Why is marriage important?

August 12, 2011

As you might expect, multiple rightwing commentators are blaming London’s riots on the decline in traditional institutions, like marriage. They rail at the unwillingness of ‘liberals’ to condemn non-traditional family arrangements, and the feckless fathers who abandon their offspring. What unites these separate commentators is an inability to understand how their values can be promoted; the emphasis of the right-wing media has always been that things they disagree with are wrong and should be punished, condemned, and – if possible – made illegal.

Putting forward the positives of their values doesn’t really seem to be something they want to do. This is odd, but understandable; it doesn’t require much intellectual firepower to condemn something you don’t like, but putting forward a coherent case for the positive aspects of a way of life requires much more effort.

Or does it? I’d like to focus on the role that fathers play in the debate around marriage, which is really quite unusual. Let’s illustrate this with some talking points, none of which are actually true:

  • The outcomes for children born into two-parent families are better than those with one parent.
  • Single mothers are a massive drain upon the benefits system, and hence the taxpayer.
  • Absent fathers are individuals with no sense of responsibility and who are to blame for much of society’s ills (okay, this one is true in some cases).

The implication is that father should suck it up, knuckle down, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take responsibility for their children. This is cast as a sacrifice that they’re making for the rest of society. Indeed, significant chunks of contemporary discourse appear to revolve around the sheer awfulness of the arrangement for men. Married men are cast – especially in adverts – as pitiful, unwanted creatures who are inexplicably hanging around after their sperm-donation duties are complete.

Why, then, would men consent to such a non-beneficial arrangement? Leaving love and romance to one side for a moment, marriage as construed above appears to involved the participation of men in an institution in which they are required to act in the public good, and don’t, according to Roger Stirling, even get sex out of.

Popular culture’s view of marriage and relationships is of course largely pointless, but it certainly falls under the heading of ‘messages we give our kids’. There’s a crucial part of the description of marriage which is missing here, and which needs to highlighted. It was summed up by a very wise friend, who got married and had kids at a relatively early age: “You see Adam, when you get settled down with a wife and children, it shows that you are a serious man”.

There used to be a very strong social convention that marriage was something you needed to do to get ahead. It has too easily been discarded as a relic of a bygone age, but there are elements of truth that can be brought out of it. A successful marriage, or indeed a successful long-term relationship, requires a number of skills that are economically relevant, including the ability to form a relationship with another human being based on trust, the ability to share the management of a substantial project – like household management or bringing up children, and the ability to keep your promises. A married man can demonstrate that he has these virtues; it is more difficult for a single man to do so. Moreover, marriage provides the opportunity to constantly exercise them.

By abandoning their offspring, feckless fathers are not simply turning their back on a difficult commitment, but on a social signifier which is economically useful. Various estimates are out there for the size of the premium on lifetime wages this brings, but all research points to it having a significant positive impact. Of course, there are multiple reasons for this impact, not least wanting to work harder to look after your children, but I would not be surprised if the skills aspect of it was not amongst them. This has implications for gay marriage – while it’s illiberal to not allow all sexualities access to the same institutions, it’s downright evil to deny the economic advantage those institutions can bring.

If the Right really wants to promote this particular social value, it needs to get out there into the communities rioters come from and tell these young fathers that if they stand by their offspring they’re much more likely to earn more money. Putting forward a positive case is much more powerful than deriding them as ‘feckless’. As liberals, we don’t want the Government to endorse any particular family structure, but we certainly don’t want to stop people from telling others what their relationships say about their employability.


2 Responses to “Why is marriage important?”

  1. paul barker said

    An interesting approach, one I had never considered.
    If I was making the argument for sticking by your kids, in whatever arrangement, I would stress the sheer Joy involved. I have got more out of helping raise my Daughter than anything else I have ever done.

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