The culture war as mating strategy
An underappreciated explanation for what we’re arguing about
‘Our tax system actively discourages people from having children, it makes it difficult for them to look after their children, and it does nothing to support stable couple relationships. In the UK, unlike in many comparable Western nations, our unit of taxation is the individual and not the household. So if you are a single person with no dependents earning £40 000 per year you pay the same amount of tax as a parent earning £40 000 supporting a partner and three children, even though your outgoings are significantly lower.’
So said Tory MP Miriam Cates at an event this week for the think tank Onward. She was talking about the issue of family formation, also the subject of my post yesterday, in which I wrote about the absence of social and moral support for parenthood today (chiefly, in the form of my having to wait a few extra minutes at passport control).
This problem, however, becomes far more understandable if one appreciates a theory laid out a few years back by a writer called David Chapman, who explained the culture war as a conflict of mating strategies.
Until the sexual revolution, or at least until urbanisation, most people were very limited in their sexual options. Unless you were a romantic poet who got to flounce around Italy deflowering nubile maidens, most people tended to have one sexual partner, and they often married as soon as it was financially feasible.
The sexual revolution changed all that, the combination of contraceptives and changing social mores allowing people to try out multiple partners before marriage and parenthood, or even having children alone. As well as altering our world in many ways, this opened up a range of different options towards having children — and since then what has been called the ‘culture war’ is essentially a conflict between different these mating strategies.
In this game, conservatives favour a ‘large-family, early marriage’ strategy, with long-term monogamy and high total parental investment, spread over several children; liberals favour the ‘delayed strategy’, which involves serial monogamy before later marriage, fewer children and even higher parental investment per child; helicopter parents, as they’re called. There is a third strategy of ‘opportunity mating’ without marriage and low parental investment, especially by men.
Conservatives are essentially trying to win cultural prestige for their lifestyle against the two other options, getting the government to support its reproductive strategy and hinder the second and third types; this is what the American ‘family values’ campaigns of the post-sexual revolution were about.
Large families involve enormous personal sacrifice and, realistically, for one parent to stay at home and give up a career (most of the time mothers). This is hard work, and ‘because the big-family strategy is so gruelling, it needs intensive memetic support.’
In particular it needs constant moral support at the expense of opportunity mating — ‘abandoning your wife and children, having an affair, getting high instead of cleaning the house, spending money on something fun the family can’t afford’. Opportunity mating ‘is easier, more enjoyable in the short run, and might seem rational for the longer term, too. Constant reminders of absolute, eternalistic religious justifications help keep you on the straight and narrow. A community — a church — that reinforces the message with social confirmation and peer pressure, checking every week to see that you have not gone astray, is invaluable.’
Chapman points out that ‘the delayed, small-family strategy is the most personally rewarding, for those capable of it.’ Indeed, marriages in which both partners have university educations seem to be the happiest. But they also require resources, a degree and intensely long hours in professions that only start to pay off much later; these options aren’t really available to people from less privileged backgrounds, unless they are exceptionally gifted and/or lucky. And so the culture war between these mating strategies inevitably starts to look like a class conflict, too.