Part 4 of 5
7. Consequences of “Unlimited Choice”
Most leftist utopias involve enjoying all the benefits of tightly knit communities while paying none of the costs in individual freedom such communities demand. Thus, feminists propose to liberate women from “domestic drudgery” and replace it with unrestricted personal choice. Yet the drudgery of marriage and its duties are, quite obviously, the indispensable basis of the family, the model and source for all real community.
It is true that there is a measure of free choice even in marriage: a woman may choose whether, and to a certain extent whom, she will marry. But once a woman makes her choice by taking the vow and entering into the covenant, she ipso facto no longer has a choice (just as one cannot eat a cake and have it). In other words, marriage is a one-way nonrefundable ticket. Her husband is her choice even if he eventually displeases her in certain ways, as all mortal husbands necessarily must. When a woman keeps her choice of mate open forever, it is called “spinsterhood.”
Ultimately, the fantasies of feminism and sexual liberation rest upon a metaphysical confusion that might be called the absolutizing of choice. The illusion is that society could somehow be ordered to allow women to choose without thereby diminishing their future options. Birth control, abortion, the destigmatizing of fornication and lesbianism, the “right” to a career, arbitrary and unilateral divorce — all these have been pitched to women as ways of expanding their choices.
Now, I am in favor of giving women all the choice they can stand. (At present, I think they have rather more than that.) But a careful analysis will reveal that the term has distinct and partly contradictory senses that may not be equally applicable in all contexts. Choice is not a single thing that can be expanded indefinitely at no cost, and a specious appearance of more of it in one area can be shown to entail reducing one’s possibilities in another.
One perfectly legitimate sense of choosing is doing as one desires. When we are asked, for example, to choose a flavor of ice cream, all that is meant is a decision as to which would be the most pleasing to us at the moment. That is because the alternative of chocolate or strawberry involves no deep, long-term consequences. But not all choices can be like that.
Consider, for example, a young man’s choice of vocation. One of the charms of youth is that it is a time when possibility overshadows actuality. One might become a brain surgeon, or a mountain climber, or a poet, or a statesman, or a monk. It is natural and good for boys to dream about all the various things they might become, but such daydreams can breed a dangerous illusion: that, where anything is still possible, everything will be possible. That is true only in the case of trivial and inconsequential matters. It is possible to sample all of Baskin-Robbins’s 31 flavors on 31 successive days. But it is not possible to become a brain surgeon and a mountain climber and a poet and a statesman and a monk. A man who tries to do so will only fail in all his endeavors. The reason, of course, is that important enterprises demand large amounts of time and dedication, but the men who undertake them are mortal.
For every possibility we realize, there will be a hundred we must leave forever unrealized; for every path we choose to take, there will be a hundred we must forever renounce. The need for choice in this sense is what gives human life much of its seriousness and much of its poignancy. Those who drift from one thing to another, unable to make up their minds or finish anything they have begun, reveal thereby that they do not grasp an essential truth about the human condition. They are like children who do not wish to grow up.
A woman’s sexual choices are analogous to a man’s in regard to his calling. Inherently, they cannot be made as easy and reversible as choosing flavors of ice cream. But making them so is what feminism and sexual liberation attempt to do. The underlying motive seems to be precisely a fear of difficult choices and a desire to eliminate the need for them. For example, a woman does not have to think about a man’s qualifications to be a father to her children if a pill or a routine medical procedure can remove that possibility. There is no reason to consider carefully the alternative between career and marriage if motherhood can be safely postponed until the age of 40 (as large numbers of women now apparently believe). What we have here is not a clear gain in the amount of choice, but a shift from one sense of the word to another — from serious, reflective commitment to merely doing as one desires at any given time. Like the dilettante who dabbles in five professions without finally pursuing any, the liberated woman wants to keep all her options open forever: she wants eternal youth.
The attempt to realize a utopia of limitless choice in the real world has certain predictable negative consequences: notably, it makes women’s experience of love one of repeated failure. The liberated woman who rejects both committed marriage and committed celibacy drifts into and out of a series of what are called “relationships,” either abandoning or being abandoned by her man (in her mind, it is his fault in both cases). A popular German novel satirizing this pattern of behavior is titled With the Next Man Everything Will Be Different. 
The lesson inevitably taught by such experiences is that love does not last, that people are not reliable, that in the end one has only oneself to fall back on, that prudence dictates always looking out for number one. And that in turn destroys the generosity, loyalty, and trust that are indispensable if love is to succeed and endure.
The women who have obeyed the new commandment to follow all of their heart’s desire do not appear to me to be reveling in a garden of earthly delights. Instead I am reminded of the sad characters from the pages of Chekhov: sleepwalking through life, forever hoping that tomorrow things will somehow be changed for the better as they blindly allow opportunities for lasting happiness to slip through their fingers. But this is merely the natural outcome of conceiving of a human life as a series of revocable and inconsequential choices. We are, indeed, protected from certain risks, but we have correspondingly little to gain; we have fewer worries but no great aspirations. The price we pay for eliminating the dangers of intimacy is eliminating its seriousness.
In place of family formation, we find a “dating scene” without any clear goal, in which men and women are both consumed with the effort to get the other party to close options (“commit”) while keeping their own open. There is a hectic and never-ending jockeying for position: fighting off the competition on the one hand, keeping an eye out for a better deal elsewhere on the other. The latest “singles” fad is something called speed dating, where men and women interact for three minutes, then go on to someone else in response to the sound of a bell.
But the real nec plus ultra of current tendencies can be seen in certain college “harassment” policies that warn that a “sexual contact” (as it is exquisitely termed) creates no presumption that there will be further “contacts.” Apparently, you are guilty of harassing your “sex partner” if you presume otherwise. Committees are being set up to enforce this stuff. It would appear to be based upon the practice in homosexual bathhouses, but it is now being forced upon young men and women as the normative ideal to replace marriage. We behold the self-centered pursuit of short-term pleasure claiming the moral high ground against self-control and lifelong devotion to family. As usual, those unable to govern their own desires have the greatest will to tyrannize over others.
8. Reasons for Considering Marriage an Irreversible Covenant
Sex belongs to one transient phase of human life, viz., early adulthood. It is futile to attempt to abstract it from its natural and limited place in the life cycle and make it an end in itself. Sustainable civilization requires that more important long-term desires be given preference over short-term wishes that conflict with them, such as the impulse to commit fornication.
The purpose of marriage is not to place shackles upon people or reduce their options, but to enable them to achieve something that most are simply too weak to achieve without the aid of such an institution. Certain valuable things require time to ripen, and you cannot discover them unless you are patient and faithful to your task. Marriage is what tells people to stick to it long enough to find out what happens. Struggling with such difficulties — and even periods of outright discouragement — is part of what allows the desires of men and women to mature and come into focus. Older couples who have successfully raised children together, and are rewarded by seeing them marry and produce children of their own, are unlikely to view their honeymoon as the most important event of their marriage.
People cannot know what they want when they are young. A young man may imagine happiness to consist in living on Calypso’s Island, giving himself over to sexual pleasure without ever incurring family obligations; but, like Ulysses, he would eventually find such a life unsatisfying.
Such confusion about one’s desires is probably greater in the female, however. For that reason, it is misleading to speak, as old-fashioned men like to do, of young women “wanting marriage.” A young woman leafing through the pages of Modern Bride does not yet know what marriage is; all she wants is to have her wedding day and live happily ever after. She may well not have the slightest notion of the duties she will be taking on.
Marriage is often said to exist for the protection of women, and certainly the male protective instinct is much in evidence in most male criticism of the sexual revolution. Principally, however, what they need protecting from is not men intent upon one-night stands — it is their own irrationality, irresponsibility, immaturity, and short-sightedness. One might even legitimately speak of a need to protect women from the delusions of feminism and liberation.
Motherhood is what really forces young women to grow up; I have heard women themselves remark upon this. Scatterbrained dopes whose biggest concern used to be which new hairstyle to try next find themselves keeping accurate financial records and planning their actions, suddenly aware that they have a genuinely important task to perform and surprised to find themselves equal to it.
But without the understanding that marriage is an inherently irreversible covenant, both men and women succumb to the illusion that divorce will solve the “problem” of dissatisfaction in marriage. They behave like the farmer who clears, plows, and plants a field only to throw up his hands on the first really hot and sweaty day of work, exclaiming: “Farming is no fun! I’m going to do something else!” And like that farmer, they have no one to blame but themselves when they fail to harvest any crop.
Understanding the marriage bond as an irreversible covenant similarly influences the way economic activity and property are understood. Rather than being a series of short-term responses to circumstance, labor and investment become an aspect of family life transcending the natural life span of any individual. From a mere means to consumption, wealth becomes a family inheritance. In Burke’s fine words: “The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends most to the perpetuation of society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our virtue; it grafts benevolence even upon avarice.” By contrast, the characteristically modern view of property finds its clearest expression in the title of a bestselling 1998 financial planning guide: Die Broke.
9. Natural Erosion of Male Role under Modern Conditions
Obviously the restoration of the marriage covenant is a necessary condition for the restoration of the family and any sustainable civilization. But is it also sufficient? Many female commentators assume so. This, I believe, is because women are naturally programmed to play what Michelle Langley, in her book Women’s Infidelity, calls “the commitment game.” They naturally see “getting him to marry me” as the entire goal of dating and courtship. Accordingly, they focus on their dissatisfaction as the cohabiting girlfriend, and call marriage a “simple solution” to the problem.
I disagree. The rate of female-initiated divorce is conclusive proof that dragging or driving the selfish bastards to the altar is not going to solve anything. As men vainly try to explain to their girlfriends, a marriage ceremony in and of itself changes nothing, and certainly does not cause anyone to “live happily ever after.” Today, in fact, much of the same confusion and aimlessness observable on the dating scene is found in family life itself. The deeper problem, as I see it, is an atrophy of function.
People join together not simply to be together but to do things they cannot do alone. Traditionally, they have formed families to carry out the essential function of child-rearing — along with various economic tasks subordinate to that end, and some secondary functions such as care of the elderly. Conversely, to remain strong, the family must retain some of those functions. Today, however, a father’s upper-body strength is no longer needed to provide for children; his personal courage is seldom called upon to protect them. A mother can get clothing and even prepared food from stores more easily than produce those things at home. In other words, the domestic economy has been “outsourced.”
As its economic functions wither, the family’s sense of community fades: homes turn into warehouses for corporate “human resources” (telling phrase!) and nurseries for public school system fodder. The ancestral hearth becomes a suburban tract house, a site for eating, sleeping, and — decreasingly — procreation. These in turn lose their human (and, indeed, sacramental) significance and become merely animal functions. Leisure activity is replaced by the passivity of diversions such as television or music-listening that involve no interaction between family members. Child psychologists distinguish a phase of “parallel play” before children discover that cooperation will enable them to do more interesting things: our families might be seen as reverting to the parallel-play stage.
These developments are economic in the most proper sense of the term, for the family is still a more fundamental economic fact than the market where goods and services are exchanged. Most professional economists, however, find no place in their thoughts for procreation, or even for sexual dimorphism. And I do not believe that results from the direct influence of anti-natalist or feminist ideology, in which most of them take no interest. It is rather that the home has simply fallen out of the economist’s purview.
For example, economists have produced cogent refutations of the feminist “57 cents on the dollar” canard, critiques of “comparable worth,” “affirmative action,” and so on. But they usually limit themselves to pointing out why men are more productive, i.e., why men’s labor commands a higher price on the market than women’s. They seem to accept the premise that women and men are interchangeable agents of production whose efficiency can be arithmetically assessed; they ignore qualitative social-role differentiation. That tends not only to undermine the dignity of the traditional female role of wife and mother, as gallant conservatives have long pointed out, but also the specifically male bread-winning role. For men are not simply more productive than women (although they are that as well); rather, they have a natural provider role with social and familial meaning.
The economy is not Wall Street; it is Dad dragging himself out of bed at six o’clock in the morning to go to an unglamorous job because he loves his children. It is a remarkable psychological fact that most men find satisfaction in providing for their families. They certainly do not take much satisfaction in paying income tax or meeting car payments. Children are frequently more expensive than taxes or cars, but most fathers take well to the provider role. Family life transforms what might otherwise be mere drudgery into a vocation; the father’s work acquires a significance it cannot have for a bachelor. Is there not something missing from a science of economics that has no use for this fact?
It is, therefore, an insufficient response to the feminist slogan of equal pay for equal work to show that women are not doing equal work. We will eventually have to rediscover the forgotten concept of the “family income” — not only because men usually happen to be better providers than women, but also because the male role is vulnerable in the modern world, and must be shored up for the family to function properly.
The contemporary workplace is inherently unfavorable to men for a number of reasons unrelated to the direct influence of feminism. While classical capitalism of the sort celebrated by the followers of Adam Smith or Ludwig von Mises may not quite have been the Wild West, it did allow significant scope for such male traits as competitiveness, risk-taking, leadership, enterprise, and initiative. In a postindustrial bureaucratic corporation there is little room for any of these. The same psychological traits that once made women better at knitting than men, viz., a high degree of tolerance for routine and repetition, today give them an edge in common forms of employment such as word processing and data entry.
Similarly, the superior social skills that once fitted women to be hostesses now give them an advantage in the expanding customer-service sector of the economy.
Modern machines have lowered the economic value of upper-body strength while increasing that of multi-tasking skills. Women are natural multi-taskers. That is an evolutionary adaptation to the requirements of motherhood, well characterized by antifeminist Carolyn Graglia as a “cheerful responsiveness to constant interruptions.” If the male inventors of our labor-saving office devices had known what trouble they were preparing for their grandsons, they might have become Luddites.
Government regulations have grown in such luxurious profusion that, as one executive put it, “We are no longer in business; we are only in compliance.” Women are better suited than men to fastidious compliance with bureaucratic directives and regulatory minutiæ. They are usually untroubled by the enforced niceness of Political Correctness, such as governmental sanctions against anyone who forgets to call cripples “the differently-abled.”
The contemporary white-collar employee is dependent upon a boss for his livelihood, and must therefore be deferential, diplomatic, and often less than forthright about what he thinks. It is not hard to see which sex is better at this sort of behavior. Women are cunning and play their cards close to their chest: an evolutionary adaptation left over from the days when their survival and reproductive success depended on an ability to manipulate males physically stronger than themselves. Today, it makes them naturals at office politics.
Most men find the atmosphere of the modern workplace stifling and tedious, and women themselves are seldom attracted to the sort of docile, gelded drudges that manage to succeed in it. But men cannot find refuge at home either, because the women who might have made homes for them are out competing against them in the activities of the broader society.
12. Beim nächsten Mann wird alles anders, Eva Heller, 1987. The heroine’s name is Wechselburger, from the German wechseln: “to change” or “switch.”
13. An outstanding portrayal of the modern woman who “can’t commit” is the character Charlotte Pingress, played by Kate Beckinsale in Whit Stillman’s movie The Last Days of Disco (1998).