entirely arbitrary is a good one. We may not be able to do math about it, but that doesn't mean that we can make up whatever numbers we like. That's essentially what we've been doing for the past thirty years, and it isn't working anymore. I think what the ongoing financial crisis is about has less to do with speculation or unregulated financial markets as much as it does the essential weakness of the idea that society can assign whatever values it wants to whatever it wants without considering any sort of underlying metaphysics. Supply and demand move prices, to be sure, but just because someone is willing to pay $1 million for a house or $20 million for a baseball player does not mean that said commodities actually contribute that much value to the economy. So a familial model which is predicated on arbitraging this paradigm can't last. Eventually we have to get back to building stuff, to making stuff, or we'll see just how long we can survive on stock options and CDOs. Man may not live on bread alone, but I'm pretty sure Wall Streets words don't have any value to them at all.
So what I see here is a social arrangement which has basically gone all in on flawed premises. You can't sacrifice the next generation for this one, and having a bunch of kids is important to healthy societies. A society whose population is falling is moribund in more wasy than one. And even if that weren't true, a society which assumes it will gain its wealth from services and other illusory goods is kidding itself. Without a foundation of manufacturing and agriculture, economies are just smoke and mirrors.
Agreeing with the conclusions in the article doesn't have to make me happy.Posted by ryan at May 6, 2010 9:26 AM