Wall Street Journal
January 8, 2003 12:32am

The Family Way

Treating fathers as optional has brought big social costs.

BY JAMES Q. WILSON
Tuesday, January 7, 2003 12:01 a.m. EST
The Wall Street Journal

On the deepest matters of cultural and social affairs, the best guide is to reflect on human experience. This means looking backward at those experiences, and conservatives are more inclined to do this than are liberals. Conservatives get a lot of grief for this. After all, looking backward sometimes means failing to endorse bold and desirable changes.

One such change was the guess by a few men in Philadelphia in the 18th century that a government based on a written constitution, federalism, separated powers and carefully defined authority would succeed in rationalizing the need for human freedom with the imperatives of national defense. Another was the argument in the 1960s that legislation endorsing civil rights was a good idea. Both were very good guesses.

But in my view these successful examples of looking forward do not bear on cultural and social policy. The Constitutional Convention and the civil rights movement were guesses about how to create new political and legal institutions. Today, however, many of our most important problems are about how we live with one another. To think about these clearly, we must understand our centuries-old experience with love, honor, loyalty, friendship, family and patriotism.

These feelings shape child-rearing, decent conduct and personal integrity. Almost everybody wants these things, but many of us try to alter the human emotions that supply them. The past provides guides about how people in fact live and think; the future supplies theories about how people might live and think, provided a variety of assumptions are somehow met. But the assumptions are rarely met. I am struck by how often in the past half-century, looking backward--the conservative way--has provided a better guide to action than has looking forward.

Families were created to make up for what evolution did not provide, namely a way by which men could be induced to support the children they beget and care for the women they impregnate. But since marriage is a social invention, we have learned how it can be undercut by people who think that their lives will be fuller, their opportunities greater, and their burdens fewer if they are allowed to treat sex as recreation, children as toys, and income as an obligation of government rather than a result of work.

In our prosperous nation, there exist communities dominated by gangs, criminality and drug sales. In every big city, a rising murder rate is usually associated with struggles between gangs and among young men. These neighborhoods are the scene of drive-by shootings that often take innocent victims. Matters are not as bad as when the gangs of New York dominated the Five Points area of Manhattan in the 19th century, but they are hardly as good as one would hope, given the general progress of the nation. In 2002 my city, Los Angeles, had more than 600 homicides, more than any year since 1996. The biggest increase came from gang killings.

Everyone knows these facts, and many public officials struggle to cope by designing new police strategies, mounting campaigns to improve education or supply jobs, or supporting church and other groups that struggle to cope with the problem. But it is far from clear that better policing and education, or more jobs, will produce any fundamental changes. Many people have argued, rightly, that the core problem is the weakness of families. Two-parent families do some obvious things. They provide more people to watch over and care for children, and they supply male role models for young boys. And these aren't mere conservative shibboleths.

There are some other benefits that are often overlooked. An employed father helps persuade a young boy that getting a job makes more sense than hanging out on a street corner, even if the job they get does not pay much. When there is no father, the boy is likely to think that his goal is to do what other boys do--become a stud, join a gang, steal money and sell drugs.

And fathers help protect their families. They are the first line of defense, guarding their wives and children from unsavory lures and dangerous predators. The police, by contrast, are what an old friend of mine once called linebackers: They can at best fill in when the fathers' defensive line gets a hole punched in it. Without active and committed fathers, boys are alone in a risky world, making gangs look attractive. Their buddies provide what fathers cannot--self-defense.

The evidence that mother-only families contribute to crime is powerful. When two scholars studied data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, they found that, after holding income constant, young people in father-absent families were twice as likely to be in jail as were those in two-parent families. And their lives did not improve if their mother had acquired a stepfather. Fill-in dads don't improve matters any more than do fatter government checks.

Family disorganization is more important than either race or income in explaining violent crime. While it is true that both poor people and African-Americans commit more crime than do wealthier and white ones, the sociologist Robert Sampson has shown that in poor neighborhoods the rate of violent crime is much more strongly correlated with family disorganization than it is with race. William Galston, once an assistant to President Clinton, put the matter simply. To avoid poverty, do three things: finish high school, marry before having a child, and produce the child after you are 20 years old. Only 8% of people who do all three will be poor; of those who fail to do them, 79% will be poor.

The central question, then, becomes a search for the reasons that families are weak. In my judgment, they are weak in large measure because of broad, long-lasting cultural changes in Western society, changes that for blacks were made even worse by the legacy of slavery. Westerners have sought personal emancipation, at first from kings and bishops, then from social pressures and customary expectations, and now from familial obligations. Enslaved blacks were never allowed to form families at all so that, when emancipation finally came, there was no lasting tradition of family life that could support newly freed people who were cast out into a still-segregated society.

Looking backward makes the importance of families obvious. Looking forward makes families look like an outmoded television sketch called, variously, "Leave It to Beaver" or "Ozzie and Harriet." To many Americans who look backward--conservatives, in the main--maintaining the family, albeit one with some changed human dimensions (such as greater freedom for women), is vitally important. To many who look forward, the family is much less important than female emancipation, personal self-expression and economic careers. Much the same thing could be said about learning, civility, respect and patriotism. They constitute reasonable and time-tested barriers within which our desire for self-expression can operate.

In this country, looking backward at fundamental human affairs has another great advantage: It reminds many of us of the greatness of our country. And for some people, looking forward is a way of showing how unhappy they are with that country.

Mr. Wilson is the author, most recently, of "The Marriage Problem" (HarperCollins, 2002). An emeritus professor at UCLA, he teaches at Pepperdine University.

This is the sixth in an occasional series. Earlier:

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