Family Bonds Are Primary -- They Are Weakening Dangerously

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Without families, what stops babies from becoming barbarians? And what stops men from turning into burnouts?


ometimes it’s worth taking stock of the basics. American conservatives sometimes call the family a “pre-political institution.” Usually they have in mind the idea of protecting the family from manipulation or intrusion by the state’s bureaucrats. But Cicero was more insightful when he observed that marriage and family are the foundation of political life: “The first bond of society is marriage; next, children; and then the family.”

The simplest things in life are actually profoundly important. The chaos of a family dinner table with young children, the cajoling, negotiating, and bartering — “One more bite, and you can be excused!” — are serious matters. They are social and political. It’s here that children learn to receive what others have done for them graciously. It’s here that parents learn patience and practice judgement. It’s here that we learn to build a common life together — of reciprocal duties, rights, and privileges. The young babe bangs his plate and throws his dinner to the dog. With years of practice, he learns enough to nuke the leftovers and set a table. With a few more years, he learns to be truly hospitable to others, even his own children.

But even before we get around to turning barbarians into men of grace, there is the matter of the first bond. And according to the recent numbers, it is decaying.

The never-married population is at a record high, according to a new look at Census data by the Institute for Family Studies. In 1970, only 9 percent of Americans between the age of 25 and 50 had never been married. Today it is almost 35 percent. While many people in the younger part of that age range may yet still marry Pew estimates that nearly a quarter of all adults now will never marry. The Institute for Family Studies notes that a huge portion of the growth of never-marrieds is concentrated among Americans with low incomes.

“More than 4 in 10 prime-age Americans in the bottom third income bracket (42%)  have never been married, compared with 23% of Americans in the top third income bracket,” writes Wendy Wang, the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies. “This marriage gap by income did not exist in earlier years.” Surveyed men say that lack of steady work is a major contributing factor to their never-married status.

If the family bond turns children from barbarians into men of civilization, the marriage bond prevents men from turning into a certain kind of burnout. In the first season of HBO’s True Detective, Woody Harrelson’s character, Marty Hart, recalls seeing the flophouse apartment of his partner Rust Cohle. “Past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing,” he says. Cohle ruminates too much on the dark side of life. He drinks too much at the wrong time.

We know from endless studies that men without marriage are less likely to work or return to work, and men without work are less likely to marry. Nicholas Eberstadt has observed that the number of men in their prime age without work is steadily increasing in America. “By 2015, nearly 22 percent of U.S. men between the ages of 20 and 65 were not engaged in paid work of any kind, and the work rate for this grouping was nearly 12.5 percentage points below its 1948 level.”

This is the group of men least likely to marry. And their lack of marriage leads to real atomization. Time-use surveys show that these men don’t join civic groups, act as caregivers to the elderly, or coach Little League baseball. Lacking the first bond of society, they lose all others.

If you ever wondered why elected Republicans and a large constellation of political institutions bearing the label conservative “fail to conserve,” the answer is perhaps staring us in the face.

Conservatism is the attempt to hold together the compact between the living, the dead, and the unborn. Even at the most basic, reductive, materialistic level, a man with a wife and three children has more DNA invested in the next generation than in his own body. That’s going to change the way he approaches life every single day. We see it again in the time-use surveys: He’s going to watch less TV — watch screens less altogether. He’ll drink less alcohol, do fewer drugs. He’s going to work harder and earn more promotions. He’s going to raise the ambitions for his own life because the fates of others are connected to his own. It’s going to make him more mindful of posterity. It will make him care for and appreciate his own cultural and political inheritance.

This is as basic as it gets. And it suggests that the prospects that conservatism will “conserve” anything are dim until we address the primary bond of our society.



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