Ed West

Opponents of marriage tax breaks need to ‘check their privilege’

Opponents of marriage tax breaks need to ‘check their privilege’
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What with the flap about Ed Miliband’s dad, the legion of the outraged have forgotten what they were planning to get angry about this week – the marriage tax break, which is social engineering and a blatant Tory attempt to punish single mothers in favour of the patriarchy.

As a paid-up member of the patriarchy it always sounds more fun coming from people complaining about it than it actually is. Marriage, for men, is a form of domestication and many would rather spend their 30s and 40s playing computer games, if possible with a live-in girlfriend to whom they have made no commitments. Many end up getting married partly because their peers do, and the social pressure to conform.

Why do we do it? Marriage is a partnership in which people make huge sacrifices in return for the benefits of pooled resources and risks. It is, as some feminists say, an unnatural relationship, but unnatural in the same way that our modern, agricultural societies are; we do it because if we remain as free, healthier hunter-gatherers our rivals (and their children) will have huge advantages over us.

As for the benefits, everyone is vaguely aware of the literature showing how much better children raised by two biological parents do compared to one, and how much more likely married couples are to stick together, compared to cohabiting ones. Ah, but correlation does not equal causation, critics say. Often A may not lead to B but rather both are influenced by C, in this case the propensity of the parents to be committed, interested in education, financially stable, law abiding etc.

I suspect that although in some cases the act of getting married will (as Charles Murray believes) encourage couples to stick with it, in many others it does indeed come down to C.

And yet tax policy also influences C — that is, the likelihood of people to have children, and when. One of the strangest accusations made against this change is that it is ‘social engineering’; to the extent that everything the government does is social engineering, it is, but in this case it’s to belatedly counter previous acts of social engineering. The most effective was the 1977 Homeless Persons Act, which prioritised lone parents in social housing, after which the number of children born outside marriage rocketed and a social gulf emerged (see p110).

Opponents of marriage incentives are suffering from a pathological individualism that treats people as atomised beings; we are social creatures, and the likelihood of our getting married, divorced, taking drugs or getting fat is heavily influenced by peers.

Marriage-promotion is aimed not at protecting middle class children whose lack of a father at home is countered by high parental education, intelligence, cultural capital and alternative male role models, but those in areas where they and their peers lack these things, because when fatherlessness becomes widespread the impact is multiplied. It’s because our propensity to marry is so contagious that even a small change in the benefits system would start to have an effect.

As with the United States, social engineering has also changed the way men behave, because by removing the incentives to be a provider government policy helped reverse domestication at the lower end of the social spectrum. Marriage allowances, in their tiny, tiny way, rebalance the game towards the good guys.

This is not a phrase I’d say without Dr Evil-style ironic quote marks, but in this debate people really need to ‘check their privilege’.