I like Jonathan Haidt a lot, and there’s much good sense in this recent NYTimes op/ed about common threats to the nation’s future and the possibility of liberals and conservatives agreeing on the need to face these threats. I was struck, however, by these lines:
America faces many serious threats, but each side sees some and denies others. Morality binds and blinds. The philosopher John Stuart Mill described this problem in 1840, noting that in almost all major ideological controversies, “both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied, and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.”
To see Mill’s diagnosis in action, note that marriage is disappearing primarily among Americans without a four-year college degree. Marriage confers so many benefits on children that it helps them rise into the upper tier of wealth; children who don’t benefit from a stable marriage are more likely to fall.
So if you are a liberal who is worried about the inequality asteroid, you might consider teaming up with a conservative group trying to promote marriage.
But then you’d run smack into the problem that women rarely want to marry a man with no job and poor prospects. So if you are a conservative who cares about the unmarried-mother asteroid, you might want to team up with liberal groups working to improve educational equality and to find ways to keep poor young men in school.
This is interesting on a lot of levels. I have a monograph coming out soon called Home Ec that looks at the economic consequences of changing family structure. It’s aimed in part at honest, persuadable liberals who might be ready to take the issue of the collapse of intact families more seriously (it reminds today’s progressives that liberals of old cared deeply about this issue). So I’m with Haidt when he says “if you are a liberal who is worried about the inequality asteroid, you might consider teaming up with a conservative group trying to promote marriage.”
But I’m less convinced by his argument that “if you are a conservative who cares about the unmarried-mother asteroid, you might want to team up with liberal groups working to improve educational equality” — in large measure because liberals’ pursuit of educational equality has harmed many of those it hoped to help and driven greater inequality. Consider this point from Erik Falkenstein:
Look at how we’ve decided to lessen inequality through the public schools: we don’t expel troublemakers, we don’t fail under-performing kids, we don’t encourage specialized advanced curriculum. The result are schools teaching to the lowest common denominator, and classes distracted with behavioral issues that overwhelm any potential for learning. Any parent with the wherewithal moves to districts where such anarchy has a lower level of dysfunction, and leaves this mess for those unable to move, so these inner city schools become extremely dysfunctional. Kids at poor schools realize diplomas from such institutions don’t mean anything, and drop out more frequently, lowering their ultimate human capital acquisition.
The result is that while schools prioritize equality, the result is highly unequal, treating unequals the same in the school. The failure of public schools is lamented as a result of inadequate funding, which is totally orthogonal to the drivers of their poor performance.