Jennifer Roback Morse is an economist and the mother of two children plus two books: Love and Economics (about motherhood) and Smart Sex about, as the subtitle says, Finding Lifelong Love in a Hookup World. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.
Has having two children changed the way you approach economic questions? It made me realize how much economists take for granted: we assume that people are adults, that they can manage on their own, make contracts, pursue their own self-interests, defend themselves, respect property rights. . . . But I can tell you, 2-year-olds do not respect property rights.
They want what they want? Unless you get children from the stage where they're little bundles of impulses and somehow make them adults who can keep promises and contracts and respect other people's rights, you don't have a society. So the business of creating a society is actually taking place in the home and being done by mothers and fathers. The whole economics profession was overlooking that part of life.
What happens if we assume this basic teaching will inevitably happen? Without some basic structure to function in, it becomes every person out for himself. Forget gay marriage: That's a sideshow. The main show is the deinstitutionalization of marriage. By making it so we're free of attachments and obligations and responsibilities, we don't have the ability to cooperate with each other or the structure that allows us to invest together over a long period of time.
No-fault divorce has certainly been freeing for the person who wants to abandon a marriage . . . To be crude and economics-y, when a man and a woman have a child together, you're asking that they invest a long period of time cooperating in order to bring that child up into adulthood. Right now, with no-fault divorce, you have less contractual protection for the activity of bringing up a child than you have to build a house together. You couldn't get out of a mortgage contract as easily as people get out of their marriages. There's less investment in child-raising because there's no basic structure for cooperation over a long period of time.
Are men becoming less willing to take on commitments? Single motherhood is becoming more and more prevalent, because you can't get men to commit. Why can't you get men to commit? Number one, because they don't have to; number two, it's dangerous for them to, because the obligation level ratchets up but the benefits do not. The irony of the whole feminist movement, which started off being something to liberate women, is that now women feel like the only free thing they can do is have a child completely by themselves because there is no way of attaching a child to a father and to the family. The move towards same-sex marriage and artificial reproductive technology are accelerating that trend, and making it more likely that more women are going to end up spending their lives alone and doing their child-bearing completely alone.
Now we have many more women than men going to college. What does that do to our society? We're gradually pushing the men outside of the family. Women's marriage prospects are deteriorating. It's harder and harder to find a suitable guy to marry, because women feel like they have to get educated because they have to take care of themselves, and men think, eh, maybe they have to get educated because they might be a father by the time they're, say, 30. Fatherhood induces many changes of behavior in men, and not just random fatherhood-fathering children and never seeing them again-but married fatherhood. That induces more mature and economically productive behavior. If a man doesn't see that coming at him until he's 30 or 35, then his incentive to get educated goes down. We've put a lot of things into this equation that are really skewing things and making it harder for relationships to work farther down the line.
So we have many more single moms. So what? Many questions are involved: While mom's attaching to the baby, who's taking care of mom? In the natural family, there is another person taking care of mom, and that's dad. Why is dad doing that? Because that child's as much his as it is hers, physiologically. Could the mom do it by herself? The answer is, not very well. We have a lot of data on that point, that mom by herself does not do nearly so well as mom with dad. There are a number of reasons: First of all, someone has to earn a living. There's a whole body of things that she doesn't have to think about. Even if she does have a job, she doesn't have to face it alone. It's pretty decisive that kids benefit from two parents.
Do mom and dad have to be married? When an unmarried couple tries to do this, the lack of commitment between the two turns out to have ramifications for the child. It turns out that a cohabiting biological couple doesn't do nearly as well as a married biological couple. The commitment has something to do with it, and also their relationship is shaped by the fact that they're not committed to each other. There's more domestic violence and there's more child abuse with cohabiting parents, even when it's the biological child of both.
Other love interests emerge? The mom often gets involved with another guy, and what ends up happening is she's more interested in the new boyfriend than the child. If that turns into a cohabiting situation, statistically that's the most dangerous situation for the child-to live with mom and a cohabiting boyfriend. Some of the problems associated with single parenthood would go away if the moms would never have another boyfriend. But that's not what they typically do.
And what about a same-sex couple? The assumption and premise is that they're committed to each other. We have some preliminary data that says that actually these relationships aren't as stable as heterosexual married couples. And data actually shows that lesbian relationships break up sooner than gay male relationships.
Here's a little sociological fact: Between two-thirds to three-fourths of divorces are initiated by women. Why is that? Because women are looking for emotional fulfillment. When you get two women together looking for that from one another, you can get an element of instability ratcheted up rather than your partner being someone who calms things down. The preliminary data show that the least stable relationship is the lesbian couple.
So gender still matters? It's not like the same-sex couple is exactly the same as an opposite-sex couple, just with the partners switched out. A two-male couple is different from a two-woman couple, is different from a man-woman couple. For the state to make a proclamation that mothers and fathers are intrinsically interchangeable and no one can say otherwise, that's a step too far.
What are the political implications of this, especially for people who lean libertarian? As marriage disintegrates, are we stuck with a bigger and more oppressive government? Yes. If you have the really extreme case of a child who can't control himself, it's called attachment disorder. A child without a conscience is a permanent problem to society. To say that we're all going to be free without restraints, that's a Rousseau view of freedom. Most libertarians aren't Rousseau people: Most libertarians are John Locke and American founding-type people. Most libertarians get that there's something a little goofy about Rousseau, and his wild people, and so on. But somehow in this area we're becoming Rousseau people.
Those who care more about pocketbooks than people should be concerned? A person who does anything they can get away with is scary to their family members, and they have to be controlled by the state. And they have to be controlled in very expensive ways: The California Youth Authority spends enough on each child in its care to send three people to [the University of California at] Berkeley. The Institute for American Values recently did a study that looked at the taxpayer cost of out-of-wedlock childbearing. They came up with an annual figure of $112 billion per year. That is the GDP of New Zealand-not chump change.
On same-sex "marriage," what about the argument to let same-sex couples do what they want because it isn't hurting anyone? First of all, gay couples can do anything they want already. They can live together, they can leave property to each other, they can have children together. The legal institutions are already in place to attach the second party to the child. So there can't possibly be a reasonable rap that we're interfering with people doing what they want: They're already doing what they want, including some things that are probably best left undone. But to take the additional step of redefining marriage is to change the definition of what marriage will be, and to change the common, shared understanding of marriage.
And that affects everyone? That does affect everybody, because you're saying things like, "Biology is not the primary way that we assign parenthood." The effect is weakening the biological basis for parenthood, and some of the people involved in this are quite open that this is what they want to do. They think the parent-nonparent dichotomy should be done away with. Trying to take away the institution of marriage and saying we'll decide it on a case-by-case basis means a lot more people in family court, and if you've ever been anywhere near family court you know that is no place for free people to be hanging around. That is not a place that is going to increase anyone's freedom.
So the subject should be marriage, not homosexuality . . . What gays and lesbians do is a very minor part of this picture. The bigger question is, "What are we doing to the social institutions, and what kind of incentives are we putting in place for people's actions down the road?" We're putting something in motion that we can't predict the outcome of. We have no business claiming that it's not a big deal, because we don't know that. To say that anyone who raises questions is no better than a racist is a tactic designed to eliminate discussion, to change the subject and prevent people from thinking too much. We've got to be able to talk about it, because it's serious.
To hear Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Jennifer Roback Morse, click here.