Bryan Caplan  

Indirect Effects of the Laissez-Faire Family?

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Steve Sailer posted an interesting comment on my critique of Love and Economics:

Sure, but you're missing the point about how laissez-faire families affect the genes that children wind up with.

Identical twin Jane marries a boring guy with a job and they have a few kids who grow up to be job-holding non-criminal taxpayers.

Her identical twin Joan gets impregnated by various sexy guys who shortly thereafter get shot, imprisoned, or vanish. Her kids grow up to be sexy, unstable individuals.

A traditional society encourages more women to marry stable breadwinner. A 21st Century society encourages women to indulge their hormones. The smarter ones figure out what's in their best interests, but the dumber ones don't.

For Sailer's mechanism to impugn the "laissez-faire family," though, we'd need to see a substantial effect of shared family environment on marital status and mate choice.  The standard result, however, is that shared genes can account for the greater propensity of e.g. children of divorce to eventually get divorced themselves.

Perhaps, though, Sailer is talking about non-shared environment - which absolutely has to be important, because even identical twins raised under one roof are far from identical.  If so, I'm still puzzled.  Why single out "the laissez-faire family" for allowing "sexy, unstable" guys to reproduce, when your real complaint is a society-wide decline in traditionalism?  If, adjusting for genes, family structure has little effect on how kids turn out, don't changes in family structure look like a symptom of the retreat from traditionalism, rather than a fundamental cause?


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
ajb writes:

Maybe there's a collective action problem? If enough families choose not to be laissez faire, that affects the degree of traditionalism of society as a whole. However, as individual families opt out, it weakens the incentives to maintain traditional social norms.

Steve Roth writes:

>don't changes in family structure look like a symptom of the retreat from traditionalism, rather than a fundamental cause?

Yes.

However, I wouldn't say "traditional." Rather, 50s-style. (Which was decidedly nontraditional from a historical perspective exceeding a few decades.)

http://www.amazon.com/Marriage-History-How-Love-Conquered/dp/014303667X

Wm Tanksley writes:

I think her point is that encouraging (or not discouraging) "the laissez-faire family" increases the number of people who will attempt it, rather than attempting something else -- thereby increasing the reproductive success of unstable men and women without also decreasing their social success, and increasing the expected number of unstable families for the future.

Am I missing something?

8 writes:

Do studies control for public school (laissez-faire peer selection) and popular culture? And do the Amish have the same problem?

loki on the run writes:

Steve would seem to be offering a non-sensical hypothetical.

Since they are identical twins, they should both have a strong preference for the same type of men, good or bad.

Pierpaolo Sommacal writes:

It would seem to be true that, as Sailer says, the unstable but somewhat sexy individuals reproduce more.

However, to the extent that their sons are like them, by definition they get shot, imprisoned, or vanish - so we have to care about this only if their existence is going to affect us through politics. In which case, traditional morality is not going to make the difference, because the disincentive from morality is compensated by the incentive from welfare.

Moreover, if they get shot enough, they will soon cease to be sexy.

Jesse writes:

It would seem to be true that, as Sailer says, the unstable but somewhat sexy individuals reproduce more.

Seems like an underspecified model of reproductive success to me. If having a stable family structure is actually important to reproductive success, then women should evolve a preference for stable men.

But maybe we want to distinguish between biological success and social success. In this case it seems pretty clear to me that Sailer's comment casually slips between biological determinism and social determinism -- on one hand our preferences for family structure are genetically driven, on the other hand we can also magically rig the "preferable" family structure to engineer desirable outcomes. Looks like pretty sloppy, incoherent thinking to me.

Realist writes:

Bryan, you just answered your own question: the change in traditional family structure constitutes a decline in traditionalism, and this in turn effects how individuals use their genetic dispositions.

@ "loki on the run": "Since they are identical twins, they should both have a strong preference for the same type of men, good or bad."

If you see genetics as hardware and social environment as software, all of this makes more sense.

Wm Tanksley writes:
Steve would seem to be offering a non-sensical hypothetical. Since they are identical twins, they should both have a strong preference for the same type of men, good or bad.

Non sequitur. Since they are twins, they should have the _same_ preference. Whether that's weak or strong is exactly what's important here. If their preference is _strong_ then they'll pick the same type of guy no matter what; if it's weak, other criteria will outweigh that particular preference, and one of the possible criteria is social stigma.

BUT... (now quoting from the original article:)

Why single out "the laissez-faire family" for allowing "sexy, unstable" guys to reproduce, when your real complaint is a society-wide decline in traditionalism?

I think the point of the term "laissez-faire" is that nobody's enforcing a family style on people. I may be wrong; I haven't read the book you're discussing. The original meaning of the term seems pretty pertinent to its use in this phrase, though; you're using it in a way that divorces it entirely from its original meaning.

Thus, people complaining about "the laissez-faire family" are _actually_ complaining that society doesn't enforce family structures sufficiently, so that people can build any family structure they want regardless of its long-term effects on its members. In other words, they are using the term in precisely the way you're trying to say they should (i.e. to indicate a bemoaned decline in traditionalism).

(Although it's a little more subtle than that. The quality being bemoaned here isn't traditionalism per se; it's a careful consideration of societal costs of alternate family arrangements. Such consideration will naturally tend to favor a flavor of traditionalism, since real change takes mental effort people can't afford.)

Jason Malloy writes:

"If so, I'm still puzzled. Why single out "the laissez-faire family" for allowing "sexy, unstable" guys to reproduce, when your real complaint is a society-wide decline in traditionalism?"

Also, I don't think a "decline in traditionalism" is the problem, per se, since it seems like there are pan-global changes in this direction (e.g. dipping global birth rates), likely due to an irreversible global economic convergence. If women are seeking out sexier guys instead of breadwinners, it's because they are largely becoming their own breadwinners.

With this economic background radiation, it seems that traditional cultures ironically end up generating less of the important cultural outputs that traditional cultures are supposed to generate.

Perhaps the Mormons are the exception to this rule, though I would be interested in seeing an adoption/cross-fostering study with Mormons. Perhaps their social behaviors have genetic roots.

Wm Tanksley writes:

Good points, Jason; it's true that "decline in traditionalism" cannot be a first cause, and there must be other factors behind it.

If women are seeking out sexier guys instead of breadwinners, it's because they are largely becoming their own breadwinners.

Good point, but it'd be stronger if you hadn't used the expression "sexier guys" (which is defined only by what women are seeking out) rather than the original expression, "unstable partners".

But yes, being one's own breadwinner would possibly explain being more willing to lose one's mate. There are quite a few problems with this, but they rest entirely in questions of how _much_ this change in motivation would affect behavior ... it seems to ignore the obvious effects on children, not to mention the need to care for them, and it's not obvious that people (not just women) would pay drastically less attention to these problems with unstable mates. You've definitely recast the problem into a measurable question, though.

Amanda0970 writes:

Laissez-faire families adopt (no pun intended) their parenting styles from examples set by friends and slightly older same-generation family members, i.e. siblings and cousins. Personally, I know that my sister, who is 15 years older than me with a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old, will influence the decisions I make as a parent. I don't believe all laissez-faire families simply up and formulate their own traditions, but follow in the footsteps of other families with similar values. Thus the new "traditions" and norms are not a product of liberal families, but vice versa.

The rise of feminism also contributes largely to this, in that women are not only reluctant to resign the role of breadwinner to their husbands, but sometimes even offended by the idea. The notion that being a good provider is no longer important in today's society lowers their expectations for men, and consequently many (not all, but many) of them go around simply cavorting with whomever they please, so to speak.

There is a book written from a mother to a daughter in the months before the daughter's marriage, discussing the role of women and how submission and willful acceptance of one's God-given role is actually MORE liberating for women than rebellion. It is Elisabeth Elliot's "Let Me Be A Woman," and one of the basic principles is that God created our specialized roles for a reason. We are not meant to submit to our husbands as punishment or significance of our lower status; it helps to free us from a responsibility we were not meant to handle. I am not a feminist nor the opposite of one, whatever that might be. But I wish all women could simply understand and accept BOTH ends of the extreme, and make a decision that coincides with their personal beliefs, and the events and relationships in their lives.

robert gillespie writes:

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