Should the Government Advertise Marriage on Highways?

Conservatives have ideas, and it's silly for liberals and moderates to claim they don't. So let's take a look at this article on some "innovative and controversial" ideas in the conservative movement.

First: taxes and babies. Robert Stein argues that the tax system is unfair to parents. "Once a country adopts an old-age pension system, it creates an implicit bias against raising children," Stein says. "Once a country gives everybody access to everyone else's kids' money, it undermines the natural economic incentive to raise kids." To remedy the problem, Stein would quadruple the child-tax credit from $1,000 to $4,000, and make up the money by moving upper-middle income tax payers into a higher tax bracket.

Is it good policy to encourage families to save up to $12,000 a year by having three kids? I don't know. But it's a little weird to me that we're talking about increasing the money rewards for American-born babies while also talking about spending billions to plug up the borders in the South; and profiling Mexicans in Arizona; and watching brilliant college grads leave the country after their visas expire. Countries with old-age pension systems need large tax bases. If we are legitimately worried about too few people paying for our expensive retirement plans, we should consider that immigrants are people, who work for money, whom we can tax.

Second, there's this idea for the government to promote marriage by building advertorial billboards and punishing folks who want to divorce a spouse against his/her will:

[UVA Prof. Bradford Wilcox] proposes federal funding for public-service announcements and other social marketing to promote marriage, modeled on anti-smoking campaigns.

And to discourage divorce, he says, states should change marriage laws so spouses who are being divorced against their will and have not engaged in abuse or adultery would be given preferential treatment by family courts in determining alimony, child support and custody of children.

This is a little confusing. There's a debate about whether married couples face a tax penalty (which can happen when two people of similar wages get hitched) or a tax benefit (couples with disparate incomes often see a tax break). So the tax system might provide uneven incentives to marry. But why promote marriage above cohabitation in the first place? Why promote it with billboard ads? Why encourage spouses to remain in unhappy marriages by tipping the scales against them in court? And if marriage really is "a kind of economic cooperation, a form of social insurance," as Wilcox argues, why deny it to gay couples?

What's bothersome is not merely the specter of government-sponsored marriage billboards. It's strange that conservatives would spend considerable energy pushing couples to marry and reproduce when the evidence suggests that late marriages often last longer and allow both partners' work skills to reach maturity. Jon Rauch wrote a fascinating column on the topic of red and blue families that looked at how marriage ages, childbearing rates and political ideologies meshed with culture in the 21st century. Read the whole thing. But these were striking paragraphs:

[For blue state families] early family formation is often a calamity. It short-circuits skill acquisition by knocking one or both parents out of school. It carries a high penalty for immature marital judgment in the form of likely divorce. It leaves many young mothers, now bearing both the children and the cultural responsibility for pregnancy, without the option of ever marrying at all.

New norms arise for this environment, norms geared to prevent premature family formation. The new paradigm prizes responsible childbearing and child-rearing far above the traditional linkage of sex, marriage, and procreation. Instead of emphasizing abstinence until marriage, it enjoins: Don't form a family until after you have finished your education and are equipped for responsibility.

Surely, cheering couples onto the alter isn't the federal government's job.