Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Pill and the economics of marriage

By Donald Sensing

Economics may be understood not just as the study of how money flows, but more broadly, how value is exchanged. Because value is found in things other than the coin of the realm, economic theories can be used to assess how those things work. Human relationships is one example.

Courtship and marriage are two human relationships that lend themselves to economic analysis. Obviously, money plays a large role in both, but things other than value are exchanged, too. Moreover, the wedding ceremony (in the West, anyway) is heavily encrusted with legal, contractual language of obligations undertaken in exchange for promises made.

In 2004 The Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal published an o-ed I wrote called, "Save marriage? It's too late." This time was the height of the same-sex marriage wars that had erupted in California and Massachusetts. My basic thesis was that beginning when the Pill became available,

Sex, childbearing and marriage now have no necessary connection to one another, because the biological connection between sex and childbearing is controllable. The fundamental basis for marriage has thus been technologically obviated. Pair that development with rampant, easy divorce without social stigma, and talk in 2004 of "saving marriage" is pretty specious. There's little there left to save. Men and women today who have successful, enduring marriages till death do them part do so in spite of society, not because of it.
Now Tim Harford writes, in "The Economics of Marriage," that the Pill has also changed the matching between men and women because "the logic of a woman who has control of reliable contraception is quite different" from those who didn't.

As I observed in 2004, Tim points out that because of the Pill, men who have the opportunity to marry often do not "probably because they realize they do not need to marry to get sex," since women on the Pill are, as a group, very sexually active. The women who are not so active, say Tim, "are unlucky:"
[T]he existence of other women who are a little freer with their favors weakens the bargaining power of the Madonnas, and means that men have less incentive to marry. Some men will not bother at all, feeling that they can get all they want from a playboy lifestyle. Or they may delay marriage until middle age, cutting down on the pool of marriageable men and increasing male bargaining power.
The net result over the last 40 years has been a sort of price pressure on women to make themselves attractive as wives in things other than sex.

Like earning power, for instance: "the rational response is for women to go to college, bringing them both better prospects in the job market and better prospects in the marriage market." But this is a two-edged sword. The more money a woman earns, the less likely her prospective husbands are to volunteer to pick up the burden of fatherhood.
... the more capable women become of looking after children by themselves, the less men need to bother. It's a textbook case of free-riding: with highly-educated women in excess supply, men have realized that they can get sex, and even successful offspring, [without getting married].
Tim's analytical shortcoming, I think, is that he says that these choices are all explicable using rational-choice theory. But the problem with rational-choice theory is that it assumes that people always make rational choices. In matters that are so emotion-laden as sex and marriage, ISTM that idea is empirically, provably wrong. Nonetheless, many good insights.

1 comment:

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/18/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.