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Why We Marry

Here’s a question I have been struggling for years: Why do we marry? I am not confused about the desire to have a wedding – the pretty dress, standing before family and friends, the party – that part I get.  It’s the need to seek the government seal of approval of the marriage that challenges me.

New economic research comes up with a tidy theoretical argument for why we marry, but if you ask me the question the paper really answers is, “Why did our parents marry?”

The economic argument goes something like this. Marriage is efficient in the economic sense only when both people in the union can specialize in the area of production in which they have a comparative advantage. If person A earns more than person B, and A and B have children together then A should work outside the home and B should put her career aside to take care of children.

If, for some reason, B doesn’t want to spend years of her/ his life wiping runny noses and instead stays in the workforce, then the marriage is technically inefficient in that A and B are not maximizing the potential gains from the trade.

Inefficiency is bad. So in order to encourage the efficient allocation of household resources, A needs to promise B future compensation for the time he/she spends taking care of the family instead of earning an income.

Promises are nice, but contracts are better.

People marry because it makes that commitment to compensate the caregiver credible and, as a result, encourages marriages to be efficient in a way that a non-marital arrangements never could be.

We marry, according to this argument, because that is the arrangement that encourages the most efficient allocation of household resources.

This would have been a very convincing story thirty years ago and, in fact, I am not sure this is really any different than the explanation for marriage given by Gary Becker in his famous Treatise on the Family (published in 1981).

But the world has changed.

According to a recent poll by the Pew Center for Research, fewer Americans than ever before feel the institution of marriage is still relevant. Interestingly, 47% of the unmarried adults in that survey who felt that marriage was obsolete also expressed hope that one day they would be married themselves. Likewise, many already married adults--31 percent--expressed the opinion that marriage is no longer relevant.

I think the source of this apparent contradiction – that people want to be married but really don’t see the point – is that household production is no longer maximized when one person sacrifices their career to care for the family.

For many couples with children the best arrangement is for both to work on the waged labor market and then to use the income that labor generates to purchase all of the goods and services formally produced by women in the home.

Why do we still marry, despite the fact that the legal framework is no longer needed to ensure the efficient allocation of household resources?

I think Justin Wolfers and Betsy Stevenson said it best a few weeks ago in their “Economic Case for Same Sex Marriage”:

Viewed through an economic frame, modern partnerships are based upon “consumption complementarities” -- the joy of sharing things and experiences -- rather than the production-based gains that motivated traditional marriage.

That is certainly why I would like to be married. I am sure that others agree.

References:

Cigno, Alessandro (2012). “Marriage as a commitment device.” Review of Economics of the Household Vol. 10: pp 193–213

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