[I]s it just a coincidence that this self-interested elite holds the nearly-uniformly liberal views on social issues that it does? Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together — uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side — is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family? Is the upper class’s social liberalism the lone case, the rare exception, where our self-segregated, self-interested elites really do have the greater good at heart?
Maybe so — but for the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility that they don’t. Not infrequently in culture-war arguments, conservative complaints about liberalism’s hostility to “traditional values” (or whatever phrase you prefer) are met by the counterpoint that liberal regions of the country seem to embrace bourgeois norms more fully than conservatives communities. (The contrast between family stability in Massachusetts and Alabama, for instance, is often invoked by cultural liberals as an argument-clincher.) I think this counterpoint oversimplifies a more complicated landscape and elides some crucial issues, but it does get at something real: In upper class circles, liberal social values do not necessarily lead to libertinism among the people who hold them, and indeed quite often coexist with an impressive amount of personal conservatism, personal restraint.
But if we’re inclined, with Waldman, to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. Waldman, for instance, makes the (completely valid) point that just telling a single mother to go get married to whomever she happens to be dating isn’t likely to lead to happy outcomes for anyone involved. But is that really just because of wage stagnation and the truncation of the potential-mates bell curve? Or could it also be that the decision to marry only delivers benefits when it’s part of a larger life script, a way of pursuing love and happiness that shapes people’s life choices – men as well as women — from the moment they come of age sexually, and that exerts its influence not through the power of a singular event (ring, cake, toasts) but through that event’s place in a larger mix of cues, signals, expectations, and beliefs?
If it’s the latter — and if you’re not an economic or genetic determinist, I really think it has to be — then it’s worth recognizing that much of what the (elite-driven) social revolutions of the 1970s did, in law and culture, was to strip away the most explicit cues and rules linking sex, marriage, and childrearing, and nudging people toward the two-parent bourgeois path. No longer would the law make any significant effort to enforce marriage vows. No longer would an unplanned pregnancy impose clear obligations on the father. No longer would the culture industry uphold the “marriage-then-childbearing” script as normative, or endorse any moral script around sexuality save the rule of consenting adults.
And following our hermeneutic of anti-elite suspicion, let’s ask: If the path to human flourishing still mostly runs through monogamy and marriage, who benefits the most from the kind of changes that make that path less normative, less law-supported, less obvious? Well, mostly people who are embedded in communities that continue to send the kind of signals that the law and the wider culture no longer send.
That can mean a religious community: In those red states with high divorce rates that liberals like to cite, frequent churchgoers are an exception to the pattern, or course Mormon Utah is the high marriage-rate (and, not surprisingly, high social mobility) exception to every post-1970s trend.
Or, more importantly for our purposes, it can mean a community low in explicit moralism but high in social capital and social pressure, where the incentives not to date or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time are sharpened by the immense rewards for not making personal mistakes, where divorce and single parenthood are regarded as major threats to the all-important intergenerational transfer of success, where young people are inculcated with the kind of self-control required to dabble in libertinism but not take major risks, and where the influence of a libertine culture is counteracted by the dense network of adult authority figures whose examples matter more than what you watch and read and consume. A place where the norms and rules and script don’t have to be made explicit to carry immense weight. A place where everyone understands the basic secret of success.
A place like, well, the modern meritocracy.