Three Sacred Cows That Shouldn’t Be
It is truly amazing how, even in our troubled times, when Americans have to contend with high unemployment, endless foreign wars (even if we don’t call them such), growing poverty and the legalized sale of our government to big business, we as a society still find inconsequential nonsense to worry about. I am not even talking about hardcore Republicans obsessing over other people’s sex lives or the non-existent War on Christianity. I am talking about certain non-issues that people on both sides of the political divide get sucked into worrying about and discussing ad nauseam, despite the fact that they are clearly not worth our time. The following three such non-issues take the cake for demonstrating all the ways in which ideology deprives people of common sense.
1. Marriage. Heterosexual marriage, to be precise. It is undeniable that the marriage rate in the US is in decline. The divorce rate is in decline as well, but it is nevertheless high, especially for subsequent marriages. It is so high, in fact, that any married American is as likely as not to avail him or herself of our country’s fairly liberal divorce laws at some point. Which only goes to show that marriage and divorce provide fuel for some of the most hypocritical bloviating in public discourse, underpinned by a belief in personal exceptionalism: one’s own divorce is always justified with ample grounds, everyone else who divorces just isn’t trying hard enough.
Shortly after our economy truly began spiraling down what seemed like a bottomless pit, I read an article in one of our more “serious” conservative newspapers to the effect that divorce filings drop when the economy goes bad. The author and the commenters were unanimous in characterizing this as a “silver lining” in an otherwise bad situation. It is, really? Being compelled by poverty to stay in a dysfunctional and possibly abusive marriage is something to celebrate?
After all, there are three major reasons for the combination of low marriage rates and high divorce rates: (1) long life expectancy (which both allows people to delay getting married and removes death as a significant possibility for getting out of a bad marriage); (2) economic prosperity (which makes it unnecessary for couples to keep their incomes combined merely in order to survive); and (3) gender equality (which enables women to survive on their own and makes them more willing to cohabit without a marriage license). All those are good things, right? And yet, there is no end to pearl-clutching in our society to the effect that the growing irrelevance of marriage is a major problem that must be solved by making the lives of single people (and especially single women) harder, and by making divorce laws tougher. Above all this floats the myth taken straight from PG-rated romantic comedies: that if the economy or unwanted pregnancy, or some other set of circumstances forces two people who don’t like each other to be married, they will ultimately work all the kinks out, after a series of hilarious misunderstandings and cheesy heart-to-hearts.*
I am not advocating against marriage here. Marriage is important to a lot of people, and there are plenty of happy marriages. But marriage should be a means to an end — and it distresses me to see how often people, even liberals, treat it instead as an end in itself. Neither safety, nor personal happiness, nor people’s very souls should be sacrificed on the altar of an abstract idea — which is precisely what all those folks who complain about people not taking marriage seriously are advocating. And it IS an abstract idea, and a meaningless one, where individuals’ aspiration in forging ahead is to serve God, or the idea itself, rather than to be with each other of their own free will.
The fact that the government, biology, and the economy no longer force people to enter into and stay in miserable marriages isn’t a problem that needs curing. And marriage is not a panacea.
2. Capitalism. Adam Smith is to economics what Aristotle was once to science — originally a breakthrough and then, a hindrance. It is not a coincidence that modern biology is a relatively young science, as compared to, say, chemistry and physics — because for hundreds of years, you could literally be burned at the stake for disputing Aristotle. (Which always struck me as really strange. Aristotle was not a Christian, and his works were not scriptures, so why was it a heresy to doubt his pronouncements? But I digress.)
Modern attitudes to Smithian capitalism, or what is perceived as such, are similar: suggest any government intrusion into the economy, and you will find yourself pelted with charges that you are “against capitalism”. It is perfectly fine to make a rational argument in favor of capitalism, but when charges of ideological impurity are leveled, they are invariably divorced from anything remotely utilitarian. In other words, whatever we do, we must remain true to capitalism because it is “our way”, regardless or whether or not there are perhaps objectively better ways. It is unthinkable to put Smith’s views in historical perspective, to explore his writings for nuance, or to suggest (godforbid!) that he may have been wrong about some things, or that some of the things he said are inapplicable in today’s economy and society.
In other words, capitalism has ceased to be viewed as an economic system. It has ceased even to be viewed as a philosophy. Instead, it has come to be regarded as a tradition, one that we as a society must incur costs to preserve. I really wish debates over whether or not to regulate would cease to be about “capitalism versus socialism”. Such discussions should be a matter of practicality, not uninformed faith.
3. Home Ownership. Depending on the circumstances, it may be a good idea to buy a home. And it’s perfectly fine to aspire to something like that. But over the last fifteen years or so, home ownership ceased to be the American Dream and became the American Moral Imperative. Advertisers and the Federal government created a climate in which people felt they had to own a home right now for the very idea of ownership, at any cost, on any terms. If it weren’t for me being a skeptic, I might have thought the hysteria was a result of some collusion between the government and big banks, designed to make sure that every American over the age of 25 owed his soul (and his children) to the company store.
At the height of the housing boom, people utterly lost their heads, becoming eager to consign themselves to living paycheck-to-paycheck for decades, in return for rewards that seemed increasingly illusory. Buying a home became synonymous with maturity and responsibility, even in cases where such purchases were financially reckless. By contrast, deciding not to buy was seen as a moral failure, regardless of sound reasons for the decision.
The craze caused the prices to skyrocket out of all proportion to incomes. It is easy to moralize now about all those people who bought homes “they couldn’t afford”, but the simple fact is, real estate prices grew so much faster than incomes, it became increasingly difficult for the middle class to afford anything — all while being under insane social pressure to buy.
And now that the housing market has collapsed, there is no end to calls to prop it up artificially — because the last thing we want to do, apparently, is discourage people from buying.
But is home ownership always a good idea, in every case? If we strip away the moralistic nonsense and make it purely about genuine personal happiness and realistic financial considerations, the answer is far less clear and depends on numerous variables. Meanwhile, recent history has demonstrated that public policy should not favor home ownership for its own sake. Feverish borrowing, highly leveraged consumer transactions, urban sprawl, and reckless, environmentally destructive development — that’s the legacy of trying to increase the rates of home ownership.
It’s time for the craze to die.
*A few years ago, while doing research for an upcoming trip to Alaska, I came upon this article about life in the town of Wales, on the Bering Strait. Here is what the author had to say on one of the consequences of the 1918 influenza epidemic:
A government superintendent came to the village to resolve the orphan crisis that had ensued. He brought along a sheaf of marriage licences, called the adult survivors to the schoolhouse, and told them that the government was planning to take the orphans away. He did not want to see this happen, so he offered the people an alternative: the survivors could remarry and raise the children. The official then instructed the men to line up on one side of the room, the women on the other. The men were told to select wives. Those who didn’t were paired up. The superintendent conducted a mass wedding, and the orphans were doled out to the new couples.
When I read that, a thought occurred to me that it sounded like a setup for a romantic melodrama, in which people persevere and fall in love, and learn to be happy for the family.
Instead, this happened:
Then a new epidemic hit western Alaska. People started to kill themselves at a rate seven times the US average. One suicide led to another, spreading from village to village. To this day, the epidemic rages on.
True, as the article shows, the suicide epidemic had multiple causes. But forced marriages clearly did nothing to heal a society reeling from a devastating epidemic — and in fact, made the situation worse.