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Selecting for Conformity
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May 29, 2011, 04:55 AM
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Bryan (Selfish Reasons for Having More Children) Caplan writes:
I had an interesting argument with Charles Murray at yesterday`s Cato Book Forum. While he expressed fundamental agreement with my views on nature and nurture, he thought parental marital status was an important exception. Children of divorce do worse than children whose parents remain married; children of never-married parents do worse than children of divorce. At least at first, Murray seemed to see these disparities as entirely causal: getting married causes your kids to do better in life; getting divorce causes some (but not all) of that benefit to go away.
I objected that divorce and single parenthood are not random. People who divorce are on average more impulsive and quarrelsome. Single parents are on average more impulsive and less achievement-oriented. Since these traits are heritable, we`d expect children of divorce and children of single parents to have worse outcomes - even if they were adopted at birth by Ozzie and Harriet.
You can read the whole thing there.

I want to note a social trend, that`s reflective of a general theme: that in contemporary society, a lot of the rules for successful living aren`t spelled out for people the way they used to be. This means that people who are smarter and/or raised in better social settings and/or naturally inclined toward successful life choices will still pick up the messages, but lots of other people won`t.

This isn`t a universal trend — for example, since the 1980s, the rules about not committing felonies have been made clearer after a disastrous experiment in the 1960s with blurring the message. Prison terms have been lengthened, and a huge fraction of popular entertainment is devoted to sending the message that criminals will get caught.

In contrast, consider single motherhood and the term "bastard." A century ago, single motherhood was deterred, among other ways, by heaping opprobrium on the children of single mothers. That was cruel, but also pretty effective. Today, the term "bastard" has lost almost all connection with its original meaning. Nice people today would be shocked by the notion that society should discriminate against a child just because his parents weren`t married. That`s hardly the child`s fault, now is it?

In fact, society is now deeply uncomfortable with the notion that we should be impolite to single mothers themselves. Thus, the term "single mother" has expanded strikingly to comprise not just never-married mothers, but also divorced mothers, and even widowed mothers. In most human civilizations, widowed mothers were always given higher regard than never-married mothers, but I see little of that in modern America. I was struck by learning that a Korean immigrant co-worker of my wife`s, who was raising two daughters after her husband was killed in a car crash, always referred to herself as a "single mother" rather than as a "widow." Having come to English later than me, she was more aware of au courant Oprah Age terminology.

Not surprisingly, this decline in "preemptive discrimination" to deter single motherhood means we now have far more bastards. On the other hand, we don`t see many bastards in the upper reaches of society, outside of celebrity bohemian circles. In fact, upper middle class life is evolving in directions that quietly but effectively discriminate against not just bastards, but also against the children of divorce.

The extraordinary complication of the modern college admissions game, for example, are best navigated by happy two parent families where mom and dad work together seamlessly to polish Junior`s resume. Consider Amy Chua: she seems like a handful, yet she and her husband get along well-enough to stay married, which allows them to bring their huge joint resources of money, energy, education, and connections to bear on getting their amenable oldest daughter into Harvard.

This trend has disparate impact on the children of broken families, but what are a combination of single moms, deadbeat dads, men with demanding new girlfriends, and widows going to do about it? Form the Losers and Screw-Ups Rights League?

This may have something to do with the vague social trend that many people have noted: that the young people at the top of society today seem pretty happy, well-adjusted, cooperative, and much more conformist than in the recent turbulent past. I suspect that people of ornery and/or impulsive dispositions inherited from their screw-up parents are less likely to make it to the upper reaches of society than in the past. In older times, parents with screw-up inclinations were more likely to be deterred by explicit social pressures against bastardy and divorces.

The niceness of today`s SWPLs probably sets a good (if vague) example for the lower orders, which might have some impact on the decline in crime. On the other hand, this social selection for the children of nice, cooperative couples probably means that the upper middle class is becoming nicer and more cooperative, but also more conformist and more politically correct.

But are we losing any good things that go along with ornery nonconformity, such as creativity and insight?