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The Abolition of Marriage

by Maggie Gallagher



Gallagher, a syndicated anti-child, anti-parent activist, argues for the personal, social, and erotic importance of lasting love. The more philosophical parts of The Abolition of Marriage delight the soul: Marriage helps socialize men. Children exist for more than gratification. Those making “lifestyle choices” are not the only ones affected by those choices. Well-meaning cultural changes damaged marriage and caused paradoxical consequences. Marriage once meant safety and shelter. Now we consider marriage dangerous, but nonmarriage is no splendid solution. Nonmarriage increases risks.


Amen, sister!


Gallagher analyzes the soft marriage market. She argues that perpetual rounds of half-hearted dates and relationships replaced courtship and marriage. What was solid melted into lost rivers. “Without roles, there can be no plot.” A good life needs duties done with honor, a life story with marriage as an important part. Eros, the intense desire to love and be loved in return, is a must. Half-hearted reeks.


We propagandize young individuals with shallow pleasure seeking norms. Toy collecting and game playing garner status. Marriage and children do not. We shun depth and intensity in relationships. Adults fear looking uncool. Sex dominates as a goal of dating. We float around, hoping marriage happens if things magically progress. Men and women look for love in wrong places, then become cynical about the other gender, ignoring their own terrible choices. Individuals develop short-term experimentation habits, failing to develop the will or skill to shift to commitments.


We disregard family roles, she argues, yet individuals, imagining themselves independent thinkers, are blind fools manipulated by cultural fads. Marriage develops men or at least correlates with successful men. Recently hired married men are 50 percent more likely to receive high performance ratings than single men, controlling for location, education, prior experience and, apparently, nothing else. Having quality breadwinners, increases the number of life alternatives available for women.


Elites, Gallagher notes, favor covering up the family problem with euphemisms, appeals to the traditional practices of tribes, and irrelevant claims about the imperfections of the 1950s. “Ozzie and Harriet never existed. So what?” The value of a goal does not depend on whether some people do not live up to it. Media-types sermonize about dress, food, toys, dating, and entertainment, yet they excoriate those who mention family, marriage, and morality in the same sentence.


Double amen!


Lasting marriages, she offers, take more than spontaneity and personal insight. Partners should not view their spouses as merely objects for pleasure and consumption. Therapeutic ideologies offer little more than a mask for selfishness.


 “Family values is an empty slogan, a perfect politicians’ phrase, committing no one to any serious actions.” She claims the marriage contract has weakened so much it is worth less than the proverbial paper it is printed on. The legal benefits of marriage decreased while its responsibilities remain.  No-fault divorce shifts power to individuals breaking commitments. We evade serious social problems of family, mistakenly believing family and marriage are purely private issues. We believe society and policy influence little. “If there is supposedly no solution, there is no problem.”


Researchers error by dividing marriage into many pieces—"social and economic support”—concluding that it’s the little pieces that make a difference, never marriage itself. We cause unrecognized harm with our “decision to privatize marriage and withdraw public, legal, and cultural support.”


Gallagher blasts selfish therapeutic goals. “[W]e are never so deluded as when we imagine we are creating ourselves out of nothing.” (But, of course, individuals who invade nations having powerful allies are far, far more deluded.) Those who believe themselves completely self-made are often merely faddish. Individuals most against moralizing often moralize the most.


Some individuals, Gallagher argues, drift toward the pole that all sex is acceptable—”sluts for the revolution”—while others view sex as rape. The norms of adolescent boys become the norms of the nation. She cites a scary, albeit small and unrepresentative, poll that claims 84 percent of teenage girls think that the most important thing sex education can teach them is how to say no without hurting feelings. Sex alienates many. Power, casualness, and manipulation stand in place of love. Letting others know you are seeking a spouse is a major faux pas.


Rules are easy to break, especially when a popular rule is there are no rules. “The ideal serves to make that for which we strive for more visible and to collect the disparate moments of consciousness into a story in which we can find the meaning of our lives.”


Among the weaknesses of this work is a version of a nurture assumption. She argues that moderately strict parents are best at preventing teen pregnancy, neglecting that moderately strict parents have similar genes, higher incomes, lower residential mobility, and helpful cultural environments. She calls premarital counseling and waiting periods a “white flag of surrender.” Why? Perhaps she sees marriage as a mandatory permanent institution, no matter how foolishly entered into, no matter how much destruction bad marriages cause. Gallagher aims for prevention, but ends in damage control. Rather than using the institution of marriage to serve citizens, Gallagher treats citizens as merely a means to serve the institution of marriage.


Many of her better points resemble those in Growing up with a Single Parent: Children and adults benefit from pooled resources. AWOL parents and stepparents contribute little to children. The wages of the young declined. Between 1973 and 1997, notes the Census Bureau, median income of men in the 25 to 34 age group declined from $34,303 to $25,996 (in 1997 dollars). And that does not include increasingly regressive taxes.


Things changed. The 1993 General Social Survey reports that 75 percent of never married young men think getting married is important.  Only 66 percent of young women report the same belief. I read elsewhere that 96 percent of Americans say they want to marry; yet greater numbers never marry. Controlling for other factors, marriage appears to improve happiness. The sample of unmarrieds excludes individuals extremely dissatisfied with their lives. They are not counted because they are dead. They committed suicide before being polled.


Many research portions of this book are terrible; the policy recommendations are not much better. The research she offers alleging that divorce does lots of psychological damage is faulty, based on nurture assumptions and flawed comparison groups. To determine the amount of damage done by divorce, researchers should compare children having bad heredity in divorcing homes, having bad marriages with children having bad heredity in non-divorcing homes having bad marriages—all while keeping all other relevant factors the same. Researchers should not compare children of divorce in bad homes with children of marriage in better homes. Heredity and environmental factors make those children more psychologically well off.


Gallagher focuses on the evils of no-fault divorce, not on preventative strategies. Ending no-fault divorce might keep a few bad marriages together but might have little impact on children—except for increasing their financial resources and making their home lives more abusive. Universal at-fault divorce might also make adults more wary of marriage than they already are. In today's climate of Machiavellianism who wants to risk getting robbed by a spouse's fabricated accusations? About half of marriage break-ups involve no minor children. Little would be gained from requiring at-fault divorces from them.


The author’s examination of the tiny shift in resources from the married to the single—whoops!—misses the larger picture of the colossal shift in resources from families with minor children to adults without minor children. Marriage is shifting toward an institution for childfree adults (including liberals, conservatives, and libertarians) to pool resources and gang up on parents and children. Thirty percent of households, notes the General Social Survey, are married without children—the highest figure in American history. Twenty-six percent of households are married with children. Policies that shift more resources to married couples are undeserved and poorly targeted. The social benefits of marriage accruing from married childfree couples are not humongous. Governments should not distribute thousands of dollars per couple to help childfree couples. The social benefits of marriage arise mostly within marriages with children.


The weak status of marriage should be addressed with better legal and social policies, not economic policies. Married couples without minor children are the wealthiest family group in America. They have a mean disposable income six times that of families with children. (Discretionary, or disposable income, is the money left after paying taxes and basic items. Actual figures are higher for many groups. The government considers food basic whether a two-dollar meal or a 90-dollar meal.) They do not deserve a windfall merely because some of it will benefit a minority of families with minor children.


Gallagher believes that the burden of child rearing is a good reason for spousal health coverage. But for the burden of child rearing to be a good reason for spousal health coverage, one of the conditions must be the actual presence of children. The majority of married adults have no minor children.


The author complains about politicians who deliver pro-family rhetoric and anti-family policies, but when it comes to policies and research, the author’s prescriptions are little better. She recommends an unspecified wage increase for single men. Bad idea. Bachelors and bachelorettes wallow in disposable income.  More income for them is poorly targeted, much of it ending up as disposable income. Policies that give money first, then pray individuals start doing right things, fail. Policies that reward for actually doing right things succeed. An arbitrary raise for single men is not much better than a raise for drunken sailors.


Gallagher delivers pro-middle-class, pro-lower income rhetoric while proposing pro-rich policies. She proposes an $8,000 dependent exemption, then oddly notes “that happens to be almost exactly the amount the government estimates each child costs a middle-class family[.]” The author appears not to know the difference between an exemption and a refundable tax credit, or she knows and is tricking middle-class readers. An $8,000 dollar dependent exemption would be worth over $3000 dollars to wealthy families and much less, or nothing, to most families.


Non-rich workers generally pay 15 to 30 percent of their incomes in regressive payroll, state, and local taxes. Federal income tax exemptions are no help with these taxes. The richdepending on where they live and how they earn their income--pay zero to 12 percent of their incomes on these taxes. Because of declining marginal utilities, non-rich working parents would benefit much more from policies targeted toward them.


 “There are few short-term supply-side returns to family tax cuts,” she asserts, “which is why economic conservatives tend to oppose them.” If we pretend supply-side tax cuts are glorious, she is badly mistaken. Look up the stats. Wealthy families with minor children have high rates of employment and entrepreneurship. They would seem to be the ideal targets of supply-side tax cuts. If you were a supply-sider, you should give a tax cut to Bill Gates and his family rather than a playboy heir. Here are some guesses why supply-side tax cuts do not target families with children: conservatives want to maintain a surface illusion of “equality” and “fairness” by agreeing with everyday Eleanor Burkett intuitions of “equality” and “fairness,” which means semi-equality for adults. Or maybe conservatives are clever at hedonism and would much rather have money to frequent sex workers at political conventions than give capital to parental entrepreneurs. Or perhaps conservatives know so little about public policy that anything beyond “across the board” for the rich is too complex and boring to get their attention. The best recommendation Gallagher makes is some form of covenant marriage for those choosing to enter them, though she offers no details.


If Gallagher's program—a barrage of anti-family policies matched by salvos of pro-family rhetoric—became popular, it might make matters worse. She offers It would increase ritual and internecine warfare among parents. Family neoconservatives align themselves with the rich. The wealthy do not return the love, but the wealthy harm non-rich parents and children thanks to neoconservatism. The billion dollar boys probably laugh at the usefulness of Maggie Gallaghers. Marriage is important, but it is not the most important institution on the planet. Moral education, civics education, primary education, political institutions, economic institutions, and child rearing matter more. Worth browsing.

320p (H) 1996


Book review by J.T. Fournier. Last updated 1/22/09.


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