British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that he intends to introduce a tax break for married couples, fulfilling a long-standing promise to recognize marriage in the UK’s tax system (unlike in the U.S., where a married couple can pool their income and deductions, Britain currently treats individuals largely separately for tax purposes). The measure, which is aimed at low- and middle-income earners, would leave a typical couple around $330 a year better off.
It’s not a huge amount of money — and some Conservative politicians, religious leaders and pro-marriage groups say it’s too little to make a difference. However the announcement is as much a statement of Cameron’s personal support for marriage as it is about the money, and is designed to send a message that the state values the institution (Cameron has defended his support for gay marriage in part by claiming it will strengthen marriage as a whole). Along with reforms to education and the welfare system, the promotion of marriage is part of the government’s effort to address the problem of family breakdown and its attendant social problems, which are reckoned to cost the UK some $75 billion a year.
Reaction to the announcement from the left has been predictably hostile. Labor politicians have condemned the plan as “insulting” to single parents (a designated victim group) and couples who choose not to marry. Harriet Harman, the party’s senior token women and a dour, knee-jerk feminist, called it “stigmatizing and moralizing” and “Victorian finger-wagging.” The Tories’ coalition partners, the center-left Liberal Democrats, have been equally critical, with party leader Nick Clegg accusing Cameron of trying to “turn back the clock to the 1950s.”
Why so much outrage over such a modest gesture? The tax system has long discriminated against married couples, particularly if one parent stays at home to raise children, and in favor of couples who separate. Meanwhile, more generous tax breaks have long been the norm in countries including France and Germany, where marriage rates are higher.
No one is suggesting that either single parents or cohabiting couples can’t make good parents, or that every marriage is successful. However, studies have repeatedly shown that married couples are more likely to stay together than cohabiting ones; and that marriage provides the most favorable conditions for raising children who will do well at school and have better job prospects, and avoid alcoholism, drug addiction and other problems. Stable marriages and strong families are also powerful engines for lifting people out of poverty and increasing social mobility.
But the promotion of marriage offends liberals – and many find the institution itself offensive – on a number of levels. As a matter of political principle, they dislike the fact that strong families are one of the “mediating institutions” between individuals and the state, and thus a check on its power, while on a practical level more and stronger marriages are bad news for supporters of big government, as it means less need for programs to tackle the effects of family breakdown, and so less opportunity for nanny-statists to micro-manage the lives of their benighted subjects.
There’s also a more visceral objection. In fashionable metropolitan liberal circles, marriage has become a by-word for everything that’s old-fashioned, traditional, bourgeois and small-c conservative. For many, the whole notion of life-long commitment, self-discipline and sacrifice is the antithesis of libertine urges to follow your dream, break the rules, and do what feels good with no thought as to the consequences.
Of course, Cameron’s tax break isn’t aimed at the well-off, well-connected elites who are most critical of the measure. Those people tend to have the money, the support networks of family and friends, and the life skills to manage unstable families in which various partners come and go, or to cope with single parenthood. On the contrary, many of those who will be eligible for Cameron’s tax break are those who would most benefit from the stability that marriage offers, and the commitment and self-discipline that it demands: those who are less well-off, less well-educated and less well-connected, and who are often the products of dysfunctional families themselves.
For many of these people, the idea of marriage has been undermined by the behavior of public figures, ranging from pop stars to politicians, who cheat on their partners and walk out on families on a whim. And while these attitudes aren’t confined to liberals, they were celebrated by the left-wing artists, educators and intellectuals who spearheaded the sexual revolution, which did so much to undermine marriage and exacerbate the problem of family breakdown.
The reality that the well-off can afford, both materially and temperamentally, to live chaotic, self-indulgent lives while someone of lesser means who tries to emulate their behavior will often find themselves heading for impoverishment and disaster forms the basis of what conservative thinkers on social policy call the “no guardrails” theory, after the influential Wall Street Journal editorial published two decades ago (it was written by Daniel Henninger).
Cameron is trying to erect some guardrails for those who need them, and while it may be a small step it’s one in the right direction. Meanwhile, leftists have once again shown themselves to be oblivious to the fate of many of the very people they claim to stand up for.
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