Marriage and the living standards framework

A major focus, so we are told, of our new New Zealand government is promoting “wellbeing” –  a phrase probably as worthy as it appears to be vacuous.   For that we can’t entirely blame the government itself –  although they bear final responsibility –  because they have, in large part, been led down this path by the New Zealand Treasury.  The Treasury once largely confined its attentions to keeping the books, offering advice on spending proposals from ministers and other official agencies, and some advice on improving overall economic performance.   It was never that other dimensions of life didn’t matter, but that it wasn’t supposed to be the place of The Treasury to focus on them.  A strong economy, and sound government finances, so it was argued opened up all sorts of options for citizens and even for governments.

But inspired by then deputy secretary Girol Karacaoglu, and encouraged (perhaps even egged on) by the ring-in Secretary to the Treasury, The Treasury has over the last few years sought to encourage a more over-arching vision, articulated as the Living Standards Framework.    This has been done at considerable length but without much rigour.  What we’ve ended up with is a grab-bag of indicators that The Treasury and ministers think citizens should care about, but with little evident basis for the choices, let alone any sort of framework for aggregation.  In fact, unsurprisingly, it is long on the conventional verities of the centre-left –  including the inspiration they appear to have drawn from the OECD, the home of the technocratic centre-left –  and little or nothing that might seem informed by a conservative perspective, having regard for the traditions and teachings that formed and informed our civilisation.  There is much talk of cultivating a “four capitals” approach to “intergenerational wellbeing”, but little sense they understand  –  or care about –  the inheritance on which our society has been formed.  Without even fully realising it, they are radicals, quite happy to remake society from scratch, allegedly informed by ‘reason’ and “evidence”, but in fact mostly by the limited perspectives and preferences of the hour.

The “four capitals” are natural, human, social, and financial/physical.  Here I’m interested in just one example of how lacking in insight, or historical or philosophical perspective their “social capital” notion is.  Consider this OECD chart showing, by country, the percentage of births (in 2016) outside wedlock.

out of wedlock

Roughly half of all births in New Zealand are now out of wedlock –  not as bad as the numbers in some advanced countries, but materially higher than (a) the OECD average, (b) places like Turkey, Japan, and Korea, and (c) far higher than was historically the case.

Readers of a conservative bent might reasonably suppose that marriage developed for an (evolutionary beneficial) reason – something perhaps about long-term mutual commitment, reflecting the huge investment required in raising a human child (large brain, long development time etc).   There is the famous Chesterton quote about not allowing something to be knocked down until you understand, in sufficient, why it existed in the first place.   But that sort of reasoning is alien to the modern New Zealand Treasury.   The fact that there is good research evidence suggesting that marriage is both an effective path out of poverty (in advanced countries, where poverty need not be the norm) and best for the raising of nurture of children might make it seem that the marriage rate (and perhaps the divorce rate), and the out-of-wedlock shares of births, might be indicators that would appear in any sensible set of indicators of social capital.  Stable families help underpin stable and effective societies.  They are the best environment for raising the next generational –  surely the biggest single consideration as regards intergenerational wellbeing (how the young are raised, and how the wisdom and insights of a culture are passed down).

Of course, there are no such indicators in the approved list.  Perhaps that isn’t too surprising when we have a Prime Minister who has recently given birth outside marriage, and evinces no sense that marriage is a normal and natural part of family life.  Even less surprising when three of the top four government ministers are not married (one was previously).  Throw in the substantial wing of practising homosexuals in the Labour Party, and any suggestion from The Treasury that high marriage rate, low out-of-wedlock birth rates, might seem appropriate wellbeing measures would have been greeted with a very frosty look.

Not that it was ever likely.  The national statistics agency is now quite sold-out to the left-liberal agenda –  shortly to bring out a document on sexual identity.   And then there is The Treasury themselves.  A year or so ago I searched their website, and across the whole website there were only 68 references to marriage.  When I searched again today there were still 68, despite all the guff about social capital and intergenerational wellbeing.   Of those, more than half were links to varous parts of the annual Estimates of Expenditure (eg “marriage” fees), and only a handful were from the last five years.  The single most interesting link I found was to a lecture was by a visiting outside expert and most the others look to be purely descriptive.   Despite The Treasury having spent years leading a charge to take this holistic approach to wellbeing (including intergenerational) wellbeing, there is no sign that they have ever thought seriously about marriage, one of the most foundational institutions of society (over countless generations).   Part of it is probably just that no one thought of it, part of it a thoroughly individualistic frame of analysis, partly the way that religion and the institutions that attended it have fallen away so starklyl, and partly perhaps just “going with the flow”   – marriage, after all, being out of the fashion with the left, unless it is the abomination known as “gay marriage”.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about this.  I’ve been among those arguing that the “wellbeing approach” is largely vacuous –  it will amount to almost nothing that is in any substantive sense different to what has gone before.   Governments and peoples have never only cared about GDP –  contrary to the impression champions like to give.   And, perhaps as much to the point, I don’t see it as any part of The Treasury’s role to attempt to decide, or even identify, what matters to New Zealanders (individually or collectively).  Isn’t that what we have politics for, and –  which should hand-in-glove in any stable society –  religious leaders and texts, to enunciate the shared believes and understanding that underpin society.    The modern church is too tepid to even offer such answers, and in truth much of society –  intoxicated by the rhetoric of liberalism, individualism and reason –  has little interest in hearing.  But that only accentuates the meaninglessness of The Treasury exercise –  it is a grab bag based on little more than the personal preferences (or acquired secondhand ones) of a small group of Treasury officials, people typically with little interest, and less expertise, in the deep underpinnings of sound and effective societies over the long haul

Marriage –  the resolved commitment to a union that only death should break –  has long been one of those foundations.  But don’t expect to hear that from our Prime Minister, our Treasury, probably not even our church leaders.    Meanwhile the macabre dance –  do as you feel, get together for as long or short as you like, with as little commitment as you like – goes on, wreaking (over the long haul) incredible havoc on families, children, communities and societies.


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2 responses to “Marriage and the living standards framework

  1. Brendan McNeill

    Hi Michael

    I think you made a reference to Rod Dreher somewhere, so you may have read his recent articles. In one of them he links to this article by Carl Trueman outlining a civilisational thesis first put forward by Philip Rieff:

    It may be an overly simplistic model, but I think it goes a long way to explaining the days in which we live. Rieff was apparently a secular Jew, who saw the necessity of the scared while at the same time disbelieving in it.

    And yes, imagine considering marriage and child bearing outside of marriage as being a predictor of our ‘wellbeing’. Next you will be recommending we teach the foundations of western civilisation in our schools and universities.


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