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The Thoroughly Modern Marriage?

4:51 PM, Mar 4, 2014 • By PETER AUGUSTINE LAWLER
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Another invention Locke didn’t foresee, of course, is the routine and easy use of contraception, which allows men and women to enjoy the rights to one another’s bodies without the consequence of children.  His assumption was that the downside, in a way, of the exercise of that right would typically be kids, and so the saddling of rights with obligations.  Locke didn’t seem to see the point of the legal institution of marriage in the absence of shared duties of parenthood.  From that view, he would have sympathy for the contemporary European view about the obsolescence of marriage.  But from another, he would insist that we continue to need kids, and they will continue to need to be raised well for a life of responsible freedom.  Our freedom has to be chastened by the requirements of the perpetuation of the species, although, truth to tell, there may be no reason that the free individual as a free individual would be that incentivized by species-based concerns.

So it’s a great relief for libertarians—and maybe it would have been news to Locke—to see the free choice of parenthood by high-achieving Americans today.  They could contracept their way to a life of hook ups or a life of mere romance, but they are, in the way people never have before, freely choosing to lavish their scarce resources of time and money on their children.  When it comes to kids, they’re becoming conservative—that is, repressive.  They’re all about parental discipline, and they even believe that divorce should be tougher for parents to get that it is now. 

They do remain, Reeves is quick to add, more liberal or permissive than most Americans when it comes to sex outside of marriage, abortion, legalized marijuana, and gay marriage. I can’t help but add that their behavior suggests that they don’t really believe that gay marriage is a marriage in full without children, just like they’re not really about restricting divorce for those who don’t have kids. They just know what the studies show: divorce and even divorce with parents re-marrying is bad for the kids. Their behavior suggests that they agree with Locke that marriage is a “co-parenting contract”—one that involves genuine commitment to putting the welfare of the kids first—that can’t be broken until the kids can fend for themselves.

But there may be some obvious limits to the explanatory power of Reeves’s rather Lockean or highly contractual interpretation of this emerging form of American commitment. He describes it in rather relentlessly functional terms. It’s about “parental investments” producing “better outcomes” for the children who must grow up to flourish in the information economy. Both parents freely and equally take on the roles of “child-raiser and money-maker,” and the juggling of those roles requires constant “trading and negotiating.” And “reading bedtime stories,” after all, is all about “accelerat[ing] literary skill acquisition.” Well, they’re might be a lot more to reading, say, the Little House on the Prairie books, just as there’s a lot more to reading together any great or even really good book.

So it’s obvious that two professional parents raising a child or two is pretty tough, although it is easier than being a single mom or being one of two parents either with lots of kids or no money or both. It’s true the parents who both have full-time jobs and raise kids don’t have much time for themselves. Without downgrading the self-denial or deferred gratification of the “investment,” we can’t forget that it’s not quite as tough as Reeves says because of what he forgets to mention:  parental love. It’s just crazy to think that these parents are giving kids all the attention they can mainly in the service of making them more productive.

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