- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

By James Q. Wilson
HarperCollins, $25.95, 274 pages

Under an Oslo dateline, the New York Times recently ran a front page story on the decline of marriage in europe. "For Europeans, Love, Yes; Marriage, Maybe." It announces a massive rate of illlegitimacy. In Norway "49 percent of all births in 1999 were to unwed parents. In Iceland, the figure was 62 percent. In Britain, the figure was 38 percent, and in France, 41 percent in 1998, the last year figures were available." The thrust of the piece is anecdotal. A smattering of unmarried partners are interviewed and their message is: not to worry.
In this social phenomenon, our country is in the loop. A third of the births in 2000 were to unmarried women. (Among blacks the percentage of unmarried births was 68.5.) This according to the Center for Disease Control. But not all our domestic experts think that this is a good thing.
It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that the primary victims of what seems like a cultural meltdown are the children. A report from the liberal Brookings Institution has concluded that children of single-parent families are four times as likely to be poor as those growing up in two-parent homes. According to the experts, the largest number of welfare recipients are one-parent households.
If there is as yet no cure for our social pandemic, there is no shortage of diagnoses. One of the most brilliant is offered by James Q. Wilson, an original thinker among social critics and a creative problem solver. Among his curative contributions to the social scene is the "broken windows" approach to street crime, credited with reducing crime in cities like New York. But even the pragmatic Mr. Wilson is daunted by the enormity of "the marriage problem."
In "The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families," he begins with the idea that the country comprises "two nations." One is based on the traditional family union, "the central feature of human society since the beginning." The other is the single-parent family, "the source of the saddest and most destructive part of our society's two nations."
Most critics trace the erosion of marriage to the cultural shock waves of the 1920s and the 1960s. Mr. Wilson takes a longer look back. He connects the fault lines of marriage in the United States with two social forces. One is slavery. The other is the Enlightenment, the 18th-century intellectual climate of scientific optimism. "Families are weak where terrible things were done to some people, as in slavery, and wonderful things happened to others, as under the Enlightenment."
"The costs of slavery are obvious" says Mr. Wilson, but the costs of the Enlightenment "the Age of Reason" need to be spelled out. To put the bottom line on a bumper sticker: "it made many people think families were unimportant." It substituted reason for custom and "laid the groundwork for replacing a sacrament with a contract." Or an arrangement.
Mr. Wilson ticks off what he considers catastrophic social influence. One is the decline of shame, which has weakened "the parent-child bond." Another is the no-fault divorce, which has exploded the divorce rate.
Oddly enough, this social typhoon materialized "when no one was watching … At a time when the country was convulsed with Vietnam, Watergate, abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, nobody paid any attentioin to the divorce laws." Now they do. Divorce advocates "shifted the weight of expert opinion from protecting the interests of children to defending the rights and prerogatives of parents to pursue their own satisfactions."
Mr. Wilson builds a formidable case for the advantages of marriage: "Personal health, longer lives and better children." And he finds the advantages of cohabitation to be "mostly illusory." Median cohabitation lasts 1.3 years. Nonetheless, it's a growing illusion.
Apologists for the status quo have been encouraged by a minority report that seems to offer a measure of comfort to the broken family contingent. "For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered" a study by psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington is generally optimistic about the consequences of divorce. But even she concludes that 25 percent of children from divorced parents develop seriously social or emotional problems. This is in contrast to a 10 percent problem level among children in unbroken families.
You are left with the feeling that the problem may be incurable but avoidable, at least in some societies. As exhibit A, Mr. Wilson points to the example of Japan, which has adopted many values of the Enlightenment, without its negatives. "Shame remains a powerful force for controlling behaviuor." Out-of-wedlock births are "remarkably rare" and divorce rates are a third of ours. But the Japanese are not able to export their culture.
The Bush administration has acknowledged the problem by appointing psychologist Wade Horn assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for children and families. Mr. Horn is a single-minded advocate of fatherhood. His current agenda includes investing $100 million in programs cultivating marriage. "Society needs a critical mass of married two-parent families both to raise their own children well and to serve as models for children growing up in alternate family structures."
Mr. Wilson concludes that the remedy should be to restore "the authority of marriage." This is beyond the power of government subsidies, however well intentioned. It calls for a change in attitude from self-gratification to commitment. This must take place on a "retail" level, says Mr. Wilson, by way of families, neighborhoods, churches, and the media. Can it be done? Mr. Wilson is encouraged by the fact that among most people, there is a residual belief in marriage. Stay tuned.

Martin Levin is a writer in New York.

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