NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Examining Marriage -- And How to Save It

March 22, 2002

In "The Marriage Problem," (HarperCollins) author James Q. Wilson looks at the social science on marriage in an attempt to explain its decline and determine how that decline might be reversed -- if indeed it can be.

Wilson believes blaming the freewheeling 1960s for all family breakdowns is mere sloganeering -- the rot had set in long before then. Here are some of his observations:

  • While the divorce rate increased sevenfold between 1870 and 1950, the weakening of marriage is better understood as a centuries-long process -- with the Enlightenment tending to replace "a sacrament with a contract, and then a contract with an arrangement."
  • In societies where marriageable men far outnumber marriageable women, men must compete for women's favor through reliability, good sexual conduct and deference -- which may explain why the 11 states that gave women the vote before World War I were all western ones, with an abundance of men and shortages of women.
  • Conversely, the shortage of men after World War I might help explain the Roaring '20s -- because as women competed more vigorously for male attention, they adopted more flamboyant dress and exotic habits.

What will fix families and rescue marriage, Wilson thinks, is restoring the role of stigma in mainstream culture -- by withholding moral approval from out-of-wedlock cohabitations. But Wilson is leery of any policy which would stigmatize illegitimate children.

Source: Christopher Caldwell (Weekly Standard), "Bookshelf: Gathered Together, But Not for Long," Wall Street Journal, March 22, 2002.


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