• Our macropolitics have become a mania about identity, because our micropolitics are no longer familial… because the human animal has been selected for familial forms of socialization that for many people no longer exist.
  • —Mary Eberstadt, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics1

In her recent book, Mary Eberstadt points out three aspects of our culture that have changed rapidly in recent decades.

  • 1. Many sexual taboos have diminished, particularly those against sex outside of marriage.
  • 2. Children are much less likely to grow up with siblings and/or with their biological father present through adulthood.
  • 3. Politics has increasingly focused on racial and sexual identity.

Eberstadt contends that all three of these developments, which indisputably have occurred, are bad. Moreover, the thesis of her book is that there is a direct causal line from diminished sexual taboos to flimsy families to identity politics.

Eberstadt terms the change in family composition:

  • … the Great Scattering: the unprecedented familial dispersion, now sixty-plus years in the making with no end in sight. The engine of this transformation is the sexual revolution, meaning the widespread social changes that followed the technological shock of the birth control pill and related devices delivering reliable contraception en masse for the first time… the revolution has included the de-stigmatization of nonmarital sex of all varieties… skyrocketing rates of abortion, fatherless homes, family shrinkage, family breakup…
  • Many people… have believed in good faith that these familial mutations amount to a net plus for humanity, and that their own lives have been immeasurably enhanced by the freedoms that only the revolution could have brought… [But] these same changes have simultaneously rained down destruction on the natural habitat of the human animal

She argues that primates in general, and humans in particular, evolved to live among close relatives. Young people naturally require the security that comes from the presence of both parents and the social learning that comes from the presence of siblings, including siblings of the opposite sex.

Eberstadt sees identity politics emerging as a desperate and ill-fated attempt to make up for the loss of familial bonds. She writes, “Humanity does not gravitate toward anonymous or ‘forced’ packs any more than our fellow creatures do.”

When a tribe is formed out of families, members feel secure in their status. One’s identity is established as a father, mother, sibling, uncle, aunt, or grandparent.

In contrast, when a “forced pack” is constructed out of isolated individuals, there are constant struggles to resolve the uncertainty over who belongs and where members fit in relation to one another. Eberstadt suggests that under such circumstances:

  • … some people, deprived of recognition in the traditional ways, will regress to a state in which their demand for recognition becomes ever more insistent and childlike. This brings us to one of the most revealing features of identity politics: its infantilized expression and vernacular.

On the latter point, she refers to “the bizarre behavior of protesters at various controversial public talks—the crying, the chanting and stomping, the seeming inability in case after case to respond to authority and reason.”

Because of this Great Scattering, more people are isolated and lonely. They reach old age with no familial source of companionship. Eberstadt refers to a description of elderly people in Japan dying alone, resulting in “a new industry: firms that clean out the apartments of the isolated dead, because no family members remain to do it.”

She goes on to write that:

  • … while senior citizens are the most visible objects of concern… they are not the only people affected. One national survey… found that nearly half of all Americans report “sometimes or always” feeling alone, and that Generation Z—born between 1995 and 2010—is the loneliest generation of all.

Eberstadt believes that this lack of thick family ties helps to account for

  • … the #MeToo movement, which inadvertently reveals where decades of smaller, less functional families and more dissipated communities have led: to a massive failure of many men and women to learn some of the most basic facts about themselves and the opposite sex.

She argues that the decline of the traditional family has resulted in a society, “in which women no longer know men as companions and protectors, but only as predators; in which men know women mainly through the narratives they absorb in watching pornography.”

A Family of Causal Connections?

“This causal family tree is missing a few siblings and perhaps a father.”

As I reflected on Eberstadt’s thesis, I found myself thinking that perhaps in her family of causal connections, the sexual revolution is too much of a single mom. This causal family tree is missing a few siblings and perhaps a father.

If fatherless, sibling-less families are what create insecure identities and foster identity politics as a substitute, then why do we observe the pathologies that Eberstadt associates with identity politics primarily on college campuses?

It seems that there must be something about the contemporary college environment that creates insecurity about identity, particularly with respect to race and gender. It has struck me that since around 1970, when colleges sought to greatly increase enrollment of women and minorities, administrators have been nervous about their ability to handle difficult courses, particularly in the hard sciences. Female and minority students have been cast in the role of representatives of their race or gender, rather than being treated as individuals.

Elsewhere, I have argued that it was the colleges themselves that thrust racial and gender identity to the forefront of students’ minds.2 In 1970, Robert March wrote Physics for Poets to make physics more accessible to any student, regardless of group identity. But in 2019, we find Stanford preparing to offer a physics course exclusively for African-Americans3, as if they and only they are necessarily in need of an alternative presentation of the subject.

We need not search for a sociological explanation for the popularity of social justice ideals. Many young people look at the case for addressing past oppression of women and minorities and find it persuasive. This is true for those who grew up in large, intact families—it is by no means exclusive to those who grew up in small or fractured families.

I also would suggest that the causal link between the birth-control pill and the 1960s cultural upheaval and changes in family structure is not as direct as it might appear. Instead, we need to look at economic forces affecting the roles of children, fathers, and mothers over many decades.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most families lived on farms. The family was a production unit, with children participating as soon as they were able.

The Industrial Revolution reduced the propensity for families to have many children. Whether because of increased affluence, better education, or other factors, women began to want to have more control over when they became pregnant.

At the height of the manufacturing era, the family production unit operated differently than on the farm. Men and women were more specialized and worked in different locations—with the husband at the factory or office and the wife engaged in home production. Children were no longer in the work force, and instead were sent to school.

As the manufacturing economy became transformed into a service economy, and as labor-saving appliances and fewer children reduced the need for housework, many women moved out of the home and into the workplace. As Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers pointed out, this had profound implications for the nature of marriage.4

I do not wish to attempt here a complete description of the economic perspective on changes in norms regarding gender roles and children. But the bottom line is that while Eberstadt treats the pill and the upheaval of the 1960s as a supply shock, an alternative framework is to view those developments as a supply response to the evolution of demand forces. The primary driver (“this missing father” in Eberstadt’s story, if you will) is the change in production methods: first, work relocated from the family farm to the factory, leading to the breadwinner/housewife division of labor; this in turn gave way to the service economy, where women are very much engaged in market work.

Other Commentary

Primal Screams also includes commentary from three public intellectuals with diverse points of view. Conservative Rod Dreher writes, “Conservatives must realize that the free-market fundamentalism so many have embraced without question is inimical to family stability.”

For more on these topics, see the video Society and Unplanned Pregnancy, by Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty, December 1, 2014. See also Industrial Revolution and the Standard of Living, by Clark Nardinelli in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

It is true that the market’s reconfiguration of the division of labor and the process of creative destruction create challenges for traditional families. But I, for one, would not give up the benefits of the market in order to return to family farming.

Progressive Mark Lilla writes, “Let’s consider a more encompassing thesis than the one Mary Eberstadt puts forward. Let’s posit that the sexual revolution, the atomization of our families, and identity politics—all real, all problematic—are actually effects of larger, long-term historical forces now at work more globally.” He goes on to cite affluence and the accelerating pace of change—technological, economic, and cultural—as examples of such long-term forces.

Libertarian Peter Thiel writes, “for decades now, the economic preconditions for family formation have been moving in the wrong direction. Incomes have been stagnant while health care, education, and housing get more expensive.” The implication of his view is that to promote family formation, we need a speed-up of economic progress, rather than a slowdown.

In any case, Eberstadt’s claim that humans are emotionally most suited to living in stable families with several siblings strikes me as correct. Among people my age, those with grandchildren strike me as having the highest level of life satisfaction. I would advise young people to aim at having a traditional family with multiple children, not necessarily as an antidote to identity politics but as a path that can lead to a fulfilling life.


[1] Mary Eberstadt, Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics. Templeton Press, 2019. Available on Amazon.com.

[2] See Arnold Kling, “The Shock of Women and Minorities on Campus”. Medium.com, July 11, 2019.

[3] See Celine Ryan, “Stanford pushes separate physics course for minority students”. CampusReform.org, Aug 23, 2019.

[4] See Stevenson and Wolfers, “Marriage and the Market”. Cato Unbound, January 18, 2008.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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