Four more years for the Bush White House-and what will they be like? Much depends on whether the GOP coalition between people who care most about moral issues (often Christians) and people who push hardest for small government (often libertarians) can be maintained. The task seems hard because many economic libertarians are also social libertarians: They want easy divorce and sexual laissez faire. They oppose governmental pro-marriage policies.
Here's where the analysis of Jennifer Roback Morse could prove influential. Jenny Morse is a well-informed economic libertarian: She earned a doctorate in economics and then taught for 15 years at Yale University and George Mason University. She also is pro-marriage and pro-family, and shows it in her own life: She left her full-time university teaching post in 1996 to move with her family (a husband and two young children, one of them adopted from Romania) to California. She is now a part-time Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and she and her husband are foster parents.
WORLD: The number of people who call themselves fiscal conservatives but social liberals seems to be growing. Why do you argue that this combination doesn't make sense?
JM: Libertarians like the fact that the market is self-regulating. Set up property rights, contract law, and a court and police system. Populate it with people who have a functioning conscience and sense of reciprocity. Give the system a push and it runs mostly by itself.
The problem is that we are not born with either functioning consciences or a sense of reciprocity. Babies are self-centered bundles of impulses and emotions, until they are socialized by their parents. And if they do not have parents to love them and guide them, they are at high risk for becoming people who cannot control themselves or have regard for others. At the most extreme, kids without parents become sociopaths, who impose enormous costs on society. These are people who cannot be turned loose in a free society, because they don't know how to use their freedom without bothering other people too much. This basic fact about the human condition is why advocates of minimum government need to pay attention to the family.
WORLD: Some libertarians claim that easy divorce increases liberty. Why do you believe the opposite?
JM: Two reasons. First, there is a dangerous confusion about what liberty actually means. The lifestyle left has been promoting a vision that defines freedom as being unencumbered by human relationships. This vision underlies the left's position on easy divorce, unlimited abortion, day care on demand, and many other social issues.
Second, current divorce laws are not consistent with the most basic principle of the free market, namely a respect for contracts. Millions of dollars change hands in real-estate transactions in every city in America, every day of the week. People couldn't do that if they were permitted to unilaterally violate their contracts without penalty. Yet we expect people to make lifetime investments in children, without any contract protection whatsoever. Establishing a legal system to define and enforce contracts is one of the most basic functions of government.
WORLD: This fits with your economic analysis of the importance to children of what you call a "marriage revolution-one man, one woman, for life."
JM: We now have a regime of unilateral divorce: One party can end a marriage for any reason or no reason, essentially without legal penalty. But children are one of the most important "products" of marriage, to use economic language. Children require large-scale capital investments over a long period of time. The parenting relationship also has what economists would call "relationship-specific capital." That means that no other man is a good substitute for the particular man who is the father of my children. Economists know that contract enforcement is extremely important in activities with these properties.
WORLD: In a paper you presented at last month's Witherspoon Institute conference in Princeton you explained how the child-custody arrangements that grow out of divorce lead to government expansion. Why?
JM: Family courts routinely invade the privacy of families having custody disputes. The courts pass judgments on things like how much money and time each parent spends for their children, what kind of schooling and religious training they should have, whether parents can move out of the state, what language they speak at home, and much else. In a functioning, intact family, people work these things out themselves. People who gasp at the thought of government regulating sexual conduct seem oblivious to the fact that the government engages in egregious invasions of personal privacy when marriage breaks down.
WORLD: Social conservatives have emphasized the cultural effects of single parenting. Why should we also examine its effects on governmental growth?
JM: The simplest answer is that the government becomes the substitute for the absent parent, either by providing financial assistance through welfare, or by imposing work rules that try to level the playing field among all types of families. But government is a pathetic substitute for parents. Even with extra money, the children of unmarried parents are more likely to drop out of school, do poorly in school, have mental-health issues, and even physical-health issues.
All these problems end up becoming taxpayer problems, whether libertarians like it or not. The sons of unmarried parents are more likely to have trouble with the law, commit crimes, and end up in jail. That costs taxpayer money, even with a libertarian minimal state. Here in California, we have the Three Strikes Law, which requires a three-time felon to be incarcerated for life. Who pays for that? The taxpayers. It would be much cheaper to raise kids properly in the first place than to try to undo a lot of damage created by parental absence.
WORLD: Why is marriage the most basic social institution?
JM: I define marriage as a society's normative institution for both sexual activity and child rearing. Marriage is an organic, pre-political institution that emerges spontaneously from society. People of the opposite sex are naturally attracted to one another, couple with each other, co-create children, and raise those children. The little society of the family replenishes and sustains itself. Humanity's natural sociability expresses itself most vibrantly within the family. A minimum-government libertarian can view this self-sustaining system with unadulterated awe.
I think my little booklet, "101 Tips for a Happier Marriage," is the most libertarian thing I have ever written. It is not political, and it empowers people to build up the most basic nongovernment institution the world has ever known. What could be more libertarian than that?
WORLD: Why are many advocates of sexual laissez faire among the most vociferous opponents of economic laissez faire?
JM: The left instinctively knows that the family competes with the government, both as a source of social support and as a focal point for people's loyalty. Sexual laissez faire undermines the family as a self-governing, self-sustaining unit.
WORLD: How can changes in child-custody rules affect the way people think about the costs and benefits of divorce?
JM: Think of it this way: If you knew for certain that by initiating divorce, you would lose contact with your children, you'd be much less likely to divorce. You'd be more likely to work longer and harder on your marriage. This doesn't tell you exactly what changes to make in custody rules, but it does tell you that those rules make a huge difference.
WORLD: What other public-policy changes would make a difference?
JM: Adoption and foster-care rules need to change. Social workers are among the guardians of a community's standards of proper conduct toward children. We have a standard that says no excessive force against children, for instance. In some places, the child welfare establishment absolutely prohibits any form of corporal punishment, insisting that foster parents never spank their foster kids. The authorities argue, quite appropriately, that foster parents need to be held to a higher standard than ordinary parents, because foster kids have already been harmed and need the best possible care.
The state could, with equal justice, insist on two-parent, married-couple households for the children in its care. We have a mountain of evidence showing that kids do best in married-couple households. I think it is simply justice and common sense to say that children who have already been neglected or abused ought to have the best care we can reasonably arrange for them. Placing a seriously disturbed child into the care of a single mother, or of an unmarried, cohabiting couple, is not a good gamble. The state could go a long way toward nurturing a pro-marriage culture by making the two-parent, married-couple household the norm for foster and adoptive parents.
-Jenny Morse's website is jointhemarriagerevolution.com