April 14, 2007

Labradors and Political Thinking about the family

Matt Sinclair has provided an interesting analysis this afternoon of what he calls Labrador Conservatism (Matt failed to provide a picture of a labrador in an uncharacteristic slip which I hope I have redeemed). Matt defines this as a refinement of social conservatism- a social conservatism stripped of its religious baggage and redefined as the proposition that stable families (whether gay or straight) provide a better place for children to be brought up than other kinds of families. Matt's argument is much more non-judgemental than the traditional social conservative line, he isn't arguing that single parenthood is sinful merely that in most cases its easier to bring up a child with two people rather than one in the house, he specifically argues that issues like abortion, contraception and gay marriage have no place in this new social conservatism- indeed one could argue as Andrew Sullivan has that a conservatism that truly sought the promotion of commitment without prejudice would have to endorse and promote gay marriage for homosexuals.

Instinctively there is a lot of good in these attitudes- but there are problems too about Matt's article. He launches into what I think is an ill advised attack on Harriet Harman's recent critique of David Cameron's marriage policies in the Guardian. What Harman mainly argued is that the kind of financial incentives that Cameron wants to bind into marriage make little sense- few people will marry because of an extra hundred quid of benefit and if people do marry because of that will they set up the kinds of stable relationship that Matt wants to see. Harman's agenda seems to me from the article to be about sustaining a social agenda for marriage- a kind of ethic of marriage which seems to get lost in the purely financial accounting that Cameron proposes. Matt describes Harman's argument as 'statist' but she is arguing against the provision of a tax break by the state to married couples- this is not really about statist versus non-statist arguments but about what kind of state action is best to support marriage- tax breaks on the married don't seem to me to encourage the kinds of behaviour that Matt wants to encourage.

That is I suppose the second big objection to the way that Matt sees marriage policy developing. There is if you like a Puritan problem about this issue. Matt summarises in his post the goods attached to good and stable relationships and then argues that conservatives ought to fortify the legal arrangement- marriage- which provides those goods. The problem is that there are some relationships that maintain the name of marriage whilst not conforming to what Matt and I see as the idea of marriage- the sustaining companionship of two people of whatever gender together for each others' good. In those relationships, it may be better for both parties and for their children if such a relationship breaks up- domestic violence of all kinds, affairs and even less important emotional abuse are very good reasons for a relationship to break apart. By endeavouring to promote marriage by building up its fortifications- by say making it tax advantageous to be married or stiffening divorce law- you may make it difficult for people to escape from relationships that are harming them and harming their children (children who are brought up by parents that loathe each other are often damaged in the long term by that- their ideas of how you behave in a relationship can often be adversarial and manipulatory). Furthermore if Matt like me deems it more difficult to bring up a child on your own than with someone else- if we make it more difficult through tax breaks and like measures to do that then probably the kids who are left, through no fault of their own, with parents who may, for no fault of their own, be alone will be penalised even more than they already are.

Matt's post encodes some very worthy ideas- but before being entirely happy with where he is going I would personally like to see some details of what he would do. Government can help married couples a lot- Harman's idea of mediation in divorces seems a good one for example- one of the problems with divorce is that if it becomes bitter it can cause a lot of damage to kids who are used as a political football between their parents or even aren't allowed to see a parent. A role for counselling provided by the state for couples that are having difficulties might be an interesting one as well- and information for couples about how having a child will impact on their relationship with each other is already available but could be made even more available. My sense is that it is this helping attitude, or facilitation of marriage and of family, that will help the most not swinging tax breaks. Another means of facilitation might go wider into the development of public spaces- like parks- and the protection of those spaces so that they become safer for communities to use and for kids to use, we have developed a cult of strangerhood in our society which is useful for some reasons but also damages us.

Matt is right to highlight this as a wider area of interest for conservatives and I appreciate that a single post is not a set of policy prescriptions. What I think we have to be wary of is fortifying marriage with a series of policies that would make life for unmarried parents difficult whilst not really helping the married, rather I think we need to think about the much more difficult issue of how we help people that are married and want to be married face the challenges that marriage provides to them. I don't think those answers are all governmental- diplomas for rearing kids are not on my agenda- and some of them possibly require as easy measures as the construction of leisure centres and providing municipal spaces in council housing. Overall though by directing conservatism away from the judgemental prophecies of social conservatism and towards the compassionate philosophy of labrador conservatism, Matt is pointing in the right direction. But it is upon the policies that we should judge labrador conservatism- will it actually help married couples or will it merely entrench marriage as an institution, forgetting that that means damaging the lives of people both inside and outside marriage.

10 comments:

james higham said...

...a social conservatism stripped of its religious baggage and redefined as the proposition that stable families (whether gay or straight) provide a better place for children to be brought up than other kinds of families...

1] If, by 'religious baggage', is meant the strong Christian ethic which bound families together, a sort of social glue which, now that it is missing is causing families to sunder all over the western world, then the comment is sad.

2] There really is a maniacal determination to deny that which has been efficacious. Humanists will try every permutation under the sun, rather than the one which has been proven effective.

3] Nice Labrador.

4] Focus is up.

james higham said...

Think I'll just have to argue with myself this evening. Where is everyone?

EMH said...

In response to point 1: I see it as meaning the 'religious baggage' of things such as abortion, homosexuality and everything of that ilk.

I definitely would not read 'baggage' as the positive things that come out of religion (such as the strong Christian ethic), but as the devisive things that tend to be connected to social conservativism due to the outspoken few of the evangelical right.

Matthew Sinclair said...

I think Gracchi means, if he is summarising my arguments accurately, that it is political 'baggage'. It makes social conservatism politically harder to sell in a pretty irreligious country (and to irreligious people like myself).

I certainly passed no judgement on the moral and social value of religion. I'm merely assuming that a party leader can't do much about its decline.

My own view on religion is that its good and bad effects probably roughly even out. I'm with the Derb:

http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ZDBmYzcyZTgzNzNkYWM0MzY3YjE1ZThhZGJiMDRiZWE

edmund said...

Just a few comments (i'm trying not to duplicate matt sinclair's defence which i largely agree with)

A few thoughts

I fial to see how the issues named are spei aly religous in the way that caring about children is not, the Soviet Union opposed homosexuality, many athists oppose abortion. Equally the idea that small chidren may not be killed (never mind their genreal welfare must be looked after) is something that is the result of christian incurisons into Romanic cultures. As I've said on matt's blog it strikes me as a false distinction

Would "the promotion of commitment wihtout prejudice" also involve incestrious marriage?


On the main points


What is the evindce for the argumetn that people will not respond to incentives ? Do you thin the whole of modern economics is a stupid idea? That the idea people respond to incentives- and that peole make marginal decision which respond even to small incentives is wrong?

in any case this is not just about basic economics but also about a lot of evidence- as welfare states have exapnded and reduced the incnive for marriage (indeed often reversed them) family break up and fmaily non fomraino have soared. By contrast in italy whose own (generous) welfare state is rigged agiant the unmarried of childberaing years has a very low rate of illegiaty. ? is this because italins are sexually represed and unliberated? Because italin men are paradigns of sexual restraint?? The pattern can be seen gealy where welare states that undermine the finahcia incentives for marriage are formed their family break up follows- the less they create such an incentive the less family break up. obviously this is not the only factor cultue matters ( so African Americans had a 30% illegiaty rate before the welfare reforms of the 60's-low and behold since then the rate has soared into the 60's / 70's while white ameerican have a considerable lower rate than in the UK) . HOwever incentives matter as well-and they have a seriously large effect.

As for the (contradicotry) trapping argument- surely that is an arg for changing divorce laws to punish servely mistreatment? To provide massive incentives for the side mistreated?

the evidnece unhappy maraiges shor tof them ost attrocious (ie a tiny fracion of divorces) hurt children is very weak - survy chi find that eve when their parnes disliek each other they prefer to be together, and that the effects of divorce are in all but exceptoal cases negative- most cases the negaitve effects wore off after a deacde of trauma but often tyhe cases remain-that is why the chidln of divoed parnetsx tend to do worst on most indicies than non divorced ones.

I'm distrubed by the idea that marriage is just about two people looking for "each others' good" surely if we preioritze comminent it's also has inherent value (after all no one's forced to get married) , Secondly what about children of a marraige surely their interwt matter? This i think (unconsioculy) reflect the adult centerenes and indiffernece to children's welfare too domiant in how these issues are discussed.

Finally I'm disturbed by the idea of marriage training ( where's the evidence this has eveh helped?) provison of leisure centers ect . Firly i fial to see how these will help much much (interms of marriage ect) Secondly they're an extremly authorian solution-because whose going to pay for them? other people so you are asking people to divert thier resouces form their own intersts to that decided by others - you are focing them to "buy" a leisure center rathe than a microwave , a holidya or a book. It's an extemly bossy way of tryihg to shore up marriage.

To say that it's authoin to reduce the massive financhai penalities for marriage or to make people acutly live by a modeifed verion of
the commints they undertook is "puritan" (I may have misunderstood the refence) and authorian while forcing people to purchase stuff they have no wish to is not is I respectfully submit misguided.

However i'm glad thei mprnace of marriage and the goods it bring is being taken so serously be center-left commentors may this spread..

edmund said...

in response to the others comments

James I lagely agree with

emh when was chiraty pro aboriton or homosexuality (i assume you mean homosxual sex) before the "evangelical right" got involved? .]

How are they "religous baggage" in a way oppostion to infanticide and incest are not? or do you want to drop those pieces of traditioal baggage as well?

Sinclari I largely agree with thoough i don't think issues can be seen as "relgious" by and large in the way he implies. I also think the key point is saying "religon" is good or bad is a bit like saying "political parties" are the question is which one and at what point.

edmund said...

one additon clarificaion Gracchi my point is in part if you will not abosih the disni crated by the welfare state by abosh the wlfare state (and my judgment is you are probaly far too econimaly and socially authorian and statist to do so) surely one has to at least elminte these disntive themsleves?

Gracchi said...

Edmund it is just I suppose that I beleive that commitment is good because it furthers human happiness- but not if it strikes against the happiness of the members of the family unit (that calculation is a difficult one I accept and one I'd prefer to leave to the participants). I think the key thing is to reform the way that our public services and our lives in general deal with marriage and the family- making the task of marraige and the family easier. That's why I like the prescriptions that I talk about. Some welfare of course will be directed almost exclusively to unmarried families because they are usually poorer- but in general I would try and make the welfare state family friendly- so not penalise for marriage- but I don't think that people should be penalised for not marrying or not being married- because I think there are circumstances in which it is better for people to leave a relationship than stay in it and I don't want to make their lives more difficult.

edmund said...

Gracchi responses interspersed in your comments

Edmund it is just I suppose that I beleive that commitment is good because it furthers human happiness- but not if it strikes against the happiness of the members of the family unit (that calculation is a difficult one I accept and one I'd prefer to leave to the participants).

So the point is happiness rather than any value to commitment and mutual obligatio in itself? This seems a bit hedoniti and morally barren to me but no matter. Does that mean say if you could show that homosexualyt reduced happiness that you could agree wtih disincourag it rather than ecnouragin it through gay marriage on the same authoritian logic that your wish for public services ect to help happiness follows?


I think the key thing is to reform the way that our public services and our lives in general deal with marriage and the family- making the task of marraige and the family easier.

Well current they make it much harder. After all it's not like in a country like the modern UK the goven produces welath. All govne expenid is paid for by others members of soicty- including (indeed chiefly) marired fmailes , so all benfits in practice aimed at single parnes penalize married cop.es -both because it disincenitves marraige and because they pay for them!

That's why I like the prescriptions that I talk about. Some welfare of course will be directed almost exclusively to unmarried families because they are usually poorer- but in general I would try and make the welfare state family friendly- so not penalise for marriage-

so you agree with the matt/ prague tory line that the government should compensate for the massive expenditures it spends that unmderin marriage (i assume you don't wnat ot scrap them)
but I don't think that people should be penalised for not marrying or not being married-

Has anyone suggssted the last ? Even the Vicoina era was open to Spinseters and life long bachlors.

because I think there are circumstances in which it is better for people to leave a relationship than stay in it and I don't want to make their lives more difficult.

indeed but that's difn from encouragin them and paying them to do so-when the results are so damaing in the main-including making relatiosp more abusive particularly for children.

Gracchi said...

Ok Edmund.

I didn't realise that the government paid people to leave marriages- what is it called divorcee allowance. I understood that the government tried to help people who fell into poverty when they left a marriage or if they weren't married in the first place- but that's different and the justifications for that are based on welfare policy.

There may be tax disincentives- and I think that someone more qualified than me would have to speak- I notice that commenters on both Matt and Prague Tories posts have argued that there are not disincentives to marry in the system- I don't know, if there are I would remove them but I would want to know the detail and not the kind of bluster that you are giving me. And I would want to know why that leglislation was brought in- because I'm not sure that any British government has ever had an anti-marriage agenda.

Right to commitment as a moral value. Edmund I don't agree with you there- I think that contract keeping is a moral value possibly but commitment in my view isn't. As to contracts I find marriage a very difficult thing to assign blame within and consequently oppose fault divorces- I also don't think that they help people in the future get past the divorce and be friends enough to help with bringing up children.

Abusive relationships often abuse children as well- and my way forward would be to have counselling and mediation services like the government has brought in- to have paternal leave so that fathers can bond with their children from the early days- and to try and help people instead of bludgeoning them into marriage with a tax policy.