Inequality is on a lot of people’s minds these days. For example, living in New York, I have friends who work on Wall Street and I have friends who have sat in on Occupy Wall Street. Makes for some interesting conversations.
So let me give you a little thought experiment about inequality.
Imagine you had a marketplace. For a long period of time, there are certain regulations on how that marketplace functions that have the effect of ensuring greater equality of outcomes. Over a few decades, that market is deregulated, and in this particular case, one result is that you begin to see more and more inequality. More are left with none (particularly those at the bottom, often through no fault of their own), while a smaller number of winners start to do very well for themselves (often through no virtue of their own).
You would think that liberals would howl in protest, right? Not so fast.
Because I’m not describing a financial market, I’m describing the dating or sexual market.
Take marriage. Marriage is an institution that imposes fairly radical equality on sexual outcomes. Yes, some will cheat, some will play the field, but all in all, a society with widespread monogamy is a much more (sexually) equal society than one without it.
Keep in mind that based on various genetic analyses, we now know that about 40% of past men left behind modern descendants, whereas 80% of past women have. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors may have been egalitarian in many respects, but when it came to reproductive success, they were anything but egalitarian. Widespread monogamy reduces that inequality.
Think of marriage as a regulation (yes, a regulation) imposed by both culture and the state. What we have seen over the past half-century is enormous cultural and legal deregulation and a corresponding decline in marriage: lower marriage rates, higher divorce rates, higher illegitimacy, higher single parenthood.
Furthermore, there is a vast social science literature suggesting the uncomfortable truth that single parenthood (the reality is that it’s usually single motherhood) is associated with worse outcomes for children than growing up in a two-parent family.
This is not to blame single mothers. And if I were a single father, there would be all kinds of things that I would struggle with or not be able to provide (breast milk being only one).
(Also, I realize that a portion of this association of single parenthood and worse social outcomes may be correlation and not causation, but I would wager that the absence of a father is a fairly serious developmental challenge for boys who are trying to learn to harness testosterone in individually- and socially-productive directions. I am also acutely aware that some marriages are completely dysfunctional and divorce may be the better option in those cases.)
So first, from the perspective of children, the decline of marriage has increased the inequality of home environments. And second, from the perspective of men, when it comes to sex, well, put it this way: if there were a gini coefficient for sex, it would be a hell of a lot higher today than it was in the 1950s. And third, while I don’t go into it here in this post, I’d be surprised if there hasn’t been increasing inequality on the female front too, based on what women value in the sexual marketplace.
Consider the sexual marketplace from the male perspective. While certain male alphas at the top have always gotten “more than their fair share” of women even in widely monogamous societies (say, JFK), my sense is that it’s much more common these days for some men, usually in the major urban centers, to sleep with substantial numbers of attractive, young women in their physical prime. On the other hand, many more men stay at home, masturbate to pornography, and play videos games. Male sexual inequality has risen.
Is this important?
Well, if you take a holistic view of health and well being, then I think you have to conclude that it is. Again, speaking only from a man’s perspective: a lot of problems melt away if a man is getting good, regular sex from a woman. I don’t want to reduce a man’s needs just to sex — we are slightly more complicated and unique snowflakes than that. (But only slightly.) I’ll let women describe what causes their problems to melt away.
So why do liberals pay so much attention to financial inequality, but seem to ignore other types of meaningful inequality?
(I realize I’m generalizing when I refer to liberals and conservatives, the left and the right. Please be charitable.)
More confounding to me is that it’s often liberals who reject the materialism of market-based society, and yet seem utterly fixated on financial inequality to the exclusion of other meaningful sorts of inequality. Even more confusing to me is that many highly-educated liberals actually behave quite conservatively in their own dating and marriage choices. Upper-middle / upper class people tend to get married and stay married — in sharp contrast to lower class folks, and increasingly, middle class ones too. In 1960, 88% of upper middle class and 83% of working class were married. In 2010, 83% of upper middle class and 48% of working class were married.
Not only is the decline of marriage an indication of increasing sexual inequality, it is a major contributor to increasing economic inequality. For example, divorced mothers are one of the most at-risk groups of falling from the middle class to the lower class. Some researchers (including from the center-left Brookings Institute) have attributed up to half of the rise of income inequality over the past few decades to changes in family composition away from two-parent families.
Of course, to advocate for an institution like marriage would seem prudish and illiberal and religious and would send all sorts of signals that most young, idealistic liberals don’t want to send. It would force folks to make moral judgments that they may not be comfortable making.
So I guess this is a challenge: Anybody who takes economic inequality seriously should 1) take other forms of inequality seriously, and 2) look at the decline of marriage and be very concerned for both financial and non-financial reasons.
But I just don’t see that concern on the left. I can only conclude that the liberal concern about inequality is limited to certain spheres, usually financial, that fit into their worldview. I hope I’m wrong!
Note: I have only focused on the left in this piece, not on the right. I can write a mirror-image of this piece for the right, since the right can be pretty delusional as to the actual underlying reasons for the long-term decline of marriage — which I think is an important effect to understand and which I think the right is correct to be concerned about, but which started long before homosexuality and gay marriage came to the fore in the culture wars.