It is always nice to see one’s books mentioned in the media, but Chantal Hébert’s column yesterday, which made reference to Fearful Symmetry, presented an inaccurate caricature of my arguments about the damage done to the family by the welfare state.
Contrary to Ms. Hébert’s claims, I argued (among many other things!) that it is wrong-headed policies, particularly around the institutional protections that marriage enjoyed, plus the availability of the state as a poor-quality but free substitute father/husband, that caused the decline of marriage. That decline didn’t just come out of nowhere, which is how it came across in the article. And once we had changed marriage so that men were no longer reliable partners, women quite rationally reacted by delaying having children and building their careers instead, because in the case of marriage breakdown, the one thing you can reliably take away with you is your career. The result is that women end up working more than they tell pollsters they want to, and they end up having fewer children than they say they’d like to have.
As I wrote in the book, we have shifted the incentives over the years such that it is often not in the economic interests of couples to stick together – and by the way, these incentives have shifted primarily at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, so the damage caused by the policies is chiefly wrought on the most vulnerable, and the children of the most vulnerable. Surely we don’t want to create circumstances where the irresponsible actions of spouses are the ones that are rewarded by public policy? That is the argument that I made in the book. And it is hardly a startling or unprecedented argument. Margaret Brinig made a similar argument several years ago for the C.D. Howe institute and Nobel Laureates George Akerlof and Gary Becker are among just a few of the noted experts in the field who have been raising warning flags in this field for some time.
And while Ms. Hébert seems to see this as an argument to put women back in the kitchen, this is clearly a case of her rejecting the argument she wishes I had made instead of the one I in fact made. No one wants a return to the 1950s, with stereotypical roles that many women have rightly rejected, nor is it in any way implying that women shouldn’t have and develop their careers to the fullest. My argument is that based on what women say they want, we have created circumstances that are not on the whole what they say they would choose if they had different options. I want women to have more choices, not fewer…
On a slightly different point, I would take issue a bit with the Conservative slant she attaches to the book. I have many Liberal friends that have publicly said they like the book a lot (Rob Silver, Liberal blogger for the Globe being just one example) and not to mention my director of communications at MLI who was National Director of the Liberal Party (not once, but, twice!). Lots of other Liberals have said the same to me privately, expressing in particular concern at the harm wrought on the family over recent decades. Good policy and good ideas are the property of no political party.