I was pondering a modern parable recently. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but the gist of it is this:
Once upon a time, a rich businessman and his entourage visited a harbor examining some ocean-front property to buy and develop. Their business concluded, he was about to return to his helicopter and take off when he noticed a plainly-dressed middle-aged man sitting on a chair near the docks, smiling and looking out over the ocean.
The businessman approached the other and asked him what he did for a living that allowed him to simply sit back and relax even though it was only early afternoon. He replied that he was a fisherman, and that he had already caught enough fish for the day, so he was just relaxing and taking in the view.
The businessman pointed out that he could go back out and catch even more fish and make more money. The fisherman asked what that would gain him.
The businessman pointed out that he could save up enough money to buy an additional boat & crew and catch even more fish and make even more money. The fisherman again asked what that would gain him.
The confused businessman replied that he could build an even larger fleet and hire captains & managers to run it. Once again the fisherman asked what that would gain him.
The businessman told him that then he would be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ocean. The fisherman smiled and replied, “But that’s what I’m doing now.”
The parable came to mind as I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. In “Are Boys Irrational,” James Taranto analyzes an issue brought up in an earlier article by Kay Hymowitz: why are men increasingly opting out of higher education, career advancement, and raising families? Ms. Hymowitz concluded that a lack of father figures in their lives was causing these men to act irrationally and miss out on these important parts of life. Mr. Taranto, on the other hand, suggests that these men are not necessarily behaving irrationally at all. He writes:
Except perhaps in very conservative communities, men with sufficient social skills can find sex and companionship without need of a matrimonial commitment (and for those who lack social skills, a willingness to marry is unlikely to provide much compensation). The culture’s unrelenting message–repeated in Hymowitz’s article–is that women are doing fine on their own. If a woman doesn’t need a man, there’s little reason for him to devote his life to her service. Further, in the age of no-fault divorce, “reliable husbands and fathers” not infrequently find themselves impoverished by child support and restricted by court order from spending time with their children.
As for education, the story of Joshua Strange ought to be enough to give any sensible young man second thoughts about enrolling in college. And work? Not all jobs, including those that require a college degree, are as rewarding as writing for an intellectual magazine (or, we hasten to add, a newspaper). Men traditionally sought to “better themselves” not because working in an office or on an assembly line was itself a source of delight, but because being a workingman enabled them to earn respect and made possible the joys of domestic life.
So why did this make me think of the fisherman’s tale? The point of the parable is presumably to question the wisdom of the kind of masculine ambition that leads a man to build, advance, and produce more than what he needs for himself, but the far more interesting question is this: where does this ambition come from and what is its purpose? Consider: if you think about the characters in the parable, it is not hard to guess which of the two men is more likely to be married. The businessman would certainly be a better catch in the eyes of most women, and the fisherman isn’t scaling back his hours to spend more time with a wife and kids. His highest aspiration is to simply relax and enjoy life whenever he is able. We are just speculating here, and it is certainly possible that the fictional businessman is just in it for greed, but even then, it is interesting that family is the single most likely factor to determine whether or not his ambition is truly greedy.
Mr. Taranto’s analysis of the matter is essentially that these underemployed young men are making the fisherman’s choice. Sure, sitting on the beach is replaced with casual sex and video games, but the principle is the same: for a man without ambition, the fisherman’s choice is not really irrational.
But there is a point at which the fisherman’s choice does become irrational, and it is probably this realization that has been alarming many people like Ms. Hymowitz. What makes good sense on a personal level can make less sense on a societal level. Civilization depends on the tendency of men to produce more than they consume for themselves—it depends on that masculine ambition. In the parable, the fisherman feeds himself. Following the businessman’s ambition, however, could mean feeding himself & his workers, along with any family they might have. His ambition could be a huge boon to society. Take that away, and you have a bunch of men doing what they need to do to stay comfortable, but nothing more—nothing for any women or any increasingly hypothetical children.
This leads some folks to call the disinterested men lazy and shame them on an individual level into manning up to provide for society. However, if the irrationality is at a societal level, perhaps the critique should also be leveled at society. Permanent and chaste marriages along with the legitimate children they produce are a social feature that traditionally cultivated masculine ambition by rewarding it and channeling it towards benevolent ends. Men tend to love their wives and children, take satisfaction in working on their behalf, and used to gain commensurate social respect for doing so.
And yet, this kind of marriage is precisely what has been taken away from men in our society. Instead, our elites have sought to structure the family around child support instead of marriage. The mother has custody of the children, but she receives much of the necessary resources from elsewhere. This could be from her husband, but it could just as easily be from her ex-husband, her boyfriend, or the taxpayer. Where it comes from doesn’t matter so long as the child has resources and the woman is freed from any moral or social obligation towards these men.
This rickety new system has sort-of worked so far, but only on inertia. While it may not matter whether the resources come from a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, or taxpayer, the system does hinge on there being husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends, and taxpayers who are producing more than they consume for themselves. Men have done this so far because that’s what’s been expected of them, but more and more are realizing that they have no incentive to do so. Sure, they could try to marry and start a family, but half of marriages end in divorce, a supermajority of divorces are unilaterally inflicted by wives on their husbands, and the wife is all but guaranteed custody of the family along with most of its property and a large chunk of the husband’s future earnings. This is a pretty big hurdle to jump, and a man can hardly be considered irrational for declining the risk. The more that men are alienated from their families, the less stake they have in society or future.
Mr. Taranto concludes his article: “Boys and young men are no less rational, or capable of adapting to incentives, than girls and young women are. They are, in fact, adapting very well to the incentives for female power and independence–which inevitably also serve as disincentives to male reliability and self-sacrifice.” In a way, he is entirely correct. Strong independent women in control of their own lives need no men and offer men no incentive to an ambition that benefits society. However, if that independence were as real as people pretend, there would be no alarm over men giving up those ambitions. Truly independent women would not need all the welfare, alimony, child support, paid maternity leave, government sponsored daycare, and so forth that other people (men) are supposed to provide for them. But if society truly does need such things from men, perhaps society should also honor and reward men for their contribution instead of pretending they are unnecessary. Perhaps they should make their ambition rational again. Reigning in the ability of women to take a father’s home & family away from him by reintroducing permanent and chaste marriage would be a good start.