The Mission of the Manhattan Institute is
to develop and disseminate new ideas that
foster greater economic choice and
individual responsibility.

Annual James Q. Wilson Lecture
November 6, 2001

Why is Marriage in Trouble?
Professor James Q. Wilson
Introductory Remarks by Kay Hymowitz
(unedited transcript)

[Tape 1 Side 1]

MS. HYMOWITZ: – real man. And indeed, there they find, or we’re supposed to find, forty guys waiting to greet them, on an iceberg. These are their suitors, and their job, the suitors’ job, is to convince one of these women to marry them. They will do this by demonstrating their worth, through such feats as, and I’m not making this up, standing in icy water for twenty minutes.

Now I like to think that I want a life. Alaska symbolizes something about the state of marriage, at least before September 11th. And I suspect that Professor Wilson will fill us in on some of the sorry details. Cultural trend watchers might want to watch and see whether Fox continues with this idea.

Professor Wilson makes life very easy for a person asked to introduce him. It may take a good deal of editing, perhaps, but absolutely no inventiveness. From 1961 to 1987, he was Shattuck Professor of Government, at Harvard. He spent the next eight years as James Collins’ Professor of Management and Public Policy, at UCLA. He is currently Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy, at Pepperdine University.

He has served on numerous national commissions on crime and drug abuse. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. And he has received honorary degrees from six universities, most recently, and one can guess, most gratifyingly, from his one-time employer, Harvard. Yet, Professor Wilson hardly fits the stereotype of the ivory tower academic, or a public policy wonk. In fact, were he single, Fox producers might well want to interview him.

Rumor has it, that he is keen on cattle drives and racecars. He and his wife, Roberta, are avid scuba divers, though presumably, they avoid icy waters, and have coauthored a book, entitled “Watching Fishes,” a guide for scuba divers. But it is, of course, his wide range in writings, on public affairs, that brings him to us today. These writings are a striking mixture of humility and breadth. I can think of no writer more willing to admit what he does not know. “Nobody knows,” and, “I am not certain why,” are signature Wilsonian phrases. His humility gives proof, I think, of his honesty.

Yet, somehow, the man who does not know, has written fourteen books, on topics as varied as bureaucracy, political organizations, and criminology. He is as apt to sound like a criminologist, as an economist, a philosopher, as a sociologist, a historian, a child psychologist, or an anthropologist.

Now as I mentioned, Professor Wilson’s talk today is entitled, “Why Marriage is in Trouble.” And it is a preview of a new book, his fifteenth, due out in March, from HarperCollins, called, “The Marriage Problem.”

Some of you might wonder why it is, that a man who’s written about so many key and very consequential public policy issues, has now come to write about a topic so seemingly personal as marriage. Some of you might be tempted to wonder this, especially after the events of September 11th. But before handing the podium over to Dr. Wilson, I would like to argue, very briefly, that is topic, today, is both a logical outgrowth of his intellectual career, and a compelling topic, at even this time of national emergency.

Professor Wilson began his career, studying urban politics. And over time, his interest in urban issues naturally led him to the topic of crime. And he began a long career, pondering the origins of crime and criminal behavior. It was during this period that he published, along with George Kelling, the groundbreaking essay, “Broken Windows,” an essay that eventually led to a revolution in policing, whose benefits we continue to enjoy, on the streets outside this room.

He then went on to publish, with the late Richard Herrnstein, “Crime and Human Nature.” It was at this point, that Professor Wilson found himself at a significant fork in his career path. “I decided the interesting question,” he explained in a later interview, “was not the one we answered, ‘Why do some people become criminals,’ but why people don’t become criminals.” And it was this question that led to his 1993 book, “The Moral Sense,” a work which George Will called, “The intellectual event of the year.”

Using myriad studies from anthropology, history, child psychology, and psychobiology, Dr. Wilson concluded that the vast majority of people do not become criminals because they are endowed by nature, with moral dispositions.

However, nature is not enough, and this will take us into marriage. People may be born with a moral sense, but they also need social order, for that sense to thrive. That first and primary social order is the family, for it is in the family, that the child learns to become a future citizen. The family, he came to conclude, is the foundation of public life. Now this was not the way Fox TV, and of course many Americans, saw things, in the days before September 11th. Whether this is likely to change in coming days, is an open question.

But certainly, I can think of no one better equipped to explain to us, how marriage has evolved, or should I say devolved, from a religious sacrament, to a legal contract, to a game show, and whether it is likely to continue its downward course, in these very fraught days, than our speaker today. I give you James Q. Wilson.


PROFESSOR WILSON: Thank you, Kay. There’s another reason why I wrote a book on marriage, which will appear next year, it’s my private way of celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary, with my wife, Roberta.


PROFESSOR WILSON: Roberta and I would like to express, as everyone does, who comes to this city, our profound sense of tragedy, about the events of September 11th, and our amazement, at the courage and resiliency of New Yorkers, in recovering from that tragedy.

I suppose I should also express my sorrow to you, that the New York Yankees could not win the World Series, but since I have been a Boston Red Sox fan, for decades, [applause] the best I can do is suppress a smirk. [Laughter]

Everyone knows that the American family has been greatly weakened by the rise in the proportion of women who bear and raise children out of wedlock. This phenomena, once thought to be linked primarily to African-American, now affects Whites as well. So much so, that the rate at which White children are raised in single parent families, is now as high as the rate at which Black children were raised in single parent families, in the mid 1960s, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his famous report on that family.

Almost everyone, there are some exceptions, among a few retrograde scholars, agree that children in mother-only families suffer harmful consequences. The best studies show that these children are more likely than those in two-parent families to be suspended from high school, to have emotional problems, to become delinquent, to suffer from abuse, and to take drugs. Now some part of these problems may occur because children in single parent families are also children in poor families.

But the best studies, such as those by Professor Sara McLanahan, at Princeton University, and by others, show that low income can explain, at most, about half of the disadvantages that these children suffer. The rest of the disadvantage follows from the fact that they were raised in a single parent family.

And even that judgment, by Professor McLanahan, is probably optimistic, because being in a single parent family means, almost surely, that the mother, and the mother, in almost all cases, is the person raising the child, that the other will be poor. In this country, we have managed, through heroic public efforts, to take poverty away from the elderly, and shift it to the children. Old people now are better taken care of than they ever were before, and young children are not as well taken care of, as they once were.

Professor William Galston, at the University of Maryland, who was, for a while, and advisor to President Clinton, in the White House, put the matter this way: You need only do three things in this country, to avoid poverty, finish high school, marry before having a child, and marry after the age of twenty. Only eight percent of all the American families who do these three things are poor. Seventy-nine percent of those who fail to do these three things are poor.

Not many people realize that this pattern of children being raised by single parents is now the leading factor in most of Western cultures. The illegitimacy ratio in the late 1990s was thirty-three percent for the United States, thirty-one percent for Canada, thirty-eight percent for the United Kingdom, and almost as high in Australia and France. Now not all children who are born out of wedlock are raised by a single parent. Many of the children are raised by a mother and a father, who, though not married, live together, and care well for the child. This is especially the case in Sweden, where the illegitimacy rate has almost replaced marriage, as the normal way of bringing children into this world.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that some families do manage, through cohabitation and other strategies, to raise children well, the proportion of children who grow up with only one parent in the household has tripled in this country, since 1960, and more than doubled, since 1970. Now all of these facts, I think are very well known to most Americans. They have been discussed throughout the media, for many, many years. The question I want to ask, is why has this happened? And I think there are two possible explanations. The first is money, and the second is culture.

Money readily comes to mind. We subsidize people who have children out of marriage. When the government subsidizes something, it gets more of it. And as a result, we should expect, and most people do expect, that when the government pays people money, in lieu of a husband’s presence, that the husband will be less necessary. For many years, however, this possibility that money would have this effect, was discounted by American scholars, for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons, was the fact that the money that was paid in welfare aid, had declined, in inflation adjusted terms, over the last thirty or forty ears, even though the illegitimacy rates have been going up. So how could the declining value of this resource, cause an increase in this problem? The second complaint was that the amount of money spent on welfare in each state, showed no particular correlation to the illegitimacy rate in that state.

But these questions now have come in for a new re-examination. And we now understand that money does make a difference. First of all, it’s not the inflation adjusted magnitude of welfare benefits, that counts, it’s the inflation adjusted magnitude of all benefits, not only welfare payments, but housing, and Medicare, and the like, and food stamps that goes to persons, and the inflation-adjusted value of this entire package of benefits has in fact gone up, more or less, as the illegitimacy rate has gone up.

And secondly, the amount of money that is spent in a state, on welfare, cannot be correlated with the amount of money spent in other states, as a way of finding out whether the amount of money causes illegitimacy, because the crucial question is, how much money are you spending in a state, given the standard of living that that amount of money will purchase in that state. As Charles Weary pointed out some years ago, the benefits, for a woman in New Orleans, $650 a month, and those in San Francisco, $867 a month, made nearly identical contributions to the cost of living, because the cost of living, in New Orleans, was much lower than the cost of living in San Francisco.

And finally, new research by economists that use very sophisticated techniques, based on interviews with people who have been followed for almost thirty years, in this country, and comparing the results of those interviews, or the situations in which they live, now show, I think, rather persuasively, that every increase in welfare benefits, increases the proportion of poor young women, who have a child out of wedlock, before the age of twenty-two.

The problem with the money explanation, however, is that it doesn’t go back far enough in time. It does, I think, help us understand what has happened in the last forty years, in this country, but it doesn’t help us understand what happened before that. After all, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, now called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, AFDC, has been in existence since 1935. But only in the last 1960s, that it began to contribute, powerfully, to the increase in out-of-wedlock births.

For example, in 1960, only four percent of the children getting welfare had a mother who had never been married. The rest of the mothers getting these benefits, were widows, or people…women who had been separated or divorced from their husbands. Thirty-six years later, however, that four percent had become thirty-seven percent. Thirty-seven percent of the welfare children now add an unmarried mother, who had never been married at all. Now why did this change occur?

Well, again, there are two explanations. One is money, and the other is culture. The money explanation has been most persuasively made, by William Julius Wilson, a very distinguished African-American sociologist, who once taught at the University of Chicago, and now teaches at Harvard.

And his argument, repeated now in two or three books, is that there has been a sharp decline in the availability of manufacturing jobs, in inner city neighborhoods, and as a consequence of that decline in jobs, African-American men have not been able to compete, successfully, for women, or to put the matter, in other words, in other way, women have been unwilling to make commitments to people who lack that steady source of income. But this argument has not withstood criticism. And I think now, largely, has to be regarded as…at best, a partial truth, and perhaps, wholly false.

First of all, Mexican-Americans, particularly in California, but in other states as well, especially illegal immigrants, also live in the central city, also live in places where manufacturing jobs have declined in number, speak English badly, and if undocumented, as illegal aliens are, they have great difficulty getting a good job, or receiving any public benefits. Nonetheless, the rate of out-of-wedlock births, among illegal Mexican-Americans, in California, is only one-fifth that, of what it is among Blacks in California.

The second problem with the William Julius argument, William Julius Wilson argument, is that the decline in marriage, among employed Black men, has been just as sharp as the decline in marriage, among unemployed Black men. And as Jake has put it in one of his essays on this subject, “Marriage Must Have been Losing Its Charms, for non-economic reasons.” But what are these non-economic reasons? And now, I shift to culture, which is the main theme of my remarks.

What do I mean by “culture?” In this context, what I mean by culture, is the following: Being an unmarried mother, and living on welfare, has lost its stigma. To some people, this is self-evidently true, to others, it is not self-evidently true, but I think the evidence begins…have begun to support it.

If you look at studies of welfare mothers, living in small rural communities, as opposed to those living in large towns, you discover that those living in a small rural communities, holding their own family circumstances, constantly. Adjusting further income and educational levels, are much less likely to go on welfare, or if they go on welfare, much more likely to drop out, than is true of statistically identical women in large cities. Why the difference? The difference is easily understood, when you read the interviews that have been done by these women.

In a small town, everyone knows who is on welfare, and welfare recipients do not have many friends, in the same situation, with whom they can associate it. But in the big city, welfare recipients are not known to everyone, and each one can easily associate with other women, living the same way.

In the small town, let me quote from these interview documents, welfare recipients tell interviewers the same story, “I always felt like I was being watched. They treat us like welfare cattle. People make nasty comments.” But the equivalent women living in the big city, told a very different story. “Here, everyone is in the same boat I am, and people don’t look down on you.”

American courts have made it clear, that they are prepared to pull out from under the marriage contract, it’s own moral basis. In 1960, Alabama tried to deny welfare to an unmarried woman, who was living with a man, who was not her husband. The U.S. Supreme Court objected. Immorality, it implied, was an outdated notion. The states have no right to limit welfare to a worthy person. Because welfare belongs to the child, not to the mother. If the state is concerned about the moral state of the mother, it will have to rehabilitate the mother, by other means.

But if this loss of stigma, supported by legal rules that have pulled out the moral foundation from under marriage, has become so important, why did it happen in countries like England and the United States, in Canada, in Australia, where, according to every public poll, people overwhelmingly endorse marriage, and believe it’s the right way to live.

Let me suggest the following argument: This popular support for marriage, has developed along side, and almost unnoticed by everyone else, a subversion of that popular support. The subversion can be described this way: Marriage was once thought to be a social union, now it is thought to be about personal preferences. At one time, law and opinion enforced the desirability of marriage, without inquiring into what went on within the marriage. Now, law and opinion enforce the desirability of individual happiness, without worrying too much about whether that happiness bears any connection to a marital relationship.

Marriage was once a sacrament, then it became a contract, and now it is an arrangement. Once, religion provided that sacrament, then the law enforced the contract, and now, personal preferences define the arrangement. So that the support for marriage, which is readily evident in all public opinion polls, is a different kind of support, from what once existed.

And the cultural change that brought about this transformation of how people think about marriage is our old friend, the Western Enlightenment, that event that began in the 18th century, whereby science, invention, technology, business, market economies, democratic government, personal freedoms, all received a profound philosophical endorsement. In England, in Scotland, in Holland, and Germany, ancient rules were thrown away, in the name of human reason, what the king once ordered, what bishops once enforced, what tradition once required were to be set aside, in the name of a great advance in human knowledge, namely the perfection of individual understanding of their own state of affairs.

I am a great admirer of the Enlightenment, and in particular, a great admirer of its leading thinkers, such as David Hume and Adam Smith and Emanuel Kant. And I am particularly an admirer of the greatest single political accomplishment of the Enlightenment, which was the creation of the United States of America. It was the first nation, designed politically, on the basis of these new views of the relationship of people, one to the other.

But as I recall Milton Friedman once saying that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, I am prepared to argue that there is no such thing as a free culture. We paid a price for the Enlightenment, and that price, we find, can be found in the troubled condition of marriage.

The reason why it has taken so long for that trouble to appear, is because in the first century or two, after the Enlightenment began, after people began to be emancipated, from old ways of thinking about social arrangements, the cultural requirements, and the cultural habits, would reinforce marriage, persistently.

If you look at the nations where the illegitimacy rate is the highest, and where, insofar as we can tell, the proportion of children being raised by a single parent is the highest. Those nations are identical to those who most benefited from…or were most affected by the Enlightenment, the United States, England, Canada, Australia, France, and the Netherlands. Such families are in far less difficulty, though they have other problem. In Italy, in Spain, in Eastern Europe, in Russia, in the Middle East, in China and Japan. It was in the countries that benefited from the Enlightenment, that nuclear families first became most common, that individual consent became the basis of the marital contract, and that divorce first became easy to arrange.

Now why didn’t the Enlightenment have this great affect in certain counties, and not other countries? Why was it, that in England and the United States and Holland, these changes had such a transforming effect on culture; whereas they did not have such an effect on other countries along the shores of the Mediterranean, or in the Middle East.

I think the answer to that question has been best supplied by Alan Macfarlane, the great English anthropologist, who has shown that in the countries where land was originally, individually owned, the Enlightenment had its greatest impact. And the reason for that is as follows: Where a land is individually owned, where people can buy and sell it, bequeath it and inherit it, a system of legal rules must grow up around those arrangements, in order to protect the rights of all parties that are contributing to the landowning establishment.

These legal rules must be enforced. And courts, therefore, coming to being, to enforce it. In the lower courts of England, and of the United States and Holland, and Germany, who designed…to give…primarily to give meaning to such questions as: Who owns this piece of land? How long have they owned it? And by what right, can they offer it to another person?

Marriage depended on land ownership. Macfarlane found that individual ownership of land, in England, can be traced back, unequivocally, to the 13th century, and perhaps to an earlier piece of time. When a young man wanted to get married in England, at least until the 19th century, the rule was, no land, no marriage. As a result, people got married, in England, and in similar countries, at a much older age, than they did in other countries, and that is because the man had to find a way to accumulate enough land to support the wife. And they could do so, by waiting for their father to die, or accumulating enough assets, so they could buy land on their own.

English couples could also get married on the basis of individual consent. And this was a religious contribution. The Catholic Church, and following its leadership, the Episcopal Church, had decided, beginning in the 15th and 16th century, that the individual consent of the man and woman, was essential for a valid marriage to take place. No one could be coerced into marriage, by parental authority, and no marriage that was arranged without the individual consent of the man and woman, would have validity.

But only in certain countries, did these religious rules have the effect that was intended. The church’s rules were intended to apply throughout Christendom, but it was only in England, and similar countries, where individual land ownership, and personal rights, made that rule effective, equipped people with the right to exercise individual choice.

By contrast to this pattern that you find growing out of individual land ownership, in Eastern Europe, to say nothing of the Middle East, and the Far East, a far different culture has arisen, out of a far different system of owning land. In many parts of these regions, land was controlled by families and clans. In Poland, in the 18th and 19th century, no individual owned land. In Russia, before the Soviet Revolution, individuals rarely owned land, unless they were very wealthy. Families and clans owned land, and selected from among the families and clans, some administrator, who would run the land, serve as the farm manager, for the benefit of other members of the family and clan, but had no rights of ownership, and could not sell it, and nobody could inherit it.

In these places, laws concerning land ownership were quite rudimentary. Because the land was owned, more or less, in perpetuity, by a diffuse group of individuals, connected by familial relationships. And since the rules were not very important, courts were not very important, as a way of enforcing those rules. When courts were unimportant, the courts became a relatively unimportant way of enhancing human liberty, on a broader scale. But where courts were important, as in England and the United States, they became of decisive importance, in expanding a whole range of rights, far beyond those connected to land ownership.

The family was not immediately changed by the Enlightenment events of the 18th century, because everyone took the family for granted. If you read what David Hume and Adam Smith had to way about the family in 18th century Scotland and England, they sound very modern. That is to say, the family is essential, divorce should be restricted, people should stay together, even if there are difficulties, and they made these assumptions, on the basis of the assumption that it was obviously true. And they did not question the possibility, or raise the possibility, that people, now inspired by a new enlightened way of thinking, would begin, at some point, to raise questions about it.

But in time, those changes did occur. And those changes began, in large measure, in the early 19th century, and by the 1920s, they were largely complete, in England and the United States. And this transformation had two sources. First there was a natural understandable desire to help needy children. And people, as they became more concerned about the material lot of their own society, designed way to help children, many of whom, were poor, many of whom, were living without families, many of whom, were like the children portrayed in Oliver Twist. And the second change was the desire for the emancipation of women.

Now these two changes are, in my view, highly commendable developments. It is a good thing, when society worries about the condition of their children, and it is a good thing, when society believes, as we have come to believe, that men and women ought to be morally and legally equal. But there was a price to be paid for this, and the price only slowly became evident.

Women in England and American, in the early 19th century, had more rights than women in any other place in the world. But they still, when married, could not easily own property, could not file for a divorce, could not, except with difficulty, conduct their own economic affairs. But by the 1920s, most, though not all, of these restrictions had ended. And of course, once women got to vote, there was no chance of these restrictions ever being reinstated.

We tend to blame the events of modern times, on the phenomena called the 60s. And though I am not great personal admirer of much of the 60s, I think that judgment is premature. I think the 1960s represents simply a continuation of events that began at the end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th century, events that were put on hold by two great catastrophes, the first World War, and the Great Depression. And after the war was over, and after the depression had been worked out, those earlier events began to accelerate, and the 1960s really represented a speeding up of a process that had begun a half a century earlier.

Family law, in the opinion of Professor Carl Schneider, of the Michigan Law School, lost its moral basis. Not to say that families became immoral, it’s simply that judgments about families were no longer made on moral grounds. It was now easier to get out of a marriage, than to get out of a mortgage.

At the end of the 19th century, to give you an example of this transformation in American law, the Supreme Court referred to the marriage as, quote, “a holy estate,” close quote. And quote, “a sacred obligation,” close quote. By 1965, the Supreme Court described marriage as, quote, “an association of two individuals,” close quote. That was a remarkable change.

But there’s another part of the cultural argument that needs to be addressed, and that is the question of why African-Americans have suffered so gravely from this, especially since they played no part in the Enlightenment, and were, if anything, the deferred beneficiaries of our growing concern for human liberty.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, of course made this argument in the early 1960s, in his famous paper about the Black family, as had WEB DuBois, in 1908, and E. Franklin Frazier, in 1939, and much of what Moynihan said, really repeated arguments that DuBois and Frazier had made much earlier.

The reason that Moynihan’s argument was controversial was because, as his critics put it, he was now blaming the victim. This was a difficult criticism to bring against DuBois and Frazier, since being Black scholars of some distinction, they could not easily be accused of blaming the victim. And therefore, a huge scholarly apparatus was put in motion in the United States, designed for the purpose of showing that slavery had no harmful effects on Black families. It is an argument that I can summarize for you, and when I’ve summarized it for you, I suspect many of you will find it difficult to believe.

Slavery, this vast and cruel system of organized repression, that for over two centuries, denied the Blacks the right to marry, the right to vote, the right to sue, the right to be on a jury, the right to own property, the right to take an oath, slavery, that withheld from them, the proceeds of their labor. A slavery that sold them and their children at the auction block. Slavery that exposed them to brutal and unjust punishment. All of these events, that took over two centuries to work out in this country, had no affect on family life. But when, after the First World War, Blacks began moving from the south, to the big cities of the north, but that made a big difference, then, single parent families suddenly erupted.

To state the argument, is to refute. Slavery was the greatest disaster that Western culture has ever endured. And to say that it had no effect on marriage, is, on the face of it, preposterous. And we now know, from more recent research, that the argument made by people stimulated by the Moynihan paper, was in fact wrong.

For example, in the old census reports, people would look back, to find out what proportion of people… Women were raising children without the aid of a husband. And they discovered that the proportion didn’t seem to be that different from Whites, and the reason was, that the Black single Black women, who were raising children, described themselves as widows. But we now know, from scholarly research, that they were not in fact widows. They said they were widows, in order to avoid the stigma of raising a child, without a husband.

We also know that this early research on the impact of slavery, on Black-Americans, was done largely on large plantations, where there were so many Black females, and Black males, that the changes of a marriage emerging, were somewhat greater. But most slaves were owned on small plantations. And on small plantations, there was very little chance, if any chance at all, for a man and woman to form a stable relationship.

And if you look at their own data, you discover that as early as 1865, one quarter of the African-Americans who were interviewed by the Census Bureau, described themselves as. People noted this fact, but came to the conclusion that slavery could not have made a difference.

And after slavery, sharecropping took its place. A system tenant land ownership, in which men work a farm, which they did not own, and did so, by renting it from the owner, in exchange for a share of the crops they produced. Sharecropping extended the harmful impact of slavery, because it made it impossible for a Black man to own land, that he could then bequeath to his children. Being a tenant farmer, meant he needed help, and so he often had many children, in order to provide that help, but he was also unable to own land that he could bequeath to those children.

The legacy of this was two-fold. First, generations of slaves, and later, of sharecroppers, grew up without having a family, or without having a family that had any serious social meaning. And secondly, Black boys grew up in a world in which, in the 18th and 19th and early 20th century, made them keenly aware, that because of the condition in which their fathers had been placed, by the larger society, they were sexually active with other women.

Now you may think that this argument about fathers providing role models for children, is simply a slogan of speakers, but there’s been some research done, on the question of whether fathers provide role models for children. And the studies show that among White American boys, those who admire their fathers, are likely to do better than those who don’t admire the fathers. But among Black-Americans, those who reject their fathers, tend to do better than those who admire their fathers.

What is astonishing today, is that so many African-Americans are in fact married, and lead happy and productive lives. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, considering what we have done to them in the past, but it is an accomplishment, limited to only about half of all Black families, and White families are working very hard, to catch up, and produce the same rates of illegitimacy.

One puzzle in the argument I’m making, for which I don’t think I really have the answer, is the following: The Enlightenment had its greatest effect, on upper middle class people, the intellectuals, educated groups, business leaders, politicians, cultural leaders, but the behavior that I’m trying to explain, has been disproportionately true of lower income people. How is it, that the Enlightenment, which affected the sensibilities, by which educated people judge the world, effective behavior, of people who had no exposure to the Enlightenment.

I think the closest I can come, to giving a tentative answer to this question, is to repeat what Myron Magnet said in his book, “The Dream and the Nightmare.” When the “Haves” remake a culture, the people who pay the price are the “Have Nots.”

Let me restate the argument that Myron has made, skillfully, with my own metaphor. Imagine a game of Crack the Whip, that you once played as a child. A line of children, holding hands, begins to rotate. The child, at the beginning point of the rotation, scarcely moves at all. But depending on the number of children in the line, the child at the end of the line, moves so rapidly, that they often stumble and fall. And this problem is the problem that faces us, in trying to explain the impact of the Enlightenment, on poor people. And there are countless examples of how this is worked out in practice.

Heroin and cocaine were introduced in the Western culture, among the elites, and then spread down the social scale. When the elites wanted to stop being addicted to heroin and cocaine, they could hire doctors and therapists. When the poor wanted to stop, they couldn’t hire anybody. When community-based centers were created, to help the mentally ill, mental hospitals were closed down. The elites got all the help they could, from their psychiatrist, the poor slept on the streets.

Loose sexuality was endorsed in writing and motion pictures, by people who could afford to have abortions. Loose sexuality, without many abortions, is practiced by the poor. Divorce has been more common among the affluent, than among the poor, because the affluent can afford it, and the poor cannot. And so to deal with unhappy marriages, and the difficulty of managing…to have a divorce in a culture that values divorce, poor people are less likely to get married in the first place.

Now at this point in my remarks, and I’m coming to the end of them, you probably expect me to tell you what we can do about all of this, but I am not going to tell you what we could do about this, because I am not confident we can do anything at all, about it.

A revered professor of mine, at the University of Chicago, once said that if you succeed in explaining why something is so, you have probably succeeded in explaining why it must be so. This is no small matter. And family decay is one reason for the deep division that no exists between Island and the West. As Andrew Sullivan put it, in a recent article in the New York Times Sunday magazine, religion, and all that religion implies about the good life, is at the heart of the confrontation, between Islamic fundamentalists and Western sectors.

To me, the issue cannot easily be re-resolved, by making arguments about religion, because religion is a matter of faith, more than a matter of argumentation. But it does mean that one of the great clashes of cultures, in modern civilization, is between one culture who believes that the personal expression of human liberty, is the highest goal of human life. And the other culture that believes that the submergence of the individual, in a larger cause, is the highest goal of human life.

There are of course Christian fundamentalists. Possibly even Jewish fundamentalists. A few of them are willing to use force and violence, to destroy abortion clinics. At least one Christian fundamentalist has been quoted as blaming the terrorist attacks of September 11th, on part of, quote, “the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians, who are trying to secularize America,” close quote. But they are few in number, quickly attacked, widely repudiated, and often apologize for the remarks. But those remarks would not be repudiated, would not be denied, and would not apologize, in the other part of the world.

The remarkable fact today, is that so many Americans, so many people of the Western cultures, generally value marriage. Most do want to get married. Most want their children to marry. Men and women often cohabit, but when a child arrives, most of them, although an increasingly small fraction of them, get married. And the ones who don’t get married, make their children [unintelligible]. Their goal is to manage effective relationships, and the word “relationship” is largely a…replaced the word “marriage,” in the language of modern American culture.

The difficulty with cohabitation has been beautifully explained by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, in their book, “The Case for a Marriage,” in which they show why cohabitation leads to less happiness for men, and less happiness for women, than does marriage.

Young men can be thought of as people who have exploited the sexual revolution. They are the ones who have benefited from the notion that marriage is not a sacrament, it is barely a contract; it is simply a matter of a relationship. Sex is more important than marriage, to 18-year-old boys. Eighteen-year-old boys are valued, by their friends, because of their ability to score, rather than their ability to date. They are rewarded by their buddies, when they make it, with a lot of young women. To them, marriage is a long-term benefit, but sex is an immediate preoccupation.

So the sexual revolution, which, in theory, was designed to make men and women equal, has in fact advantaged men, and disadvantaged women, leaving many of them free to watch Sex And The City, on HBO. [laughter]

I don’t think many of these things can or should be changed. I am a great believer in the Enlightenment, in the United States. Personal liberty. And government, by free consent. And open scholarly inquiry. Free philosophical analysis. To say that we should cut back on any of these things is monstrous. It is equally monstrous to say that we should reduce the now nearly equal status of men and women, by putting back on women, the restrictions under which they lived for so many centuries.

The right and best way for a culture to restore itself is for it to be rebuilt. Not from the top, down, by new laws, but from the bottom, up, by personal decisions. On that side of the effort, we can find churches, or at least most churches, and the common experience of adults, that the essence of marriage is not sex or money or children; it is commitment. Thank you.


MODERATOR: We have time for a few questions. The room is very big. I would ask you to wait until Professor Wilson acknowledges you, and we’ll give you a hand mic, and then ask a question. So Jim, why don’t you come on up.

PROFESSOR WILSON: I’m sorry my voice gave out at the end. Yes. Ma’am. Yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Well, I had a campaign, and had the pleasure of corresponding with you many years ago, on teenage pregnancy. So hello. But I’m concerned that you say we can’t do anything. Can we bring back shame?

PROFESSOR WILSON: Yes. But we can’t do it by having a government department of shame. [laughter] Or a foundation that will give grants to encourage shame. Over here.

FEMALE VOICE: Mr. Woodhill.

MR. WOODHILL: I’m a corporate venture capital type, and if we had any corporate mechanism that had the failure rate of marriage, we wouldn’t try to fix it by nibbling around the edges, we would just do something else. And I think the total failure rate of marriage, which include the failure to form at all, and also the inability of any Western society, to reproduce it’s numbers, suggests that things are much worse than you state.

PROFESSOR WILSON: Oh. I’m relieved to hear that someone in the room is more pessimistic than I am. [laughter] It restores my general view that I’m an optimistic fellow. The decline in the birth rate in Western cultures is now below the replacement point. So that Western societies, with trivial exceptions, will shrink in population, over the coming generation, with the exception of the United States, and those countries that have a reasonably open immigration policy. This means that the balance of the population in the world will shift in the direction of those families who, for whatever reason, economic, spiritual, or cultural, believe that having children is a good idea. Yes.


MR. GREEN: There is a perception that Black Americans of West Indies heritage do considerably better here, now. There were plantations and slaves in the West Indies, sugar plantations, instead of cotton plantations. Slavery ended in the 1830s, instead of the 1860s, but surely by 2001, that difference should start to blur. The Dunbar High School studies, for example, are an example of what I’m referring to. How do you explain that, and how does that fit into this thesis?

PROFESSOR WILSON: Well, the rate of families in the West Indies, particularly Jamaica and Barbados, two countries I visited and looked at this problem, is at least as high as the rate of illegitimacy and single parent childhood in the United States. But it’s in a different system. It’s in a system there, in which many of the people live in small agricultural communities, where there is, to use a phrase somebody once made popular, a village to take care of the children.

But once they come to the United States, and live in the big cities, these circumstances do not exist. And over time, the gap that may exist between West Indian immigrants, and native-born Americans, begins to narrow, and I think it narrows to the disadvantage of those who come here. One more question, and then I have to leave. This lady here, please.

[End Side 1]

[Start Side 2]

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Well, could you comment further, for the next one, why do we see the increase, why there is an increase in [unintelligible]. You did say that… You made this very novel observation, there, that Black boys who do not admire their fathers, that this results in more single parent families, and that White boys who [inaudible]…

MODERATOR: No. Other way around.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: You said something about that, and I wondered, is it [unintelligible], if it’s the White boys, their fault.

PROFESSOR WILSON: What I said was that if you hold income constant, and look at the success of a young male in later life, that success rate bears the following relationship: Among White boys, it is higher among those who admire their father, and among Black boys, it is higher among those who reject their father.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: So what are the reasons for White [unintelligible]?

PROFESSOR WILSON: The few, that marriage is a less necessary arrangement, and that it is not enforced, and that people have been told to be kind to people who are living together without being married. And many people suddenly decide that living together is a convenient way of having sex, without checking into a motel under an assumed name.

The difficulty, of course, is that when you cohabit instead of being married, you do not invest in the relationship, so that cohabiting couples tend to have separate bank accounts, they share the cost of buying groceries, and they do this because they realize that at any moment, this relationship can end, and therefore, they cannot invest in it, in a way that will produce future rewards, because they doubt the future may exist.

Marriage is a way of forcing people to submerge their differences, in the view that whatever their problems, in the long run they will be better off, and therefore, marriage, though it may be burdensome at the moment, will be advantageous in the long run. Now why do people move in the former direction, rather than the latter? I think it is because of the more present oriented nature of American society, and Western society, in which we share a cultural desire to have, to consume, to own, to enjoy, and a reduction in the level of investment. I mean I’m not sure of this, but I suspect that the reason why the savings rate in the United States is so low is not very different from why the marriage rate is so low. Thank you.


MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming.


Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.




Home | About MI | Scholars | Publications | Books | Links | Contact MI
City Journal | CAU | CCI | CEPE | CLP | CMP | CRD | ECNY
Thank you for visiting us.
To receive a General Information Packet, please email
and include your name and address in your e-mail message.
Copyright © 2009 Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Inc. All rights reserved.
52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017
phone (212) 599-7000 / fax (212) 599-3494