by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Last month, two of my colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute (Brad Wilcox and Lyman Stone), along with co-authors from the Wheatley Foundation and the Institute for Family Studies, published an important new paper on the state of family formation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. …
… I was most struck by something else about the portrait they paint. The report embodies a significant change in how we think about the basic character of social breakdown in America, and what we take to be the obstacles to human flourishing in our time. This different understanding isn’t quite new either, but it is often left implicit, so its full significance has been slow to hit us.
Not long ago, it would have been taken for granted that social order in our free society is a function of our capacity to restrain and govern our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, and power. But these intense desires can deform our lives if we don’t subject them to some structure and moderation through marriage, schooling, work, religion, and other binding commitments. Disordered lives are a product of rushing in recklessly, so that sex or children come too soon while responsibility comes too late if at all.
But a lot of contemporary social science, like this important new report, has come to be quietly premised in a different understanding of disorder. Rather than seeing the drive to have children as a force to be channeled and domesticated by marriage, for instance, we have come to see both the desire for marriage and the desire for kids as endangered and in decline. And more broadly, the challenges to America’s social order now seem less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated.