Changing values

Posted: Jan 25, 2005 12:00 AM

This week marks the 32nd anniversary of the Roe V. Wade decision. Since 1973, the lives of 40 million babies have been extinguished.

The anniversary of that Supreme Court decision also marks the anniversary of the discovery of a new "right" that was central to the reasoning of the decision _ the "right to privacy." This right, the source for which legal scholars continue to search far and wide, plays a key role today in thinking about abortion and other social issues.

The right to privacy provides a rationale for all individuals to set their own agendas and to rationalize away any sense of common values and standards that previously formed a common social fabric. Through this mysterious new right, the Supreme Court created a new overarching value that might be called "doing your own thing."

The only possible social dimension to the "doing your own thing" society is social engineering. We have left it to policy wonks to figure out tax and social programs to link us all together as a society as tradition once did.

The displacement of traditional values with the "do your own thing" agenda puts perspective on the problems with which we're now wrestling on Social Security and Medicare.

The conventional explanation for today's Social Security and Medicare problems is demographics. Our population is "graying" as a result of longer lifespan and fewer babies. When Social Security was passed in the 1930s, there were more than 40 working Americans for every retiree. Today this ratio has dropped to three to one. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2025 our elderly population will have increased by 80 percent whereas our population of working age adults and children will have only increased by 15 percent.

Compared to the 1930s, today the average American lives 25 percent longer and the average birthrate is 35 percent less.

This is not a sanguine portrait for a government program that finances care for the elderly through payroll taxes. As the proportion of the elderly population grows, tax increases are the only possible way to maintain benefits.

But it's worth noting that demographics don't just happen to us. They reflect the cumulative results of individual decisions. Individual decision-making today is driven by far different values and attitudes about work and family compared to the early part of the last century.

We wait longer to get married. The female median age today at first marriage is four years older than in the 1930s. Just since 1970, the percentage of the female population between 20 and 30 that has never been married has increased more than 50 percent. Marriage rates are now 20 percent lower than in the 1930s and divorces rates are 140 percent higher. The overall percentage of our population today that has been divorced is 10 times higher than 70 years ago.

Our attitudes about sex and marriage have dramatically changed. Out of wedlock births in the first half of the last century were a rarity. The rate was below 5 percent. Today one out of three babies is born to unwed mothers.

To put a human face on the statistics we're talking about, we are not far off from having a nation where a large portion of our adult population will have no experience of having grown up in a traditional family setting, with two married, never divorced parents. Not only will we have a growing elderly proportion of the population, but a growing proportion of those elderly will have no immediate family.

As the policy wonks churn their computers and as we listen to politicians talk about saving Social Security and Medicare, we should note the relevance of traditional values here.

I can think of no inherent reason why our longer lifespan, the product of our science and technology, must be accompanied by sexual promiscuity and family breakdown. Surely we can educate our men and women, make advances in technology, and still get married, be faithful, and raise children. It is just a question of priorities.

The traditional family _ with marriage, work, and children _ has always provided an effective framework to deal with the challenges our policy wonks are now trying to solve with social engineering. Parents raising children and then children helping their elderly parents is a model that has always worked well. It's a program that doesn't need computers. It just requires caring.

Demographics reflect symptoms _ they don't explain causes. Our crises in Social Security and Medicare are the result of the socially engineered "do your own thing" society.

Of course, we need a free society and we need an "ownership" society. But families provide the social basis of these arrangements.

Families are built on caring, love, and respect for the sanctity of life. If we give it some thought, I think we'll conclude that these values provide a far better basis on which to build our future than "the right to privacy."