if you can buy a gun, you can get a divorce: comments on a recent talk by amy wax

Last week, I was invited to attend a talk by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax and present comments. You can view Professor Wax’s entire talk, with my response, at this link. The essence of Professor Wax’s comments are as follows. First, the traditional bourgeois family – as articulated in the mid-20th century – is a good thing. Intact families, rare divorce, and reduced number of romantic partners are good things, not just for parents, but for children as well. Second, the traditional bourgeois family has declined but is still retained by more educated people, especially educated Whites and Asians. In her popular writings, such as this Philadelphia Inquirer piece, Professor Wax also links the demise of the traditional bourgeois family to crime rates and other social trends.

My response was delivered in a few sections. First, I start with broad points of agreement. Yes, I do believe that Professor Wax has identified an important theme in the sociological literature on the family. Intact families are generally a good thing and it’s probably not just a selection effect. I also give to her for being part of a larger call to identify and retain the positive aspects of Western culture. Like Diedre McCloskey, who identifies the positive economic effects of bourgeois culture, Wax depicts the traditional family as having positive personal effects for people. That’s a good message.

Now, let me turn to more modest disagreements. A big one is rhetoric. In her popular writing, Wax links changes in the family to rap music, homicide rates and the fact that *some* Latinos are anti-assimilation. In her more scholarly talks, she links the traditional family to Western civilization in broad strokes. Given the importance of the topic, I think it is valuable to roll back the rhetoric a little. Also, I think Wax slips into a rhetorical mode that may not be sustainable. For decades, perhaps longer, social commentators have given us narratives of decline – the death of community, the lonely crowd, bowling alone. Her account one of a long string of warnings of decline, many of which don’t pan out.

I have more substantive disagreements. One is the libertarian response to Wax’s comments. Yes, it is true that as society experienced a moral deregulation in the 1960s, we had some bad side effects. And they are quite serious. At the same time, a liberal and free society allows people to make bad choices. In other words, if you can own a gun, or smoke cigarettes, you can certainly get a divorce. A second disagreement has to do with the size of the problem. Yes, studies of families often show a negative effect of family instability on children. But at the same time, the effects are often of middle range – maybe a third of a standard deviation. Sometimes more, sometimes less. I would say that we are right to be concerned and we should think about how to strengthen families. But I wouldn’t use the evidence to argue for an overall decline of American society.

I’ll end on policy and solutions. First, I think it is generally difficult to argue for a reversal of the “moral deregulation” of the 1960s. Why? There are institutions that provide traditional families but they are very expensive and their appeal is limited. For example, the Church of Later Day Saints is an institution known for promoting traditional families, but the cost in terms of time and financial resources is very high. This is not a criticism or endorsement of the LDS, but I merely note that creating a modern institution that really nudges people toward bourgeois families is very hard.

Finally, Professor Wax often alluded to the decline in birthrates and eroding pro-marriage norms. If that is an urgent concern, then why not consider immigration as one solution? The US can, and has, absorbed millions of Latin American immigrants who have larger families and tend to be more socially conservative than the average native born American. It’s worth thinking about.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 12, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in fabio, family, sociology

3 Responses

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  1. We have written a few books on the family. It is easy simply respect all families (including so-called bourgeois families). Stop de-regulating agencies like the Consumer Protection Agency that families rely on to stop predatory lending practices that allows banks, money lenders to charge upwards of 500% interest on short term loans. Of course there is more as to how low income and non-white families are caught in webs of discrimination in employment, housing markets, schooling etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    Earl Smith

    February 12, 2018 at 2:43 pm

  2. The problem of the welfare state is that handouts in food, housing, cash, other discounts and healthcare required compliance with certain forms of family arrangements. If the family form did not meet state prescriptions, the benefits were withdrawn. Women had to establish certain perceptions of their relationships to their parents and siblings, to their partners or spouses and to their offspring in terms of income and living arrangements in order for state personnel to grant benefits.

    Up goes divorce, out of wedlock births and single parent head of household in every social group!

    Extraordinarily, the government gives all married persons and families tax cuts and other tax benefits which obliges everyone to comply with only certain family formations and social relationships. This governmental form is pushing the dating and marriage market schemes which pervade the restaurant industry, entertainment, and housing! Cable programming aka family values shows are ubiquitous and directly contradict the kinds of scenes found in family court, divorce court, criminal court and probate court!

    I happen to agree that the forms of marriage and family are oppressive, antagonistic and determined by capitalist forces: the low wage, education doesn’t matter, inequality and where’s the next set of wars!

    But the current diversity of family form, the treatment of men and the conflicts between men over their relative statuses: single versus married, without children versus parenting, lives with family versus separated, and between fathers and grandparents which is also an in-law conflict has made family relationships intolerable.

    Family always was a hothouse because of sibling rivalry, parental preferences and the problems of the incest taboo: sexual assault/trauma and disgust.

    The welfare state pays out for particular arrangements designated as poverty or near poverty, and pays out SSC and Medicare which makes 2 large groups of persons state dependents and manipulable by state policies!

    Liked by 1 person

    Fredrick Welfare

    February 12, 2018 at 7:21 pm

  3. What’s missing from studies showing that intact families are good for people is looking at what would have happened in the families where a divorce was obtained had that divorce not been possible. Surely a few would have turned out ok. But in many cases, divorce is the solution to rampant marital conflict, domestic violence, one parent who isn’t contributing anyway, etc. This is a counterfactual and thus probably not empirically verifiable, but any time I hear someone say divorce is bad for kids I want to know if they think watching one parent crack the other one’s skull is good for kids.

    Liked by 1 person


    February 12, 2018 at 10:24 pm

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