April 15, 2007

Labrador Conservatism: A few clarifications and a few answers

Matt Sinclair has responded to my response to his article about Labrador Conservatism. Firstly Matt rightly rebukes me for using the wrong Harriet Harman article- he linked and criticised one on her blog, I assumed he was talking about a similar one published in the Guardian and went straight away and published my own article- such are the perils of blogging and I apologise to him for making the mistake.

Matt makes three interesting criticisms of my approach to what he has written, I want to answer all three- one at least is the result of my own slight linguistic confusion- but on all three I think Matt is actually wrong, that what he would proceed with doing would undermine the ends he wishes to acheive. That in short his policies would lead to a society which is in his own terms more not less moral than the society that we live in.

Going back to Matt's original article he argues for maintaining some sense of traditional morality in these terms:


However, a problem with this transmission of values is being identified by the new social conservatism which I discussed in my review of Dalrymple and Copperfield’s books. It is breaking down in large sections of the population and the costs are dire. Young women with multiple children by different partners searching in vain for a man who will prove responsible and often finding only the abusive. Huge numbers who believe that they are owed a living and the responsibility for looking after their children belongs to the state (which is not able to take their place properly).

I could have selected other passages of what he writes as well- but the point is that he doesn't argue for traditional marriage because it ipso facto is good, he argues for it because it promotes various social ends that he thinks are worth promoting. It is worth bearing this in mind as we go forward and I clarify some areas where my language didn't work- but I'm working on this basis- and if Matt cares to redefine his position later that is fine.

1. Matt criticises me for saying that his social conservatism is non-judgemental. Ok point taken: he is judging between the utility of various social forms, he is happy too, as am I, to condemn people who undermine responsibility which is his ultimate aim. But nota bene in his second article he doesn't tackle the hard case which is condemning a single parent who is bringing up their children responsibly, he tackles the soft case of condemning the single parent who is bringing up kids irresponsibly. Matt needs to clarify himself whether he condemns people who aren't married or condemns people who don't obey his criteria to be a good person (obviously marriage could be instrumental to that). What I meant by non-judgemental was a sense I still think that Matt's argument has- he doesn't judge marriage to be good, he judges it to be useful to promote for the acheivement of certain ends. It is more likely, he argues, that kids will be brought up well in a marriage than not- consequently marriage should be encouraged.

2. Matt secondly criticises my argument against fiscal incentives to marry and stay married. Ok lets be clear- the argument goes like this. Firstly I don't think that fiscal incentives will work- in my view people get married because they fall in love, they don't do their tax returns and decide to get dressed up and go to a church. They stay married because they are happy together and there are benefits to marriage, financially and emotionally which far outweigh any politically possible tax incentive. Secondly lets imagine a world in which they did get married for financial reasons- so lets imagine I am wrong and that the tax incentive works- then will they get married and encourage the kinds of behaviour Matt wants to encourage. Is it the word that encourages this behaviour? I don't think Matt would think that, its the behaviour inside the marriage which encourages responsibility amongst children and cohesion in society. Matt doesn't answer any of the questions about what such couples staying together for financial reasons- something he obviously beleives might happen- would produce in children. He doesn't see that for instance if he was right, women might stay in a marriage where they were being abused. The problem is you see, that if I am right, his tax policies are ineffective, but if I am wrong they positively harm the end he wishes to promote.

3. Matt makes a major critique of my arguments in his second piece when he says that

I've criticised Gracchi in another thread for treating politics as some kind of machine with policy as levers which you pull for certain effects. For neglecting the importance of the debate around values and ideals. Politics is bigger than policy and should be concerned with our collective values.

The problem with what Matt says here isn't that he is wrong but that he mistakes what is going on. Lets put it this way, values are important to what we do in politics- they are the end that we aim for- so we aim for say a free, responsible society full of happy people (I don't know if we can all accept that but lets say we do for the sake of argument) then the policies we use are the mechanisms to acheive that. Of course we might rule out some policies because we deem them to be immoral- killing all the irresponsible people for example- but fundamentally they are a route to get where we want to get, I see no problem with that argument. If your policies are, as I would argue the only policy Matt has declared, is counterproductive to the ends or the values that you wish to promote, then it is legitimate to query what you say.

There is though an underlying problem with all of Matt's argument and I wish to restate it here because its the key one I want him to answer. Does he beleive that marriage in itself is a moral institution? Does he beleive that those that don't get married but have kids (for any reason) are immoral? Or does he beleive that we should promote marriage because it promotes the kind of behaviour that we like in society? Is marriage an instrument for him or an end? Would he condemn a family where the parent wasn't married but was raising their kids responsibly- ie those kids were learning and living without state support in a positive way?

Matt has said in his piece that my mind is an academic one of fractal subtlety- and I appreciate the compliment and criticism- but equally it is true that we need to make our distinctions and our thoughts clear. Society is a complex thing- when we alter it with policies we have unintended consequences. The society that Matt and I would both like to see (I think there is far more agreement than the aggressive nature of these posts seem to suggest) is one in which there are a lot of individuals living independent and full lives, backed by stable relationships. The problem is that I don't think Matt's policies will get us there. The further issue is that I think that there is a confusion in Matt's thinking, there is on the one hand the idea that marriage helps people and therefore is good and on the other that marriage is good in itself. We need to be clear about what we are doing here and why we are doing it. The first argument gives us utilitarian justifications for marriage, it is a good because it makes more people happy, and can be justified statistically ergo there will be exceptions where it doesn't make people happy and its better for them not to be married, just not many exceptions. The second is an absolute judgement- anyone not married is living in sin and therefore must be put down.

The first argument calls for what I would call the facilitation of marriage- so all the measures I outlined below plus say paternal leave when kids are born etc.. But because the first argument is that marriage is a utilitarian good that promotes happiness in society and responsibility and lots of other things- then any measure to promote marriage must be justified insofar as it adheres to that higher end as well. Because I beleive that tax advantages won't help marriage much and will make life more difficult for those who aren't married and who are bringing up kids- as Chris Dillow outlines here tax incentives will be actively harmful and won't help people that aren't married. If you beleive though that marriage is just good- and the consequences for society of defending it don't matter, then you have a different position where you don't care about the policy implications of defences of marriage- so you would endorse that tax move because it protects marriage and protects people from sinning even if it makes them unhappy. That's the issue Matt- which is it?

5 comments:

edmund said...

interesing and good post.

One argument this whole post simply ignores is that currenlty there are huge disincentives to marriage created by the welfare state? Surely you're not actively in favour of them particularly given the utiltarian case you partly accept. Thus tax incnives act simply to cancel out the massive disincentive to marriage- the huge penalities that currently exist for getting married particulary for the poorest in society (who suprise suprise! are consequantly the least likely to get and stay married!)

Seconldy i do think your wholesale rejection of incentives slightly scary are you suggesitng as a reult people will not be any more likely to wor, if the tax rate is at 10% rather than 100% , that farm subisides for producin corn do not raise corn production ect? And why does italy have such a low illegiaty rate comapred to our own and why has ours soared ? act of god?

Also you seem to ingoe collective acton problems- we can not really direcly make people happier what we can do is encourage insitutions that do that. AT the very least we can not disntive them! . The impnce of marriage for happiness is well attested by happiness resarch.

Why does concn having kids without a father ( or not getin maried when you had a kid) suggst your condn people? if one condme racism (20% of the birith public self deserib3e as that and 40% of the French) does tha mena you condme people totally-of course not. And yet being born outisde marraige does a lot of damage on average to people' life prospects- it does more damage than is evident in racism in this country today to peop;le actual life prospects. an ethic based on teh conseunces of actions would condmen having kis outside wedlock-probably more so than a traditonal chrian ethic whiose objection is based on emaphsisng permant male female sexual union as the moral ideal.

Do you belive that commint has inhent value as you can seem to do so when defending gay mariage-if so then surely marraige has an inhent value in and of itself?

To repat have a crackdown on demi violence and pubhs servey abusers and neglectors in the divorce laws (disgracefully not curenl the case) if that's your worry.

The's also a huge irony here the curent instaiby of relatihjsops massively increases domeitc violence (not surpingly since unstable relatiosps are much more likely to lead to intense jealoursy and insecurity) as can be seen by comaping rates of domstic vilence among unmarried and married couples - moreover it leads to massivle higher rates of sexual abuse- the most likely abusers of chidren ( perhap excpt siblings but s igns have so much oppoty and it may be step siblilngs) are non relatied father figures i vaguely recall it's something like 10 times more likelyto abuse thier ch8idolrn. This is very unsupriing-it's an obivous result of Darwinian evolution.

Thus if you want to stop abuse witin reaits and even more of chirn making sure childrne are reared by their biological parnets together is the obvious way of doing this. the way to do so is to encourage marriage or at least to stop disincentivisng it!

Gracchi said...

Thanks Edmund- I've responded to the welfare issue below- certainly I oppose tax changes like this are things that I oppose because they hit the widow(er)s hard. Basically I agree with lots of what you write- on the incentives point, I think there are better ways of helping married people which don't make life difficult for those that find themselves unmarried.

I do condemn racism. I find it to be an immoral point of view- and I find racist acts- like shouting abuse- to be immoral actions. I would not wish to associate with such a person and would not- whereas for someone to have a child outside wedlock would not make me feel the same way.

edmund said...

I agree on the trust thing- though it really effects the other end of the income spectrum where

on incentives what do you mean by don't make things difficult? I would say it's relay the exising systme makes things much more difrfen for the maried than would be the case ceterus paribus- and so we should eihter eliminante the programmes that do that or match the financhial penalty for the married?

On racism are you really sauy9ing the 1/5 of the population that self describe as such you wouldn ot evne talk to? Any form of racims from voluni avoidng comany to planting bobms in plagygroups? It seems to me there is both a spectrum and there is a distincion here from palign bombs to avoiding company

you can say someting is wrong without orchsating those who do it-otherwisxe one engages in cultish behivour or has no real moral standards beyond the criminal law(andm aybe not even that)

And are you realy saying that someone who engages in very mild racist behvioaur ( avoidng bars with lots of white people if they're black for example ) is worst han somehow who deliberatly gets pregnant without a father -or refuses to get married? AFter all the latter does much more harm to people so what's the moral principal whereby it isnt' a problem while avoidng the bars is bad.

obviously if you plant bombs you're worst but most racist behavour does not reach that type- racism is a lable for a multiitd of sins of varying degree.

Rob L said...

Good article which I largely agree with. One thing that does occur to me is that getting married in the first place costs a bomb. For that reason, I can’t imagine that fiscal incentives are going to encourage people to get married who would otherwise not. Marriage isn’t about money, and incentivise it that way will, I think, fail, and in any case are cheapening to the institution, not beneficial to it.

A couple who do not marry because, say, one of them had a wretched previous marriage should be no worse off in their lives, or in raising their children, than the married couple who live next door because of the choice they have made. It seems to me that marriage is not the real issue – responsibility is. People don’t take marriage seriously enough, and that’s a social problem not likely to be solved by extra pounds in the pockets of those that are married, particularly if their marriage is short-lived because they haven’t thought enough into it. Equally, financially encouraging loveless marriages to remain intact is not necessarily a good way to promote social cohesion or reduce the number of unhappy childhoods.

Exposing my ignorance: do fiscal disincentives to marriage exist? If they do, they shouldn’t.

Gracchi said...

Edmund- I think my position is fairly clear on disincentives- if they exist.

Rob great comment I think most of what you say I completely agree with you on.