A Brief Note On Latte-Sipping Elites

[Reihan] Julian Sanchez has an excellent post on the virtues of unilateral divorce, drawing on a column by one of my favorite bloggers.

Cowen doesn’t get into this, but the study also finds a class gap in marriage and divorce patterns—albeit one far less dramatic than the one seen for single childbearing. The marriages of college grads—both first marriages and remarriages—are significantly less likely to end in divorce—presumably at least in part because they tend to marry somewhat later. (Though I note we just get an average age for this—I’d love to see the shape of the distribution.) This—if I can flog an old hobbyhorse for a second—seems out of line with the narrative that has the values of latte-sipping elites driving changes in American family structure.

But is this really so "out of line"? Last year I wrote a short review of the stoner-comedy Grandma’s Boy in which I made a brief reference to one of my favorite Houellebecqisms,

In a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment and misery. In a totally liberal sexual system, certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.

Sexual laissez-faire is particularly attractive to the most privileged among us. Why? Well, the upside potential is massive (a wide range of sexual partners, and the understanding that "trading up" is always an option) and the downside risks are manageable (the affluent and educated have much to lose from divorce and other forms of family disruption, to be sure, but far less than those who are economically dependent on their partners). A decent case can be made that something like the opposite obtains for the less privileged. 

So for those at the top of the sexual and economic totem poles (not always the same people, as Will Wilkinson reminds us), the ideal is to live like a good sober bourgeois as long as that is the best you can do, and to embrace a life of bohemian adventure when you can afford it. 

But to have that escape hatch you need to have a relaxed and permissive approach to divorce, among many other things. That this relaxed and permissive approach may have sharply uneven effects on different slices of the population is, as far as the "latte-sipping elites" in question are concerned, is immaterial. Because the effects are unevenly beneficial for — you guessed it — members of the "latte-sipping elites."

(There is a parallel here to public opinion concerning free trade.)

None of this is to say that cultural permissiveness is right or wrong. But the narrative Sanchez criticizes is at the very least perfectly coherent.   

I should note that Cowen’s column is characteristically excellent, and it gives social conservatives a lot to think about.