Ross Douthat’s last column was about—Wait for it!—how the decline of marriage is causing income inequality, More Imperfect Unions. But that’s really just the pretext. The actual point of the article is to complain that liberals are not willing to look at evidence, the way he and other conservative “reformers” are. It’s a funny claim, given that not only have liberals yielded on some of this nonsense, but the Democratic Party actually passed legislation. A large part of “ending welfare as we know it” was about reforming the social ills of the poor that were supposedly holding them back from becoming nice middle class people.
Douthat starts with conservative concessions that he doubtless thinks are major. He says that conservatives ought to admit that mass incarceration and “creative destruction” have “often made it harder for low-income men to find steady work.” (They have also made men with steady work unable to support a family, but Douthat doesn’t seem interested in that issue.) But the only policy recommendation he has is maybe a bit more along the lines of the earned income tax credit. So he, a supposed conservative reformer, is offering up less than the bare minimum here. There is no discussion of unions, which have been effectively destroyed thanks to the work of conservative US government policy. And somehow the decade’s long attack on the middle class is going to be reverse by subsidizing minimum wage pay checks? I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but the government already subsidizes minimum wage work. And this is a subsidy not of the worker but of the employers.
It gets worse. He claims, “Right now, I think some conservatives—though not enough Republican politicians—are willing to concede these points.” If by “not enough Republican politicians” Douthat means “none at all,” then I’m with him. I’m sure that Douthat can point to a handful of politicians who might give lip service to this. But when it comes down to it, who in Congress is willing to redistribute even a penny to the poor? As Jonathan Chait has pointed out recently, even the couple of policy initiatives designed to encourage marriage just take money away from one set of poor people to give it to another. This isn’t serious policy.
(This is something that really annoys me about “reformers” like Douthat. They are forever claiming that plans like Rubio’s are serious when they are just for show. I’ll admit that when it comes to immigration reform, Republicans have put forward some actual plans. But when it comes to doing something about the poor, the Republican Party is only interested in looking like they are doing something. And even if they backed something like Rubio’s plan, it would hardly be a compromise: taking from one group that they don’t care about to give to another group they don’t care about.)
Liberals Won’t Compromise
But that’s all preamble. After talking about what little he thinks conservatives need to concede, Douthat gets to his real point, which is that while the conservatives are looking at the evidence and changing, those liberals have just ossified:
But I don’t see a readiness among liberals to make any concessions of their own, beyond the minimal acknowledgment that all things being equal, two parents are often better than one.
I think reason that Douthat doesn’t see a readiness among liberals to make any concessions is that they don’t think conservatives are serious. Liberals are open to policies that will encourage marriage. But it doesn’t help liberals to talk about this kind of stuff publicly when people like Douthat are only pushing the “marriage is the cure for poverty” narrative because they think marriage is a good in itself. We have an observation: income inequality is very high and it is getting worse. Solution: ban abortion! So the solution to a huge social ill is exactly the policy that conservatives always want. There are very real reasons for liberals to disregard the conservatives on this matter. But liberals are willing to discuss this stuff. I’ll come back to this later.
Conservatives Aren’t Offering Anything
The biggest issue here is that Douthat has defined conservative concessions so vaguely without any actual policy ideas that they mean nothing. Then he contrasts them with very explicit policy: limit abortion and eliminate no-fault divorce. I think that Douthat is disingenuous on the former and misinformed on the latter. He proposes making second term abortions illegal. But 90% of all abortions take place in the first term. So is this really going to do anything for marriage or is it just a way to pander to the Republican base that thinks that all abortions and many forms of birth control out to be outlawed?
As for no-fault divorce: I don’t especially see the problem. This is not a huge issue for liberals. The main concern is that woman in abusive relationships will not be able to get out of them. According to the Stanford Business School study comparing states with and without no-fault divorce, having it reduced suicides in women by 20%, murder rate of women by a small amount, and domestic violence by 33%. So liberals aren’t ignoring the facts, as Douthat claims; they are just focusing on different facts. But as long as there are safeguards to protect women in these situations, I don’t see a major problem. (Or is Douthat arguing that keeping women in abusive relationships is a social good?) I certainly don’t see liberals completely closed off from discussing this issue.
It is interesting that the party of “freedom” is so interested in depriving people of freedom. I understand in abortion because social conservatives believe that the fetus’ rights are equal to or greater than the rights of the mother. But no-fault divorce?! It may well be that it is a social ill that is keeping the poor in poverty. But there can be no doubt that it is a great deprivation of individual rights. After all, marriage is a contract. If people want out of a contract, what gives the state the right to stop them? Modern conservatism doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Liberals Are Willing to Compromise
My position is that economic policy trumps most other things. So I’m willing to talk about anything. And so are others. What I’m not willing to do is offer up a ban on second term abortions in exchange for taking money away from single parents to give it to married parents. A compromise is when you give something in exchange for getting something. And if the best that conservative “reformer” Ross Douthat can do is provide regrets about past policy and the idea that maybe a little redistribution would be okay, then what exactly is the conservative movement offering? I can tell you: nothing.