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:
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.
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).
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?