March 28, 2008

Empty Aisles: A Matter Of Economics

Declining Marriage Rates

Why aren’t Brits getting married anymore? The marriage rate is at a historic low in the UK – the marriage rate is lower now than since the Brits started keeping records of this sort of thing, and there are fewer marriages at all than since 1895, despite the population nearly doubling in the past century plus. Here are the available theories fleshed out from various sources (some in the article, some in reader comments to the article, some from external sources bemoaning the declining marriage rate in various parts of the industrialized world) to explain this erosion in the bedrock institution of civilization:
  1. British social welfare programs disincentivize marriage. Couples find that their aggregate individual benefits from the government are greater than those issued to married couples.
  2. Taxes on married couples are higher than they are on individuals and therefore disincentivizes marriage. Couples find that their aggregate tax burdens as individuals are less than they would be if they were taxed as a married couple.
  3. The British people are less religious than they have been at any time since the tail end of the Victorian Era, so the moral impetus for marriage instead of cohabitation has declined.
  4. Marriage had already fallen out of fashion some time ago but there were a lot of “sham marriages” performed for immigration purposes; now that the government has begun to examine immigration and naturalization files more closely, that numerical prop has been taken away.
  5. Since the United Kingdom recognized same-sex marriage, heterosexual couples have decided that marriage doesn’t mean anything important anymore and therefore aren’t getting married.
  6. Men fear oppressively pro-female divorce laws and therefore refuse to get married at all.
  7. British men are a bunch of commitment-phobes and since the women give it up without getting the rings, they see no reason to get married in the first place.
Although some have suggested that same-sex marriage harms mixed-sex marriage rates (prominently Stanley Kurtz, whose justification for this theory is a classic example of the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo proctor hoc), in fact #5 can’t be true, since the United Kingdom doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages or even what are sometimes called "civil unions" here in the States (and in Denmark).

So this got me thinking about the issue. Why do people get married? Why do we care about whether other people get married or not? And what does this tell us about how we ought to treat marriage in our own society?

Reasons For Declining Rates

Individual decisions to marry (or not) are ultimately best seen through an economic lens.

Ultimately, marriage is a form of behavior, like anything else we do. When examining why people engage in particular behavior, you can take a wide variety of perspectives, but in the larger sense, they are all economic perspectives because they all, in some form or another, weigh incentives, costs, and benefits. Economics is usually about money, but in a larger sense, it's about incentives and how people balance them -- and in that larger sense, economics is the master science of human behavior.

Economically, then, marriage represents a proposition of many competing incentives. By marrying, you generally gain social prestige, various financial advantages, emotional satisfaction, generally increased access to sex with your spouse, and stability and permanence within that relationship. In return, you generally promise to not seek sexual partners other than your spouse, you lose the right to marry anyone else, you are required to submit to a difficult and likely expensive process of sorting out property in the event the marriage fails, and depending on your view of and manipulation of the laws, there may be some financial disadvantages, as well. These costs and benefits may not be quantifiable (for instance, we can't easily or accurately reduce the pleasure felt from sexual activity, or the guilt a religious person might feel over engaging in extramarital sex, to numerical quantities), but these are real forces encouraging people to marry and they can be considered from a cost-benefit perspective.

Nearly everyone who has married voluntarily has done so as a result of some form of cost-benefit analysis, some means of determining that they would be better off married than not -- and many of those people made similar analyses of previous possible partners and rejected the idea of marrying them. This is true even for an arranged marriage; the focus shifts from the couple themselves to the parties arranging the marriage (often their parents) and it takes little imagination to see how such marriages could easily be explicitly economic propositions because the parents rarely set up the marriages for emotional reasons the way individuals who choose marry do.

Individuals, being individuals, respond to similar incentives in different ways. I might not care about the ability to seek multiple sexual partners as much as you do, so I would view that "cost" of marriage as less onerous than you. However, I might perceive that being married to my prospective spouse would result in a greater tax burden, where you might see a way to structure your finances such that you pay lower taxes married than you and your prospective spouse would if you were single. Then, there's the question of whether sex is more important than money.

So when we ask, "Why do people get married?" (or, in this case, "Why aren't people getting married?") we're really trying to unpack the mass of incentives and disincentives from the word "marriage."

Note that theories #1 and #2 see marriage through an economic lens, #3 sees it as a moral or religious activity, #4 sees it as a legal maneuver, and #5, #6, and #7 see it as a social phenomenon. Which brings us back to the question of "what is marriage, anyway?" which is a useful question to answer when considering one's position on same-sex marriage here in the States. The Brits are not so very different from we Americans, so they likely see marriage as more or less the same thing we do -- is it an economic, legal, moral, social, or religious institution?

Another datum in the article gives us a clue. Of the marriages that are taking place in the UK, nearly two-thirds are being accomplished with civil ceremonies rather than religious ones. This leads me to believe that most Brits do not see marriage as a primarily religious activity. Some surely do, of course, and no doubt the majority of people see marriage as something that has many facets. But for the most part, the most prominent of those facets, the biggest reasons why people are getting married, is not religious.

I think we can easily dispense with #6 and #7. Leaving aside the fact that they are unfounded stereotypes -- there is no non-anecdotal evidence that I can see that men, either in the US or the UK, are any less attracted to marriage than women or that the law actually favors women over men in the event of divorce. And such anecdotal evidence as exists is contradicted by equally unweighty anecdotal evidence of pro-male sexism in divorce courts and women as gunshy of commitment as men are often pilloried of being. Perhaps more to the point, though, is observing that very few people decide to get married anticipating divorcing their spouses later on. Whatever the reason people do get married, surely only a very few do it for the pleasure of later getting divorced, even if they were to believe the law would favor them in a division of property.

The big attraction to marriage, it seems to me, is that it is supposed to be permanent. That many marriages fall short of this ideal is not the point; the point is that your marriage is supposed to last. Divorce is something that happens to someone else. Whether it's for social, emotional, political, legal, economic, sexual, parentage, or religious reasons, people want marriage because they want to make permanent some aspect of their relationship to a spouse.

So what if we rewrite the sexist themes in theories #6 and #7 and say instead that British people (men and women) are simply not seeking permanent relationships with one another? That may be a less inflammatory statement, but that results in a circular reasoning fallacy.

So my guess is that it’s some combination of #1, #2, and #3. The linked article tries to point to #4, but that seems as silly to me as the anti-male theories sussed out in the commentary. How many "immigration marriages" were really going on in the UK? I've no data to back it up, but I'm willing to bet that the numbers are statistically insignificant in a nation of nearly 60,000,000 people.

Social Justifications For Marriage

Why should we care? The numbers I found were from the UK, but there's little doubt that something similar is happening in the US -- marriage rates are declining here, too, and have been for many years.* But so what? Why do we concern ourselves with whether or not people get married? Here, from my fertile imagination, is a list of possible reasons why either society as a whole or the government should care about whether people get married.
  1. Married couples pay taxes at a higher rate than individuals do in the aggregate. Therefore, the government wants to encourage people to marry so as to increase tax revenue.
  2. Married couples produce children at a higher rate than unmarried people do, so more marriage means more children in the next generation.
  3. Any society needs to propagate itself in order to survive over generations, and marriage produces the "best" environment for the raising of children and the passing along of social values from generation to generation. This is different from reason #2 in that reason #2 is quantitative in nature (more children) while this is qualitative (children have better upbringings, and therefore become better adults).
  4. People who are married engage in lower rates of undesirable activity (violent crime, reckless driving, drug use, spreading of STD's) than unmarried people do. As a converse and complimentary theory, it may be that people who are married are more productive than people who are unmarried.
  5. Marriage provides a measure of social prestige. It therefore enables people who avail themselves of the institution to advance socially and, indirectly, economically through the acceptance of their peers, co-workers, and superiors.
  6. We prefer to see people build wealth, and marriage provides a convenient and efficient means for two people to pool their economic resources and accumulate wealth together faster than they could even if they were to aggregate their individual accumulation of wealth as single people.
  7. Married people are, on average, happier than unmarried people.
  8. A large industry has grown around providing for lavish wedding ceremonies and receptions, which generates tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs for people who would otherwise be unemployed and unproductive members of society.
  9. Marriage is simply an inherent good, like morality or happiness.
As I show below, every one of these justifications for social concern about marriage is advanced, and not held back, by expanding marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Note, though, that the alternative to any of the above is the libertarian position: marriage is a purely private matter. It is none of society's business, none of the government's business, whether anyone gets married at all. To the extent that one feels called to marriage by one's religious faith, this too is private behavior, in which the government has no interest or legitimate business either encouraging or discouraging people from engaging. At the extreme end of the libertarian position, the argument is that there should be no laws about marriage at all.

Every Social Justification Of Marriage Is Advanced By Same-Sex Marriage

I like #1 because it is so very cynical. The government manipulates religious institutions, social norms, and the intense emotions of its citizens and constituents for the purpose of its own financial gain. You know, there may well be something to that. So if the reason we as a society care about marriage is because it's good for the res publica's bottom line, then we ought to expand the pool of people who can get married as much as possible. Gay money is just as green as straight money.

Reasons #2 and #3 address the interests of society as a whole in the creation of children. Obviously, marriage is not a requirement for the conception of children. People are going to squeeze out crotchfruit one way or another. They've been doing it for countless thousands of years through every possible permutation of social structures imaginable (even some Shakers cheated and had kids). So the "more kids" argument doesn't really hold up in my mind. But even if it did, and we could fairly say that without marriage people would have fewer children, it ignores the fact that gay people have children, too. They conceive artificially. They engage in heterosexual sex for the purpose of conception. They have children left over from previous heterosexual relationships. They adopt children conceived by others and raise them as their own. If it's true that married people have more children than unmarried people, and if it's also true that more children is better for society, then gay couples should be allowed to marry because they will have more children. The qualitative argument (#3) follows the quantitative one -- if married couples are better at raising children, or produce better children, than single people do, then given that gay people have children, then it's better for all of us that they raise those children within a marriage rather than without.

Reason #4 -- the theory that marriage, somehow, makes people better citizens -- is fairly obvious. If a single person is less productive and more likely to engage in socially undesirable behavior, then we ought to get as many people married as possible. A gay single person is as likely to spend Wednesday night partying and drinking and trying to hook up as a straight single person -- but the straight person can eventually get married and therefore has less chance of being hung over at work Thursday morning, or winding up in the drunk tank with an impounded vehicle and a DUI on her record than her single counterpart. If the gay person can get married, then it may well turn out to be that she is more likely to stay at home with her spouse on Wednesday night and be a good citizen.

Social prestige is a tricky issue. Remember that it's society's interests, not individual normative evaluations, that I'm concerned with at this point. Social prestige carries lots of advantages. It is generally good for one's career to get married -- if for no other reason than that bosses perceive married workers as being more stable and reliable than single workers (generally speaking). If society has an interest in making available marriage as a vehicle of social advancement, then withholding that social ability to same-sex couples is deliberately holding them back economically. But there seems to be consensus that one's sexual preference ought to not affect one's ability to earn a living, even if you think that homosexual behavior is somehow morally wrong.

Similarly, if the accumulation of wealth produces other kinds of social goods (a larger tax base, greater generation of demand for goods and services and thus jobs, greater material comfort and therefore happiness) then methods to encourage the accumulation of wealth ought to be widely-distributed, and not withheld, from same-sex couples. If society benefits because heterosexual couples can pool their resources and better accumulate wealth, society will similarly benefit from homosexual couples doing the same thing.

If marriage produces happiness, and happiness is an inherent good for society, then withholding marriage from same-sex couples can only be justified if there is a deliberate decision to make homosexual people less happy than heterosexual people. But if happiness is an inherent good, then withholding an inherent good on such an arbitrary basis is obviously wrong. Things that are inherently good should be available to everyone. So if marriage itself is an inherent good, that only argues in favor of increasing its availability, as does the idea that marriage leads to the inherent good of happiness.

The marriage industry would welcome the increase in its market. If we let people get married so that caterers, officiants, deejays, and other service providers can have jobs, then expanding marriage to same-sex couples will simply increase the customer base of this industry.

Fill Those Empty Aisles

So a partial "solution" to the "problem" of British people not marrying -- and by extension the similar "problem" here in the States -- is to let same-sex couples marry. There is no harm that I can see to anyone by doing so, and to the extent that marriage benefits society, there will only be gains in the amount of whatever benefits that will be realized.

But the other way to fill those empty aisles, regardless of the gender-matches of the people who would walk down them, is to understand why individuals get married and why society wants them to marry. That involves a study of incentives. If the incentives are financial, then an understanding of the tax, welfare, and economic benefits of marriage must be looked at from both a social and individual basis. Only when both society and the individuals within it feel that marriage represents an improvement to single people shacking up will marriage rates increase.

Not every such incentive is financial. But I suspect that ultimately, most of them are financial. And in the end, it's an economic analysis.

*I seem to recall having seen at some point in the past that the only states that have seen increases in their marriage rates in the 2000's are Vermont and Massachusetts, but while I think that's right, I'm not confident enough to assert it as a fact and I can't find any sources to either back up or refute the proposition.

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