Mary Dejevsky has a thoughtful-but-wrong piece over at the Indy. She begins by admitting a sneaking sympathy for the intentions of the Conservatives to legislate for tax breaks for married couples, but stops short of full support for such “starry-eyed” proposals:

I doubt that efforts to rebuild the institution as such, will produce more stable families. Might preparatory classes [one of IDS' new ideas] not turn people off the whole idea? Does marriage make a relationship more stable, or are those who marry predisposed to form stable relationships anyway, which is why they chose to marry? And when you make divorce harder, do you not turn back the clock in the worst possible way – simply prolonging the unhappiness.

Fairy nuff. Quite refreshing to find a sober-headed view of contemporary marriage and relationships co-existing with an honest hankering for past social mores – and no liberal should find anything wrong with people hankering for past social mores (so long as they don’t visit them on us and our transbisexual menages-a-quatre communes, obviously). But she has an alternative suggestion:

…for those squeamish about appearing judgemental, marriage need not come into it. The same effect could be achieved much more simply – by removing the disincentives to any stable relationship that are currently built into the tax and benefits system. Many parents who live together are effectively penalised if they are on a relatively low wage or, if for whatever reason, one or other does not work. It is not just right-wing apocrypha from job-centres that says so. You only have to do the calculations; housing benefit has a particularly deterrent effect to cohabitation.

This is all true so far as it goes, certainly on housing benefit, where the income of the whole household is taken into account. Council tax is another one, insofar as a single person living alone gets a 25% discount which will vanish if another adult moves in, even if they don’t work.

But I don’t think straightforward “levelling” of these benefit criteria so that two people have something closer to twice the entitlement of one person would necessarily act in the wider interests of fairness. Insofar as we accept the principle that we should be taxed, and that we are entitled to benefits when we need them, it must be on the basis that we are taxed according to ability to pay, and are entitled to benefits according to need. Two people’s ability to pay rent is often greater than one person’s. Two people’s needs can be satisfied more economically than one’s. And the financial needs attaching to the upbringing of a child do not dramatically vary according to the number of parents it has – if anything it varies downwards with two parents because the cost of childcare is less of an issue. All this is self-evident through simple household accounting. Of course, living on low wages and housing benefit is just as hard for a couple as it is for a single person, but surely their basic problem is that they’ve got no bloody money, rather than that the tax and benefits system discriminates against them. In fact, it merely fails to discriminate in favour of them.

Dejevksy’s argument is therefore somewhat weasel-tailed – she claims to be opposing discrimination, but on any detailed consideration of the current system vis-a-vis her proposals it’s clear she favours introducing it. Her reasons becomes clearer at the end (my emphasis):

Yes, I know how hard it is for single parents, I know what a terrific job they do, and I accept that the tax and benefits system should be geared, as far as possible, to shielding children from the effects of poverty. But consider this. Almost half of all births are now outside marriage; children in single-parent families are many times more likely to suffer abuse; the number of children taken into care has risen 20 per cent in 10 years. This is what the marriage – or co-habiting – penalty, British-style, has wrought.

I’ve seen (who hasn’t) this argument advanced several times in the right-wing press over the last week, but I find it truly puzzling here. A lump of plasticine stuck on the end of an exquisitely wrought matchstick model. It’s is a truly numbskulled confusion of correlation and causal link, so much so that I can’t quite believe she has done it, and secretly fear I may be missing something. Was I off school when they did the bit about how you can prove that one statistic causes another just by putting them in the same sentence?

It ought to be obvious to everyone, even Tories, that this correlation by itself proves nada. In order to prove that all single-parent families were more likely to abuse their children, you’d have to prove first that child abuse resulted from a factor – stress, for example – that could be traced specifically and solely to the fact of the relationship breakdown. But in fact, there’s no need to involve ourselves in such a nebulous argument, because the converse is far, far more likely: the kind of dysfunction that causes people to abuse children may also cause them to be bad at holding together relationships. Parents who abuse children are more likely to be single, not the other way round. So forcing child abusers – or incentivising them, in the twenty-first century version – to stay in couples is going to do nothing more than paper over some very deep cracks.

This is why the Tories’ policy on marriage and social justice generally has always reminded me of the cargo cults – that strange phenomenon of the postwar period when abandoned airstrips and quartermaster stores littered the remote islands of the world. Like the tribesmen who built air traffic control towers out of coconut leaves and straw and waited for the great metal gods to bring them cargo, the Tories think that by reproducing old rituals – on a grand, national scale – they can induce the factors that originally underlay those rituals.

Once, couples stayed together because morals, prevailing global socio-economics and a more communitarian way of life – to say nothing of the legal difficulties – told against separation. Those same factors also meant that, for example, young men were less likely to have the opportunity to turn to crime. They meant that very bright children born into poor families couldn’t stay at school past the age of 14. And that gay people either never understood their true nature or suppressed it. And yes, they probably also meant that a neighbour would come running if they heard the kind of screams that might result from a child breaking its back. But that doesn’t mean that by slipping couples an extra twenty quid a week to stay married you can resurrect all those outcomes, even supposing you decided that it was on balance desirable.

But you know all this, of course. You know about the immutable laws of space and time and the fact that no precise deployment of atoms can ever occur more than once in the life of this universe. And that trying to command their partial redeployment to your desired recipe is hopeless, not even realistic enough to be considered hubristic. Especially if you’re trying to do it with a tax break, for god’s sake. I just wonder why more people don’t know it. Maybe they don’t watch enough Dr Who.