If the rings stay on, they're probably lefties.                                                                                                                    Photographer: Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images
If the rings stay on, they're probably lefties.                                                                                                                    Photographer: Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images

When we think about the issues of family, sex, and morality there’s a standard story that frames our thinking. Ross Douthat, writing back in January, did a good job of telling that story:

[Liberals might want to] acknowledge the ways in which liberalism itself has undercut the two-parent family — through the liberal-dominated culture industry’s permissive, reductive attitudes toward sex, and through the 1970s-era revolution in divorce and abortion law.

It seems obvious that sexual permissiveness discourages marriage. In the old days, marital sex was the only socially acceptable kind of sex, so if you wanted to have sex, you had to get married; allow people to have sex outside of marriage with no social sanction, and you take away a big part of the impetus to get married. Liberal values, therefore, are corrosive to families.

But is this true? Last year, I read a book that changed my outlook on American society: Charles Murray’s ``Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” In that book, Murray convincingly argues that a class divide has emerged in America, between educated people (“Belmont”) and uneducated people (“Fishtown”). The surprising thing is that Murray finds that the educated Belmonters, despite being much more socially liberal than their Fishtown counterparts, actually have more traditional family values -- they get married more, get divorced less and pay more attention to their children. After a period in the '70s and early '80s when educated people dabbled in single parenthood and high divorce rates, they went back to a traditional-family structure. Uneducated Americans, on the other hand, are abandoning marriage and two-parent child-rearing in droves.

It isn't just Murray finding this. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution has identified something very similar. In a landmark article in Atlantic magazine, he gave a detailed, data-driven case that educated Americas are rebuilding the institution of marriage:

[C]ollege graduates in the United States are reinventing marriage as a child-rearing machine for a post-feminist society and a knowledge economy. It’s working, too: Their marriages offer more satisfaction, last longer, and produce more successful children.

The glue for these marriages is not sex, nor religion, nor money. It is a joint commitment to high-investment parenting…Right now, these marriages are concentrated at the top of the social ladder, but they offer the best—perhaps the only—hope for saving the institution.

How can this be? How can the people who preach sexual license be the same ones who have rebuilt their families, while lower-class people who profess more conservative values are seeing their families crumble?

Social conservatives have a few hypotheses. One is that high-investment parenting is only for the wealthy -- that in our stratified society, lower-income people know that investing a lot of effort in the kids won’t pay off, so they just don’t bother. A variant of this is the idea that lower-class men are too risky for lower-class women to marry.

In his book, Murray implies that educated liberals are a bit hypocritical. He calls on them to “preach what they practice,” in the hope that they can spread their newly recovered family values to the Fishtown masses. But a thought occurs to me: What if that’s exactly what they’ve been doing all along? What if sexual permissiveness and feminism, instead of being toxic to the institution of marriage, are the key to saving it?

That might sound crazy, but here’s the case in a nutshell. If you wait until marriage to have sex, you’re taking an enormous risk. What if you’re not compatible? Or what if you regret not having shopped around?

Sexual permissiveness means that sex isn’t about marriage. But that means that marriage isn’t about sex. Most of the upper-class liberal educated Americans I know who are in stable, happy marriages had their share of premarital sex. Knowing what that lifestyle is like -- and realizing that they wanted more -- allowed them to be more content in their marriages, and more realistic about what marriage is all about (i.e., lifetime companionship and raising kids).

Feminism may be even more important for families. With traditional gender roles, only a man who can be a sole breadwinner is a worthwhile mate. That rules out a lot of men, and it might be a reason why less-educated Americans’ conservative values are holding them back from getting married. Feminism, on the other hand, rewards fathers for sharing child care and housework, and frees them from the heavy burden of antiquated expectations.

In other words, maybe liberal morality is simply better adapted for creating stable two-parent families in a post-industrialized world. Maybe conservative family values are hard but brittle, like diamond, while liberal family values are strong like titanium -- able to bend without breaking.

If this is true, then I feel hopeful about American families. In many cases, educated and upper-class Americans are social trend-setters, while less-educated Americans catch up eventually. Perhaps America’s “Fishtown” class is simply doing the same thing the “Belmont” class did 30 years ago -- experimenting with single parenthood -- and will eventually learn how to do gender-equal marriage and high-investment parenting.

To contact the author of this article: Noah Smith at noahsmith.bloomberg@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.