Arnold Kling  

Random Family and Inequality

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Greg Mankiw posts a video of Harvard colleagues discussing the issue of inequality. It's very long, so I did not watch all of it, but I skipped around. The one person on the panel who was new to me was Kathryn Edyn. She rattled off some powerful statistics concerning the class divide in terms of families. At the low end of the class distribution, children are likely to grow up not just with single parents, but with single parents who have serial partners, resulting in multiple step-siblings. She calls these chaotic families.*

What is striking is that these facts about family breakdown are viewed so differently by liberals and by conservatives.

1. Conservatives are judgmental, and liberals are not.

2. Liberals are inclined to see progressive policies as the solution to family breakdown. Conservatives are inclined to see progressive policies as the cause of family breakdown.

I think that the reaction of libertarians is to squirm with discomfort. You think that the liberals are in a bad position intellectually, but you are reluctant to affiliate with conservatives on an issue where they are so. . .umm. . .conservative.

* I am reminded of the book Random Family, which I strongly recommend. My favorite passage is on page 124, with its off-hand description of someone killing his best friend.


Mighty had a habit of stepping in front of Cesar whenever they got into shootouts; he was shorter, and Cesar fired over his head. Cesar had repeatedly warned Mighty about this habit, but it was also a testament to the trust between them; Mighty would tease Cesar, saying that Cesar always had his back. But this time, Cesar slipped. He doesn't remember pulling the trigger, but he remembers his best friend going down, his chin lifting toward the sky as the bullet tore through the back of his head.


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CATEGORIES: Income Distribution



COMMENTS (15 to date)
Becky Hargrove writes:

I wouldn't be so quick to suggest that the liberal does not judge the broken family or individual. Rather, the 'broken' individual is not judged to be the same threat to the liberals' 'designated turf'. For instance, this broken individual who strives for better economic access is not going to (in the present, anyway) take the job of teacher or healthcare worker away from someone at the local level, unless that individual makes it through all the necesssary hoops to do so, education and of course much more. However, the broken individual is more of a threat to the conservative in that the markets the conservative work in tend to be more open to all, i.e. not necessarily requiring the same credentials for entry. Thus the hard working disadvataged individual could potential take away a market position the conservative locally holds, hence the incentive to lower the social approval of the marginalized even further.

Until now the liberal has been able to convince the government to give away consumption to the marginalized in the hopes that they might not also
desire knowledge integration and use at some point in time. Not only is that plan not working out so well, but an awful lot of education has been squandered and lost in the process.

Grant Gould writes:

I think libertarians are also reluctant to associate with conservatives on this because the conservative "judgemental" approach is almost invariably rooted in god-talk or expressed in sexist or homophobic language.

For instance, the person who talks about "the disintegration of traditional marriage" as the root of the problem is with some not insignificant probability going to take any support that he actually receives and use it as evidence for the pervasive support of stoning gays and unmarried women or further culturally excluding atheists. Those of us with gay, female, or atheist friends, or who ourselves belong to those groups, are not going to support such a person even if the argument is correct because to do so would be to also support evil bigots and would thus likely be on net liberty-reducing.

Thus the iron laws of political coalitions make rational discussion impossible in public.

Unless conservatives can get their consciences clear on those issues, all the judgemental rhetoric about family structure is going to be interpreted by libertarians -- correctly -- as a bait-and-switch to support their more significant agenda of cultural discrimination.

Gabriel Rossman writes:

Your co-blogger previously expressed similar thoughts on Edin's work (which is very influential in several subfields of sociology).

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2011/11/poverty_conscie.html

John T. Kennedy writes:

"Conservatives are inclined to see progressive policies as the cause of family breakdown."

Seems uncontroversial to me. When I was young a typical poor household still had a strong family. Over time government subsidies have become an economic substitute for husbands for many poor women, with chaotic results. When people have to depend on themselves and their families to get by they naturally must have higher standards than they need when the state subsidizes bad decisions.

Big Dog writes:

I agree with John. When someone doesn't have to suffer the consequences of making the wrong decision, they'll rarely choose the right one.

John from Oceanside writes:

Bill Gates is 8 miles above me, give or take half a foot. Yipee!!! I did that! Me, on my retirement income that is 70% of what I made 5 years ago. Me, the immigrant son of an alcoholic immigrant. God bless free market inequality and God help us when the state steps in the "help us." By-the-way, I hate aggregates (having been in many quintiles throughout my life) and both your #1 and #2 are invalid aggregates.

Scott from Ohio writes:

If liberals are truly not judgmental on that fact, why do they need a "solution" in the first place?

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:
1. Conservatives are judgmental, and liberals are not.

Writing from Seattle, I really have to laugh at that. Who do you suppose is the more judgmental, the OWS crowd or the Tea Partiers?

RPLong writes:

Prof. Kling, as a libertarian I do not squirm with discomfort. That a liberal would opt to "not judge" on an issue involving the breakdown of a family is not a mark in the liberal's favor. If a person isn't willing to apply their own private sense of ethics to important ethical problems, then that person holds an imaginary sense of egalitarianism to be a higher ideal than their own real-world sense of ethics.

I consider this a serious moral shortcoming of (some) leftists. I blog about it all the time. Judgement isn't a bad thing, nor does it diminish our sense of egalitarianism. That all men are created equal doesn't mean all moral choices are of equal value "from a given perspective."

The reality of the situation is that sometimes people make bad choices. Saying so can always be dismissed as "judgemental" but the alternative is a moral haze so foggy that real morality is impossible.

Assuming egalitarianism is a moral point of view, I believe this means that being "non-judgemental" also jeopardizes our sense of egalitarianism.

We have to be grown-ups. Grown-ups have moral beliefs they are willing to be vocal about. Only children hush-up their morals for fear of hurting feelings.

So yes, government and Statism are the cause of the problem, and yes it is a moral issue. That the State can destroy families is tragic and we need to be willing to say so.

P.S. I will add that most liberals quickly abandon their refusal to "judge" as soon as they focus their attention on stereotypical "conservative" heroes such as corporate executives, big game hunters, farmers who employ illegal immigrants at low wages, etc.

Floccina writes:

I wonder if this is the result of relative changes in the ability women verses men to earn money.

Mark Biernat writes:

In the above statement "2. Liberals are inclined to see progressive policies as the solution to family breakdown. Conservatives are inclined to see progressive policies as the cause of family breakdown."

I am fairly conservative regarding the family, yet I do not think that economic or political policies have had a great an impact on the creation of chaotic families with serial partners.

Jeremy Bentham would not think so either. Although we might all be utility maximizers, policies of governments with economic incentives or disincentives are not the primary cause of serial monogamist in our society. It is caused in a shift in values.

I am a Libertarian would not 'squirm with discomfort'.

babar writes:

perhaps the family would be stronger if the state denied equal rights to women - for instance if women were denied the right to own property, or legally defend themselves against assault from another family member. so evidently there are many government regulations that could strengthen the family.

Bryan Willman writes:

The most telling remark in that video is the fellow seated audience far right, who points out that there is a tremendous sorting by class in the United States.

That sorting is a huge effect in education, not only because of how it's paid for in the US, but because of the off-the-books support schools in nice neighborhoods get versus "elsewhere."

That sorting changes the examples that children see - what they regard as normal, what sorts of adults they interact with.

And that sorting isn't going away - not out of malice, but out of simple self interest.

Mercer writes:

Libertarians could point out that marriage is a contract. Marriage as an institution was weakened when it was made easier for one party to break the contract. This started with a law signed by Governor Reagan.

steve writes:

I think that I would be more willing to accept liberal policies causing the inequality if we had never seen these levels of inequality before. We have. It occurred at a time when government was smaller and there were no subsidies to families.

Steve

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