Part of our Special Section on Same-Sex Marriage:

Beyond Gay Marriage

The Real Threats to Marriage and Why They Matter

By Ajay Ravichandran

Judge Vaughn Walker's recent ruling invalidating the controversial California ballot initiative Proposition 8 has reignited our ongoing debate over same-sex marriage. As in previous iterations of the argument, conservative opponents of expanding the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples have focused on the threat this change poses to existing marriages and families. They have emphasized the risk that allowing gay couples to wed could create a cultural climate that makes marriages harder to sustain for straight men and women and deprives children of access to the uniquely beneficial childrearing environment that the two-parent family provides.

These claims have, of course, been hotly contested by proponents of gay marriage. However, relatively few figures on the mainstream American right have questioned the view that conservatives worried about the state of marriage in the contemporary United States should see same-sex unions as their main concern. This notion, however, is very much worth doubting. There were approximately 100,000 same-sex weddings and commitment ceremonies in the U.S. during 2008. During the same year, the lifetime probability of a straight American couple's first marriage ending in divorce remained at around 40 percent, the number of cohabiting opposite-sex couples rose to roughly 6.8 million, and the share of children born to unmarried mothers reached 39.7 percent. Even if social conservatives are right about the dangers posed by same-sex marriage, the vast gap between the relative magnitudes of these phenomena suggests that widespread divorce, cohabitation, and unwed motherhood pose far more serious threats to marriage in America. More importantly, these three trends undermine the features of traditional marriage which conservatives rightly prize in a far more direct and fundamental way than same-sex unions possibly could—they weaken marriage's status as a cultural institution, reduce its ability to inculcate both civic and personal virtue, undermine its role in the domestication of men, and exacerbate growing economic inequality by confining the enormous tangible benefits of marriage for both parents and children to American elites. Social conservatives should not be the only ones concerned—all those on the American right who worry about the growth of the state, and all Americans who rightly fear growing social stratification and the corrosion of their fellow citizens' character, have reason to fear the decline of traditional marriage.

Character and the Good Society

In order to examine one of the most important ways in which the trends discussed above threaten traditional marriage, it is necessary to first consider the importance of character for a well-ordered society. It is often assumed in our culture that all one has to do to be a good person is to understand the rules which specify proper conduct and to conform one's actions to those rules, with the latter typically understood as a necessary consequence of the former. However, this assumption violates some of our basic intuitions and the way most people experience life. First, it seems unduly optimistic to suppose that merely knowing what we ought to do will always be sufficient to make us actually do it—most people have found themselves in a position where they held the abstract conviction that some difficult or evenly moderately inconvenient action was morally obligatory but lacked the will to actually perform it. Second, it would appear to follow from the assumption in question that a person whose fear of social disapproval leads him or her to strictly observe all moral rules is just as morally good as someone whose actions flow from deeply felt compassion and respect for others, yet this notion seems to violate our moral intuitions about praise and blame. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that states of character like courage and generosity are at least as important as rules in bringing about right conduct.

Character takes on a special importance in connection with political life, where its advocates must contend with a different enemy—those who believe in enlightened self-interest. This view underlies the persistent tendency of participants in contemporary political discourse to see their goal as crafting a system of rewards and punishments (whether government regulations, constitutional constraints, or market incentives) which will virtually guarantee desirable results, regardless of the character of the people who implement them, by investing all those involved with a personal interest in obtaining those results. While this assumption is typically not put forward in the extreme form as I have presented, the general frame of mind which it reflects does appear to be quite widespread. While enlightened self-interest of this sort certainly has a role to play in politics, it cannot be the sole or predominant force governing conduct in the political sphere. The most obvious reason for this is that any given self-interested actor confronting a system of rules has a motive not to obey the rules, but to disobey while hiding that disobedience from others in order to avoid sanctions and preserve consensus. Since everyone governed by a given system of rules has the same incentives, political life will break down if participants are motivated by self-interest alone. People must have some desire to see the rules upheld even if those rules seem likely to disadvantage them in some cases. Society must therefore concern itself with virtues like justice and impartiality as well as interests. Furthermore, while people may often be motivated by self-interest alone to take part in many of the characteristic activities of political life, such as deliberation and compromise, they will likely find it difficult to do so if they do not also possess virtues which include willingness to extend trust and a disposition to respect others.

How can a society cultivate virtue in its citizens? Because character-formation is, in essence, a process of modifying desires and inclinations, only a person with a remarkably strong will could succeed in developing good character traits through his or her own direct efforts. For most of us, virtues can only be inculcated through indirect processes in which other people or institutions act upon us. Most of these involve some form of habituation, in which repeated performance of actions associated with a given virtue (which must itself be induced by social expectations and the work of parents and similar figures) gradually leads to the development of the virtue itself. The efficacy of habituation in developing both virtues and vices seems intuitively obvious, as is evident, for example, from the frequent injunction to not "make a habit of" some generally inappropriate action which may be justified in a particular circumstance so as to avoid developing the character trait associated with that action.

Marriage and the Cultivation of Character

Marriage is one of the most important institutions through which a society can habituate its citizens into the exercise of essential virtues. This is because the essence of marriage as it has been and to a large extent continues to be understood is a metaphorical "dying" of each individual spouse into a union which is more than the sum of its parts. When two people are married, we typically expect them to act as a unified entity with shared pursuits and concerns to a much greater extent than we would if they stood in any other relationship to one another. A husband whose wife loses her job is expected to share her distress and help her with the problem in a way that he would not were he anyone other than a close blood relative. The sexual exclusivity that continues to be a central feature of the marriage bond, even after many others long associated with it have vanished, suggests that spouses are meant to form a completed whole (emotionally as well as physically) with one another in a way that differs fundamentally from the workings of their other relationships.

When two people are expected to feel and act in this way toward one another, they are likely to gradually become capable of sacrificing their personal concerns for larger interests, feeling genuine loyalty to others, and working cooperatively to achieve shared ends. These virtues are obviously important both for good personal conduct and for political life in a free society. While many other social institutions and practices, including voluntary associations and a proper upbringing, help to cultivate these qualities as well, marriage plays a distinctive role in doing so because it ties the same two people together for an extended period. The longer duration allows for the development of more intense concern for one another, and the link to the same specific individual ensures that the capacities for loyalty and self-sacrifice which marriage develops can be exercised in relation to real, flawed human beings rather than the idealized constructs which people often form of casual acquaintances.

Additionally, the fact that married couples are typically expected to bear and raise children facilitates the development of other forms of selflessness that a well-ordered society needs to function. The experience of childrearing shapes citizens' character beneficially in at least two main ways. First, the deep love for one's children that is both a necessary requirement for and an expected accompaniment to even minimally competent parenting gives people who can participate in political life a felt interest in how decisions made in the present will affect future generations. This regard for the welfare of those who will come after them will obviously lead to wiser political decision-making and help to make concrete the great 18th-century British statesman (and father of modern Anglo-American conservatism) Edmund Burke's understanding of a well-ordered society as a "partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born." In a similar way, the social expectation and felt desire to provide a stable environment for one's children can lead people to curtail self-destructive or irresponsible habits and thereby habituate them into the practice of important virtues.

The Impact of Divorce

The permissive attitude toward and widespread occurrence of divorce reflected in the extraordinarily high probability that new marriages today will be dissolved strike at this understanding of marriage in an especially direct and fundamental way. This fact, along with phenomena like our willingness to let divorcees occupy prominent public positions and even to lecture us on family values (conservative icon Newt Gingrich, for example, has been divorced twice), makes clear that our society attaches virtually no stigma to divorce. A society which is entirely indifferent to divorce, in turn, must to a large extent have implicitly accepted the view that marriage is nothing more than a contract between the spouses that can be dissolved when one or both of them no longer wish to continue it and has no purpose apart from the satisfaction of their subjective preferences—this is likely why the contractual view of marriage has a certain familiar ring to modern ears that it probably would not have had in earlier historical periods. Furthermore, a society in which marriages can end so easily would seem to be one which attaches very little, if any, importance to maintaining the expectation that most people will marry for life.

Both of these features of our contemporary divorce culture undermine the capacity of marriage as an institution to perform its character-forming functions. The understanding of marriage as a contract strikes at the premises which must underlie any character-forming institution by encouraging people to view the purpose of marriage as the satisfaction of their pre-existing desires and inclinations and thus precluding the notion that those desires might need to be altered by the experience of married life. Also, by causing each spouse to be acutely conscious that the other could end their union at any time, this contractual view of marriage introduces an instability to the marriage bond that makes it much harder for married people to give themselves to one another in the wholehearted way that is needed for marriage to cultivate virtue in them. Why take the massive emotional risk of investing so much of oneself in another person when the wider culture gives him or her nearly total freedom to leave you at any time? While someone deeply in love may be willing to commit him-or herself in this way even under these conditions, most people are unlikely to be so attached to their spouses that this risk will not reduce their willingness to "die into" their marriages in a meaningful way.

Furthermore, in view of the considerations regarding character-formation discussed above, it seems clear that for marriage to perform its character-forming role there must be robust social expectations both that most people will marry for life and that married life will be lived in a certain determinate way. Since marriage inculcates virtues primarily by shaping the desires and inclinations of married couples, it makes little sense to trust that unformed desire alone will lead most people to get and stay married. Sharing one's life with someone else in a meaningful sense is enormously difficult and demanding, as the brief discussion above suggests and observation of actual marriages amply confirms, so it seems unduly optimistic to expect even all but the most passionate lovers to marry spontaneously if left entirely to themselves. The fact that rise in the divorce rate from 9.2 per thousand married women in 1960 to 16.9 per thousand in 2008 has coincided with uninterrupted declines in the percentages of both men and women who are married provides some evidence for this view. Therefore, society must exert pressure on people to marry and to live as married couples. By virtually dissolving the expectation that most people will marry for life, a culture of widespread divorce makes it much harder for marriage to shape character. Additionally, the expectation that marriage is for life allows the institution to mold spouses in a distinctive way. Because each spouse knows that he or she must remain with the same person until death, they must develop mutual trust and a capacity for cooperation that will begin as adaptations forced by necessity and evolve through habituation into deeply felt attitudes. Social acceptance of divorce strikes at this feature of marriage most directly and thereby further undermines its ability to cultivate virtue.

The instability which our divorce culture introduces to the marital bond also weakens the institution's status as one which most people are expected to participate in. It does so by causing many people to fear that marriage will eventually terminate in a messy and bruising divorce and to therefore postpone marriage in favor of cohabitation in order to ensure compatibility. This claim derives support from the fact that those with the most direct exposure to divorce are the most likely to prefer cohabitation – adult children of divorce are 61% more likely than children from intact families to endorse the view that cohabitation before marriage is desirable and 47% more likely to be cohabiting themselves. One might think that this is a welcome sign because it could increase the likelihood that more stable marriages will eventually form, but most available evidence suggests that couples who cohabit before marriage are actually more likely to divorce after they marry. This phenomenon could be a selection effect caused by differences between the characteristics of people who choose to cohabit before marriage and people who do not which might make the former likely to divorce. However, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology found that premarital cohabitation after engagement was much less likely to precede marital separation than cohabitation before engagement. A plausible explanation for this difference is that couples who cohabit after getting engaged have already bound themselves to one another through a social practice which is inextricably linked to marriage. Therefore, they are already subject, to some extent, to the social expectations governing marriage. While these expectations have been significantly weakened by the forces discussed above, there is still a residual norm of marriage for life which likely affects their conduct. Cohabiting couples lack this reason to stay together, so it makes sense that they would be more likely to divorce. Therefore, this disparity only underscores the importance of a feature of marriage which our divorce culture undermines.

None of the discussion above is meant to suggest that no divorces should occur. There are doubtless many genuinely abusive spouses whom no one could reasonably be expected to remain married to as well as spouses who are so fundamentally incompatible with one another that they are incapable of truly realizing the goals of marriage. However, for marriage to perform its social role properly, divorce must be the unfortunate exception to a rule of lifelong marriage that most citizens live by. The remarkably high probability of first marriages ending in divorce and the extent to which repeated divorce has become socially acceptable in our society make clear that we have moved too far in the direction of complete freedom to dissolve marriages at any time and that it would be wise to reverse course somewhat.

Marriage and the Domestication of Men

The character-forming role of marriage takes on a special importance in connection with men. There is substantial reason to think that men are naturally more prone to aggressiveness and antisocial behavior than women are. Neurochemically, human males have significantly higher levels of chemicals which create a greater tendency toward aggression. Furthermore, the historical record seems to suggest that men, especially young men, become more and more likely to engage in violent and disruptive behavior as they are cut off from the restraints imposed by political and cultural institutions. Soccer hooliganism in Great Britain and youth gangs in American cities are two recent examples of this phenomenon. Since people cannot engage in unstructured aggression and violence without viewing others as undeserving of their respect in some way, marriage can play an important role in dampening the aggressive tendencies of men. By imposing social expectations that require the typical man to live a shared life with a woman for an extended period of time, the institution can help to habituate men into developing the sort of regard for their fellow humans that will make them less prone to violent and anti-social behavior.

There is also a greater need for social institutions to play a role in ensuring that men are shaped by the experience of raising children. Biologically, men lack the same incentive that women do to attach themselves to a particular set of biological children and help to raise them. This is because the principal goal which evolution by natural selection sets for all organisms is the maximization of the number of their genes which they transmit to the next generation. For men, this goal is best achieved by having children with as many women as possible in view of the relatively low cost of impregnating any given woman. Therefore, if men were left entirely to their own devices a large share of them would be deprived of the character-forming discipline of childrearing, which can also play a role in curbing their anti-social tendencies through the interest it gives them in creating stable environments for their children.

The Economic Benefits of Marriage

The role of marriage in binding the typical man to a specific woman and their children is important for another reason as well: the fact that the institution brings two adults together in a single household is an important source of its tangible economic and social benefits. This is in large part because married couples often specialize, with both spouses focusing on the household tasks and other functions to which they are best-suited; this produces improved efficiency in household management in the same way that the division of labor does in other contexts. This tendency likely flows from the stability and permanence that are still viewed as fundamental to the marriage bond to a large extent. Because spouses can reasonably expect to live together for the bulk of their lives, they feel comfortable making themselves somewhat vulnerable by developing certain important skills at the expense of others. The deep emotional union which married couples are expected to enter into with one another also facilitates specialization by giving them the cooperative capacities necessary to integrate disparate tasks into a harmonious whole.

The financial behavior of married couples also tends to differ substantially from those of unmarried couples and single individuals in other ways. For example, a 1992 study of retired Americans found that the continuously married had accumulated roughly 75 percent more wealth than both never-married people and divorcees who did not remarry. There are likely at least three principal reasons for this difference. First, because married couples can maintain the same standard of living at a lower cost than unmarried couples and single people due to the economies of scale and gains from specialization which they enjoy, they will have more money available to save at any given level of income and therefore would be able to accumulate more wealth than the unmarried even if both groups had similar propensities to save and invest. Similarly, because of both the permanence and the deep connection that are meant to characterize the marital bond, both spouses will likely contribute more of their incomes to savings held in common than will be the case among unmarried people. They will feel more confident that they will benefit from the arrangement due to the stability of the relationship. Also, the obligations each spouse feels to the other will give saving for the future a moral gravity that saving for one's own benefit can never have. Furthermore, married men typically earn between 10 and 40 percent more than unmarried men with similar skills. This fact provides both an additional explanation for marriage's role as a wealth-generating institution and another example of how marriage can improve tangible well-being. It seems plausible that the responsibility for the welfare of another human being which the social expectations surrounding marriage impose on both spouses would generate additional motives to be productive.

Additionally, it seems plausible to view marriage as providing a sort of insurance against unpredictable events like serious illness and job loss, for at least two reasons. First, the social expectations that spouses will share a deep emotional union give them a responsibility to help one another in such situations. As was noted earlier, a married woman who loses her job has a person whose social role it is to help her weather the difficulty and get back on her feet in a way that a cohabiting or single person simply does not. Furthermore, married couples tend to receive more support and assistance from both friends and extended families than do the unmarried. Part of this difference is likely explained by the character-forming effects of marriage discussed earlier, which likely provide married couples with a capacity for loyalty and self-sacrifice that enables them to form deeper relationships with others. Also, marrying embeds both spouses in a wider network of social expectations and connections with other family members that enables them to benefit from the obligations of mutual aid that form a substantial part of those expectations.

The Impact of Marriage and Divorce on Children

Marriage also improves the well-being of children to a remarkable extent. This is likely due in large part to the higher level of economic well-being which married families enjoy. For example, a 2002 study by Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution estimated that if the share of children raised by married parents had remained the same between 1960 and 1998, the child poverty rate would have dropped from 45.6 percent to 28.4 percent among African Americans and from 15.4 percent to 11.4 percent among whites; this difference probably flows in large part from the generally greater amounts of resources that married parents have in virtue of their lower living costs and higher family incomes. However, children raised in married families also tend, on average, to display better educational performance and fewer behavioral and psychological problems than those raised by unmarried parents. There are likely at least two important reasons for this disparity. First, because marriage is a social institution surrounded by strong community expectations, married parents are held accountable by society as a whole for the welfare of their children in a way that parents united only by personal affection or not united at all are not. Furthermore, because children provide a concrete manifestation of the deep emotional union that spouses are meant to enter into with one another, they are likely to assume a central role in the lives of married parents in a way that they will not in relationships where there is no social expectation that the parties involved must form a unified whole in a meaningful way. Also, the same features of marriage that facilitate specialization in other areas likely do so with regard to good childrearing as well, allowing married parents to become better at caring for their children than unmarried ones.

Additionally, children tend to suffer significant harm when their parents separate. Penn State sociologist Paul Amato has estimated that if the United States had maintained the level of family stability that prevailed in 1960 into the present, children would do dramatically better on several important indicators of educational performance and psychological well-being; for example, the nation would have seen about 70,000 fewer suicide attempts by children. Research of this sort is often criticized for failing to separate the effects of divorce from those of the conflict between spouses that often precedes separation, but Amato and a colleague found that two-thirds of contemporary parental divorces do not stem from high-conflict marriages. Divorces of this sort can actually be more harmful to the emotional and moral development of children than those which end high-conflict marriages because children find it much harder to believe in the possibility of deep love and commitment when they see their parents drift apart. Furthermore, children whose divorced parents remarry have life outcomes which are comparable to those raised in single-parent families—this is likely because children do best in a stable environment and face great difficulties adapting to the drastic changes which accompany moving from one household to another. These changes cancel out any additional resources the new marriage may provide.

Marriage and Inequality

Examining the various tangible benefits of marriage discussed above suggests that the institution's capacity to provide them flows from two features which the trends under discussion work against—the sharing of a household by two people over an extended period and the social expectations governing the content of marriage, especially the depth of the emotional union that the spouses are expected to share. Unwed motherhood does the most direct harm to the latter in its connection with childrearing, since it deprives children of access to the additional resources that a two-parent family can provide and the improved parenting produced by gains from specialization. As discussed above, the culture of widespread divorce weakens the social expectations surrounding marriage through its implicit suggestion that marriage is a contract like any other and, obviously, makes it harder for couples to share a life for an extended period. It thereby makes it less likely that spouses will feel the strong emotional bond that allows marriage to serve as a form of insurance or have incentives to pool their financial resources. Cohabiting couples lose access to the benefits provided by those social expectations by forming a private arrangement whose content is entirely unregulated by community norms.

All of this information provides ample reason for concern about the rising numbers of both adults and children in America who are living without the benefits that married families can provide. However, the substantial aggregate rise in those numbers has not been distributed equally, and the trends contributing to that rise have therefore also exacerbated the growing problem of economic inequality. Rates of marriage, divorce, unwed childbearing and unmarried cohabitation are all vary significantly between the college-educated and those without college degrees—these categories are a good proxy for high-income and lower-income Americans in view of the increasing returns to higher education in recent years. Marriage rates are increasing among the college-educated as they fall for the rest of the country, and the divorce rate among the college-educated has fallen by 30 percent since the early 1980s while the rate for others has risen by 6 percent. The disparity in rates of unwed motherhood is even more striking; a recent study estimated that 50 percent of mothers without college degrees are unmarried, while only 7 percent of college-educated mothers have children out of wedlock. 60 percent of women who dropped out of high school between the ages of 19 and 44 have cohabited for some time, compared to only 37 percent of women with college degrees. These statistics are especially troubling because the disparity they reflect not only contributes to existing inequality but has the potential to entrench it well into the future. As was noted earlier, the children of divorced couples are much less likely to marry than are those from married families, and the same is true of those raised in single-parent families. Therefore, it is possible that the tangible benefits which marriage provides to children could become increasingly concentrated among higher-income Americans.

The sorts of trends which are the principal focus of this article likely contribute to the overall decline of marriage mentioned earlier as well as its disparate impacts on different socioeconomic groups by undermining the social expectation that the typical person will marry. Widespread cohabitation undermines the privileged status of marriage as a social institution in at least two ways. First, once it becomes sufficiently widespread, it provides a viable path to the enjoyment of sexual and emotional intimacy that does not require compliance with the demanding social expectations which surround marriage—therefore, the ability to control socially approved access to these goods ceases to be a tool that the community can use to enforce those expectations. Second, a child who grows up seeing many cohabiting couples and interacting with them regularly will simply not be able to view marriage as an expectation in the same way that one does not will be—the widespread occurrence of a socially disapproved phenomenon necessarily normalizes it to some extent, regardless of what figures with authority within the community might say. Widespread unwed motherhood likely has a similar normalizing effect.

In the absence of strong social expectations that the typical member of society will marry for life, it seems reasonable to expect that marriage will increasingly be confined to wealthier people. Without prompting from society, the only motives that people can have to marry for life are romantic love and interest in the tangible goods marriage provides. The former varies greatly in stability and intensity over time for most people, and it is therefore unlikely to acquire the depth needed to ground a lifelong partnership unless it is channeled fruitfully through a social institution like marriage. The latter is likely to provide a stronger motive to people from wealthier backgrounds. There are two principal reasons for this fact. First, the desire to pass on one's social status to one's offspring, which is common among high-status social groups, gives prospective parents from wealthier social strata a stronger desire to provide their children with the advantages that come with growing up in a married family. Second, the tangible benefits of marriage are likely to appear only over time as children are born, spouses begin to specialize, and unforeseen calamities occur; in contrast, the demanding expectations the institution imposes on married couples begin to govern their conduct from the moment they wed. Since most people tend to discount future benefits, the tangible benefits of marriage must be substantially greater in magnitude than the cost of meeting the expectations that govern it for marrying to be worthwhile. Many of those benefits derive from increased efficiency in the employment of couples' material resources, so people who expect to have more of those resources will be more likely to face a cost-benefit ratio that would make marriage seem desirable.

The Decline of Marriage and the Future of Conservatism

It should be clear by this point that the trends undermining marriage in contemporary America pose a serious threat to the future of conservatism. The nature of this threat is at least threefold. First, and most obviously, by weakening one of the most important non-state mechanisms for improving economic well-being and providing social insurance and confining that institution to the already wealthy, widespread divorce, unwed motherhood, and cohabitation contribute to a growing inequality that will likely generate hostility toward the established order and strengthen tendencies toward massive state interference in the allocation of wealth and opportunity if it is not halted. The second aspect of the threat arises from the role of marriage as a character-forming institution. As was noted earlier, people motivated solely by rational self-interest will not observe any set of rules governing conduct in the sincere and consistent manner that is necessary for a society to function properly because they will have no reason to in a case where their own interests are at risk. If they are not educated in virtues such as loyalty and concern for others that give them reasons to value a system of rules for its own sake, they can only be motivated to follow the system consistently through the use of penalties that raise the cost of not doing so. The most obvious tool for administering such penalties is the state, and the breakdown of a major character-forming institution is likely to generate calls for increased state intervention in many spheres of life; the calls by figures like UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman for state-employed home nurses to teach parenting to single mothers is perhaps a harbinger of this new reality. Furthermore, if a society is to maintain a relatively small state, people must be capable of cooperating voluntarily to solve social problems. Behavior of this sort requires capacities for loyalty and self-sacrifice which marriage plays an important role in cultivating. As it becomes increasingly difficult for people to work together to improve their lives, they will look to government more and more for aid.

Finally, the changes in marriage being wrought by widespread divorce, cohabitation, and unwed motherhood threaten a defining feature of American life: our egalitarian culture. For generations, visitors to the United States from overseas have observed that even when Americans differed significantly in their degree of material prosperity, they understood themselves as sharing a common culture and treated one another as equals in a way that was and remains remarkably rare. However, for this sort of attitude to persist, all citizens must inhabit the same basic form of social environment—otherwise, they will lack the shared experiences and standards needed to sustain a common culture and mutual respect. The growing marriage gap between the wealthy and everyone else, combined with the increased geographic and social segregation by income that tends to accompany growing economic inequality, has made sustaining this common social sphere very difficult. Living in a community where most people marry for life differs markedly from living in one where marriage is weak. The institution's role in facilitating cooperation and respect for social norms means that communities of the former sort will maintain a level of order and stability that those of the latter type cannot. Such disparities will have a substantial impact on the capacity of Americans from different classes to meet in shared social spaces and relate to one another in a meaningful way. If conservatism as a tradition of political thought is to have any content, one of its most fundamental principles must be a concern for protecting established modes of life from radical change, and a radical change is exactly what the marriage gap threatens to effect.

How Should Conservatives Respond?

With the specter of growing inequality, social breakdown, and increased statism in view, one might expect this article to conclude with a comprehensive policy agenda for defending marriage against the forces undermining it. And there are indeed some policy measures that might make a difference. For example, it seems plausible that the already-weak marriages of Americans without college degrees might be threatened even further by the economic pressures generated by efforts to balance work with childrearing, especially in view of the way in which the demand for low-skilled American labor has declined in recent years due to technological change and foreign competition. For this reason, various conservative writers and thinkers, including Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review and former Treasury Department official Robert Stein, have advocated changes to the tax code which would reduce the tax burden on families raising children. Ideas of this sort, which remove tangible obstacles faced by people who want to stay married for life, are worth considering.

However, efforts to make people into better spouses in order to prevent divorce or to change public attitudes about marriage so that more people want to get and stay married, which many social conservatives favor and which would seem to be the only sorts of policies that address the problem at its root, strike me as misguided. The fact that the practices discussed in this article are both freely chosen and widespread enough to threaten marriage suggests that marriage is declining in large part because a large swath of Americans truly misunderstand the institution's importance and value it less than previous generations have. In presenting this problem as one that government policy can solve, such self-proclaimed conservatives ignore the core conservative insight that cultural institutions and norms can only emerge through gradual evolution. Conservatives should realize that any defined group of people cannot possibly possess the sort of knowledge needed to rebuild an institution as complex as marriage from scratch and that the coercive power of the state is too blunt an instrument for the task of molding mores and attitudes. Yet my view does not commit us to inaction in the face of efforts to fundamentally alter or destroy existing institutions. Rather, it is conservatives' understanding that social institutions evolve in large part to restrain and channel powerful human impulses, coupled with our awareness that these institutions cannot be reconstituted through conscious effort, that leads us to resist attempts at rapid change so fiercely. We realize that the very impulses the institutions are meant to control will make people eager to change them and that it will be nearly impossible to restore them once they are gone.

This is not to say that we should simply lament the problems confronting marriage in America and do nothing to address them. However, any efforts to solve those problems must seek to effect cultural change in the only way that is viable. This requires the rejection of state power in favor of a person-by-person and community-by-community effort to persuade people of the value of marriage as it has historically been understood. Rather than embracing futile marriage promotion initiatives, people who worry about the state of marriage in our society should cultivate genuine love for and loyalty to their own spouses, help friends struggling to preserve their marriages, and raise their children to value the institution properly. Only direct personal interactions can possibly change the attitudes that shape behavior and thereby make some progress toward restoring an institution as vital to social order and personal well-being as marriage to its proper place in our society.