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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Minimizing marriage

Marriage | An economist looks at a world without husbands and wives

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

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.

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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.

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