Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gracchi's further thoughts on Labrador Conservatism

Gracchi responded again to my arguments for a 'Labrador conservatism'.

His first argument is that I have only confronted the soft judgement of pronouncing immoral someone who does not look after their children properly rather than someone who does but is unmarried. He is right that I cited the case of a man who serially abandoned his children which is an easier case. Now, of course marriage does not trump all other moral concerns. I know parents who have done a perfectly good job despite not being married. They are certainly morally superior to the married couple who beat their children or each other.

However, on balance marriage is a morally superior choice. Even if people can do a good job raising their children without being married that is a rejection of genuine commitment. Marriage isn't just one more way to reach the ideal of a stable family unit. It is inseparable from the taboos and standards that ensure commitment to family and children in our society. Rejecting a social commitment when children are involved is, all else equal, an immoral choice.

Of course, a single parent may be unmarried through no fault of their own thanks to avoiding some abuse, being abandoned or facing serious, irreconcilable, differences that makes marriage cause more harm than good. They clearly deserve little criticism. However, this doesn't invalidate the wider moral judgement. I can't be a philanthropist like Bill Gates but that doesn't mean his choice of philanthropy can't be a morally good thing.

He is right that I am supporting marriage to some end. However, this is as true for religious conservatives who see marriage as fulfilling God's design for human relations as for me believing it is a fine social arrangement. Very few people think of marriage as a good genuinely in itself.

Second, Gracchi sets up an absurd dichotomy on the idea of financial incentives to marriage. He argues I have to either believe that fiscal policy can make no difference to the marriage decision or that it will trap people into abuse. I've already set out my view on the true effects of fiscal incentives:

"I would argue that marginal financial incentives are unlikely to either 'create' marriages or sustain them through serious abuse. It will affect those marginal cases of marriages which have gone a little stale or are going through a rocky patch. In these cases the huge social costs of divorce suggest we should want people to err on the side of staying married. At the moment, with a tax system which will often leave people better off if they divorce, we do the opposite and incentivise divorce."

Apply Gracchi's dichotomy to the labour market. Does he believe that the salary someone is offered makes no difference to the job they take or that if offered a pound an hour more we'd all readily become human guinea pigs?

Gracchi's final argument is a mish-mash of returning to the question of whether I am willing to make a moral judgement about marriage and a consideration of the relationship between politics and policy. He has completely missed the point on the distinction between politics and policy. I'm not suggesting politicians should ignore the detailed impacts of policy. The debate we're having above is clearly crucial prior to putting in place fiscal incentives to marriage.

However, politics isn't just about policy. Politics should, and I'll quote myself again here, "embrace a broader debate over how our society should be ordered rather than treating every problem as a policy brain teaser." If David Cameron's talk of marriage results in no policy at all he will still have done the nation an enormous service if he can effectively make the case that we should not "treat criminals like victims, parents like children and moral judgement like some kind of plague." While good policies can make a difference changing social attitudes is the more crucial objective.

1 comment:

Gracchi said...

Yes and I never said positive noises about marriage are bad- I just wondered about your policy options- I personally think that financial incentives even at the margins aren't the way forward whereas helping couples- something you continually ignore- through say mediation and councelling is much better in helping parents form stable marriages to bring up kids.

I have to say I think we are closer than we think- we both are in favour of supporting marriage through government policy because it helps society- we disagree as far as I see on two matters
i fiscal incentives opposed to councelling incentives etc
ii I am more nervous about the moral aspect of this than you.
I think to be honest though the debate is probably fruitless from now on.