The Book Club

Day Traders of the Heart

Dear Jonathan:

Thanks for beginning our discussion of the decline of pro-child liberalism on such a thoughtful note. Clearly, we agree on a key point: both economics and culture figure in this story. Too often, they are pitted against each other in a classic false choice. Liberals stress economics over culture; conservatives do the opposite. In fact, both are important.

Let me begin with a broad piece of evidence. Those who track investment in children tell us that its overall level has declined. This is not because its public share has sharply fallen. It’s because its private share has dropped dramatically. The chief source of private investment (money, time, and other resources) in children is their parents. So I support your entire public agenda: higher minimum wage, more generous EITC, better wages and conditions for caregivers. Of course, these are investments in adults, not children, but many adults care for children and it’s reasonable to expect the dollars to trickle down. I also back your call for universal health coverage for children (indeed, for children up to the age of 62). However, while these measures might arrest the decline of overall investment in children, they aren’t likely to reverse it in any meaningful way – unless we can get the minimum wage up to $25 a hour.

This brings me to marriage. I am concerned about its health as an institution, for three closely overlapping reasons. One, I am alarmed by the growth of inequality in family incomes. As Frank Levy and other economists tell us, 40 percent of the increase in inequality is associated with changes in family structure; and these changes are linked to the decline of marriage. Two, I’m worried by the decline in child well-being, and long-lasting, low-conflict marriages are associated with high and sustained parental investment in children and thus good outcomes for kids. Three, I can’t see how parental investment will reach healthy levels as long as marriage is in eclipse.

What does this have to do with liberalism? A lot. For much of the 20th century, two of its defining goals have been economic equality and child well-being. Lately, we’ve moved away from both, and the decline of marriage is a big reason why. Nevertheless, liberal opinion on marriage ranges from indifference to militant opposition. Thus, a quandary: If marriage is an effective means to the liberal ends of child well-being and economic equality, and if liberals no longer support marriage for this purpose, what other means can fulfill the liberal vision? So far, no sufficient and viable alternatives have emerged. Our activist agenda fails the test of sufficiency. What else is out there? Not much. (A further question: If you remain faithful to these objectives and continue to see marriage as central to them, do you still even qualify as a liberal?)

Now, a word on culture: first at the level of the family and then at the level of the society.

I do fault hyperindividualism in family life, but not because it is identified with the ‘60s and the women’s movement. I fault it because it introduces marketplace values into family relationships. Marketplace values favor self-interest over altruism, mobility over stability, short-term gain over long-term investment. Adults may be able to negotiate this turbulence and become day traders of the heart. But kids can’t.

What children need to thrive is a communitarian society that puts children first. What adults prefer is a libertarian society that puts adults first. (In fact, in the libertarian worldview, there isn’t even a corner for kids: Check out Rush Limbaugh.) The adults now prevail because they have votes, money, and clout. It wasn’t always this way. As Mary Ann Mason says, there once was a group of dedicated child-saving adults, mainly women, who made it their life’s work to use their franchise and power to give voice to the interests of children. They were a forceful element in the liberal coalition. Today, this force has all but vanished. Unchecked, the libertarian philosophy has now won out.

What’s happened at the level of the family is connected to what’s happened at the level of the society. Establishing a public commitment to children in the society is an urgent goal, but it can’t be achieved if we don’t do something to bolster the sense of private commitment to children in the family. We’ve established adult rights in private life that undermine our capacity to establish a public sense of justice and obligation for children. So the task of revaluing children has both a public and private dimension.

Wish I didn’t have to stop. I, too, have had fun with this, and I’m grateful to you (and Slate) for it. Good luck as a father. Take it from me: It’s not really as bad as Deutsch makes it sound.

Warm regards,