Unhappily, the democratic Left also now embraced the other dimension of the 60s revolution, the abandonment of social responsibility and the pursuit of self-interest at whatever cost. This eventually provided the opportunity for the neo-liberals, in association with another force on the Right, the neo-conservatives, to make further great headway among the Western working class by supporting the values of social conservatism. By doing this, the neo-liberals managed to disguise from both others and themselves an obvious truth, namely that the untrammelled market was the greatest dissolver of the bonds of family and community.
Robert Manne yesterday, in another of The Australian‘s What’s Left series.
But how obvious is Professor Manne’s truth about the market and families? There is certainly no direct relationship in our current society – those with most market experience, people with jobs and money to spend, are more likely to be in couple or family housesholds. And the period of ‘neoliberal’ policy has coincided with a fall in the divorce rate. In 2008, it was at its lowest point since the liberalisation of divorce law in 1975.
It is nevertheless true that the unmarried or separated proportion of the adult population is high by historical standards. There are a number of proximate causes for this, which are interconnected in a complex web of cause and effect.
Ideas about marriage have changed enormously over time, from arranged marriages, to marriages based on chosen partners but with very strong social pressure to get and stay married, to marriages based on personal fulfilment. The latter type is the weakest – love is fickle – and has clear parallels with market exchange, which is based on voluntary agreements for the mutual benefit of both parties. The (positive) experience of markets may have contributed to changed views of marriage; though the common idea of individual choice has a complex cultural history.
At this point, I very much doubt that unwinding market freedoms would or will cause conservative views of marriage to re-assert themselves. People like social and sexual freedom, and will keep liking it even as government increasingly meddles in other parts of their lives.
One reason ideas of marriage changed was that family ceased to be the economic necessity it once was. As women entered the workforce and remained in it after marriage they acquired the financial independence to leave marriages they were unhappy with.
At this part of the story, social democrats must surely take a large share of the blame (or credit) for the decline of the family. While it is capitalism that creates the wealth that social democrats redistribute, social democrats had key roles in sweeping away the legal obstacles to women in the workforce, giving women the education to get good jobs, changing the divorce law so that they could legally split from husbands they no longer liked, and giving them welfare to make leaving financially possible.
And as Manne concedes in his quotation above, it was the left that pushed the cultural changes that undermined the family.
In political terms, the decline of the family over the last few decades is largely a left-wing project. As recently as the mid-1990s, concerns about the state of the family were derided by left-wingers as a patriarchal plot to send women back to the kitchen. It was only when they discovered ‘work-life balance’ as a justification for labour market regulation that things started to change, so that now we have two competing forms of familism and no major political force sceptical of the family.
From where we stand now, there is little need for any political critique of the family. But in historical terms I think classical liberals and social democrats would probably agree that though clearly there are costs to the ‘decline’ of the family, there are also many benefits in men and women being able to live free of the misery of failed relationships and families.