Why I am not Burying Marriage Just Yet

Aretae thinks marriage is dead. His logic is that the traditional foundational bargain of marriage is a man giving a woman resources in exchange for which the woman gives the man sexual exclusivity. But nowadays, the woman doesn’t need the resources so much, so the pact is breaking down.

This is false on so many levels. If that truly was the basis of marriage, why would the bride’s father pay a dowry? Surely it would be the groom’s father paying. (In other words: if a wife was the husband’s property, why did he have to be paid to accept ownership? Doesn’t sound like property at all, sounds more like – gasp! – duty.) Moreover, why would marriage restrict the man’s conduct, not just the woman’s? Are we really saying that all a woman gets out of marriage is resources? It’s absurd. Look at the other benefits she gets:

  • Her husband must stay faithful to her
  • And if he doesn’t, only her children are considered legitimate and able to inherit
  • She and her children share in her husband’s public status

This is in addition to all the other mutual benefits, like companionship and comfort. It turns out, shockingly, that the traditional explanation of marriage is actually the explanation of traditional marriage.

This deal is not suddenly a bad one for women – it’s as good as it ever was. If the husband’s resources are less important to her, then it’s easy to argue that her sexual exclusivity has lost even more value. What does a man get out of marriage?

The traditional deal remains hugely mutually advantageous. The real issue is that this deal is no longer enforced. Either party can break the deal at any time with no consequences. What used to be a binding contract has become a vague gentleman’s agreement. And worse than that, the state actually gives some parties financial incentives to break the deal. As a result, the deal cannot give secure rights, because none of those rights will be enforced – in either direction.

What makes this a particular problem is the time-incompatibility of incentives. If the incentives were all time compatible, strong enforcement would not be needed. But when a couple are in their 20s, the marriage partnership may not look like such a good deal to the wife; perhaps she could dissolve it to “trade up.” However, once the couple reach their 40s and thereafter, the tables have turned: now it is the husband who would like to “trade up.” Traditionally, this problem was resolved by making the deal legally enforceable, and therefore people could make a lifelong deal. Now, people are nervous about the lifelong deal because nothing can stop the other party walking away at a moment’s notice.

There are two ways of dealing with this problem: trying to make the incentives time-compatible, and non-legal enforcement. To an extent, we are seeing the former: I think this is the big reason why people are marrying and having children later in life. However, this is only a sticking plaster, because it still doesn’t stop the wife losing her looks. So it comes down to non-legal enforcement – i.e social norms, shaming, etc. Obviously this is a non-starter among the dissolute underclass and the bohemians, as these people simply don’t believe in shame, and they are not interested in earning the respect of those who do. However, among people who do have social cohesion, these social mechanisms allow them to punish norm violators, and therefore these mutually advantageous deals can be made and kept – at least to an extent.

Marriage is not dead, it is being kept in abeyance by the state’s refusal to enforce marriage contracts, and indeed its attempts to subvert them. If the state would do its job, we would see a collapse in divorce and a return to the status quo ante. At least, that’s the most parsimonious explanation, and I think it should be tried before we go making any wild measures. But if that doesn’t work, I would be much more inclined to the reactionary response favoured by Foseti, than the kind of social experimentation aretae seems to be suggesting.


2 responses to this post.

  1. So, we are too akratic to make the right decisions for ourselves, so the state should “help” us by forcing us against our will to make the right decisions . . .

    I thought you were a libertarian?


  2. Posted by Salem on March 12, 2011 at 12:02 am

    I am not saying the state should force us to make the right decisions. Rather, I am saying they should enforce marriage contracts, like they would any other contract. Suppose I have a deal with a farmer – I will pay him a salary all year long, and then at harvest time he will give me his crop. At the right salary, this makes sense for both of us – transfer of risk, spreading out his income, blah blah blah. But if the government refuses to enforce the contract, the farmer will take my money for the first 11 months, then at harvest time he’ll break the contract and screw me. Or I’ll take the harvest and then not pay him the rest of the year. The incentives are not time-compatible. And as a result of this, people will be reluctant to sign these contracts, because they won’t be worth the paper they’re written on. The deal will still be mutually advantageous, but people will be unable to make the deal, because they aren’t able to credibly commit themselves for the future, and so both parties lose out.

    The principle of contract law is that the party breaching the contract has to put the innocent party in the position as if the contract had been fulfilled. So if the farmer refuses to deliver me a harvest worth £100,000, he has to pay me £100,000 in damages. This ensures that people have the appropriate incentives to fulfil their contracts – it is the basis of all contract law. Note that the farmer is still free to breach the contract. This is very different to the principles under which divorce courts operate. I would simply like marriage contracts to be treated like any other contract. I am not suggesting that courts should give specific performance, force people to stay in their marriages against their will, or force people to get married. I am merely stating that a party breaching a contract should have to pay appropriate damages to the innocent party, and based on your comments here I am surprised you find this in any way controversial.

    Incidentally, I am not a libertarian. See for example here, here and here.


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