As I noted in an earlier entry, this month's Cato Unbound features a roundtable on "The Future of Marriage." As I continue to work on this topic, and a classical liberal approach to the family more generally, I thought I would weigh in with some thoughts on the four essays that are posted there. All four are worth reading in their entirety, and I especially recommend Stephanie Coontz's opening essay and the comments from Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. The other two, more conservative, replies by Kay Hymowitz and Norval Glenn are worth reading as they raise some good counter-arguments that I will address below. What I want to do in the rather lengthy comments that follow is combine elements of the Coontz and S&W essays to trace a story about how market capitalism has been the major driver in the changes in marriage and the family we've seen over the last few centuries and then see how much light that story can shed on a couple of current issues. I cover some of this ground in my Freeman essay on "Capitalism and the Family" from last summer. I also want to make an important point that applies comparative institutional analysis to family issues.
One thing that all four seem to agree on is that marriage has changed in the direction of being increasingly centered on the needs and desires of the married couple, as opposed to being more child-centric. Coontz's own research has documented the ways in which the "love match" came to dominate the old political and economic functions of marriage over the last 200 years (or, as in the subtitle of her book "How Love Conquered Marriage"). Stevenson and Wolfers refer to this as the rise of "hedonic marriage" meaning that marriages are more about complementarities in the consumption preferences of couples as opposed to them needing to have complementary structures of human capital for the production of the combination of market and household production needed to raise children in a poorer world with a less extensive division of labor in the marketplace. As men and women's skill sets have become more equal, their market and household-relevant human capital structures are more overlapping, reducing the relative gains from specialization in market vs. household production and turning them toward the complementarities in consumption S&W note.
Bringing Coontz's point and S&W's point together with a little bit of economics gives us an interesting story about changes in the family. Industrialization began a process of removing the economic functions of the household (which normally equated to "the family"), by first eliminating its role in market production and then slowly providing substitutes for household production. The advent of wage labor meant that income could be earned outside of the family (think agriculture or small crafts here). For the first time in human history, people (really: men) "went to work" and the family slowly became displaced as the major institution responsible for market production. With that function being eliminated, the nature of the human capital combination required for a successful marriage changed. No longer did married couples have to be primarily concerned with complementarities in income-earning skills (recall that women worked the fields and crafts too, as did children who might inherit some physical skills from parents), now they could increasingly afford to indulge their emotions. This is where the rise of the "love match" begins to appear. It also explains the gendered division of labor associated with the early love match marriages (sometimes called the "separate spheres" doctrine). The complementarity was now about one specializing in household production and the other in wage labor.
There is abundant historical evidence about the ways in which husbands/fathers in pre-industrial times saw the entire household as a set of assets geared toward market production and engaged in some rather crude calculation about their relative value in the process. As one historian noted, it was much more common for a man to call for help when he had a sick horse than a sick wife. Wives could cheaply be replaced; horses could not. The same calculative mentality explains what we would now see as shockingly callous indifference to the plight of children. Not only could you always make more (note who the burden of being "you" fell on), but infants and toddlers were hardly contributing to the productivity of the household. The sentimentality that we now take for granted as part of the family does not come along until market capitalism had produced enough wealth for us to afford it. It was capitalism that made the love match and the civilized treatment of children possible.
By the turn of the 20th century, families in the west were largely earning income from outside the household but still spending a great deal of labor inside the household to produce meals, clothing, cleanliness, and child-raising. (For example, by some estimates, doing the laundry for a family of 5 took 2 to 3 days in 1900.) The story of the 20th century was a combination of improved household technology, falling family size, increased demand for labor, and generally rising wealth (and, later, The Pill) that slowly drew women into the labor force. Claudia Goldin's Richard T. Ely Lecture from 2006 covers this story marvelously.
It's hard to disentangle precise causes and effects here, but there's no doubt that market capitalism was once again the long-run driver here as the economic growth and higher incomes it produced are the keys to the story. What all of this did was to slowly displace many of the household production functions of the family. Technology dramatically reduced the time required to wash laundry and dishes and clean floors. Rising wealth meant an increased ability to "outsource" household production as families ate out more, hired housecleaners, got laundry dry cleaned, and availed themselves of child care providers. And almost no families made their own clothes or grew their own crops or the like. (Younger readers might ask their parents or grandparents how often they ate out as children. If we ate out a couple of times a month in the 1970s, that would have been unusual and my family was solidly middle to upper-middle class.) This process has also meant that women are able to "go it alone," helping to explain both the rise of unmarried motherhood and divorce over the century.
So with both the market and household production roles of the family hollowed out, what was it that families were doing? They became, in S&W's terms, "hedonic." Or as I've argued elsewhere, various psychological and emotional functions filled in where the economic and political had been swept away. In particular, one can see families as climbing Maslow's hierarchy of needs in terms of what they "do" for the marital dyad. Rather than being about basic economic and security needs, marriage and family become about love and then self-actualization, paralleling the point Brink Lindsey makes about American society in general in The Age of Abundance. Marriage has become a matter of satisfying the consumption preferences of the couple. S&W talk about complementarities in consumption interests (e.g., liking the same films, food, travel etc) and I would extend this to the "consumption" of children. As capitalism produced greater wealth, children moved from being assets in market and household production to being net liabilities. This, along with the increased investment in education needed to command higher wages, led to fewer, but "higher quality," children. Early in this process, though, the tenuousness of parents' ability to survive after their working years were done still led them to have a concern about their kids as future economic assets in terms of helping them in their old age. But with the rise of institutionalized forms of old-age insurance, this concern is now gone.
The result? Children are almost completely consumption goods in the 21st century West, and this fits with the hedonic marriage idea, as well as the Maslow perspective: couples have children as a form of consumption rather than production as for most of human history. It's a form of self-actualization to raise a child the way you think he or she should be raised. In and of itself, this isn't a bad thing as by most measures, childhood is a better place than it used to be. However, it might well explain the way in which parents are over-involved in their kids' lives: if your own self-worth and utility is so bound up by the accomplishments and well-being of your children, it's no surprise that you would schlep them to 40 activities, complain vociferously when some teacher yells at them (or some professor gives them a bad grade!), or be a control freak about their diet or how they play so that they never get exposed to even a micron of a potential hazard. The danger of the hedonic marriage, or the problem at the top of the Maslovian pyramid, is that the consumption preferences of parents may work at cross-purposes with the raising of children who learn to be independent and thus able to navigate the adult world. If your own self-worth is bound up with the success of your children, you will be tempted to not allow them to fail or take risks in ways that are necessary to develop coping skills and resilliance. One of the challenges for the future of marriage is to address this tension. Having worked closely with hundreds of first-year college students over the last 6 years, I've seen too many who are clearly "trophy children" who have never been allowed to experience disappointment and failure, and who have very rarely had to solve their own problems.
These same economic processes also explain the rise of the demand for same-sex marriage. At the most basic level, as historian of sexuality John D'Emilio has argued, capitalism created gay and lesbian identity. By separating earning income from the family, industrialization and capitalism enabled people to survive economically outside of the family. This created both the "singles culture" of the 20th century but also enabled homosexuals to adopt the full identity of being gay or lesbian, as opposed to just engaging in homosexual acts. It's no surprise that gay/lesbian culture thrived early on in urbanized environments (industrial jobs and anonymity were the keys). Having made modern gay identity possible and having caused marriage and family to be focused on love and consumption, rather than child-making and child-raising complementarities, is it any surprise that gays and lesbians would want "in" to the institution of marriage? Given the story I've told above, what is the fundamental difference between a gay couple wanting marriage and a heterosexual one wanting it, especially as an increasing number of heterosexual couples turn to technology to help them have kids? As Coontz has argued elsewhere, the demand for same-sex marriage is not revolutionary. The revolution happened when love conquered marriage - same-sex marriage is just unraveling the implications.
For me, this story is a story of the liberatory role of capitalism and classical liberalism more generally. It's not just that markets produce wealth and that enables people to live materially better lives. Markets, both by producing wealth and by pressuring other institutions, expand the range of choices people have available to them which liberates them from old hierarchies and the stifling influence of state and community. The history of marriage and the family is also a history of couples being increasingly able to distentagle their families from the coercive limitations of the state and the prying eyes of the community. It was the advent of wage labor and rising wealth, both products of liberal capitalism, that freed families just as capitalism and democracy themselves freed individuals from other forms of arbitrary power. Classical liberalism sells itself short when it fails to emphasize the ways in which capitalism has liberated us in our personal choices. A classical liberal reading of the essays at Cato Unbound almost cannot help but tell this kind of story.
I want to conclude with two policy points.
First, in his response, Norval Glenn accuses Coontz of both ignoring the way public policy might help prevent bad marriages and troubled families and then assuming that, given the world of multiple family structures that we now have, we must turn to the welfare state to "cure" those problems. Having read all three of Coontz's major works on the family, I'm quite sure that she would indeed support a fair deal of state intervention to deal with the problems she sees families having. But accepting Coontz's historical story and her belief that we can't put the toothpaste back in the tube and return to older models of the family need not commit one to that position for all of the reasons that classical liberals have noted. Does the state really know what the problems are and have the tools to "fix" them? Are the "right" cures incentive compatible with the political process? Skepticism about those questions suggests that we should be looking elsewhere for ways to help struggling families. (I leave aside the very difficult questions of when child neglect becomes child abuse and what to do about it.)
Second, Kay Hymowitz (and Glenn) both make the point that the social science evidence indicates that children do "best" or "much better" when they grow up in a house with two married parents. My own reading of the evidence is that this is more or less true. However, the policy implications are more complicated than suggesting that we should be offering government support for two-parent households or somehow using policy to discourage other family forms. To say that children do "best" or "better" in such families doesn't mean they aren't doing "well enough" in other family structures. Data expressed in terms of the larger percentage of children with better or worse outcomes doesn't tell us the absolute frequency of those outcomes.
My point here is two-fold. First, the comparison is not necessarily between a functional two-parent family and a divorced, single mom raising her kids with no help from her ex-husband. Even in the most challenging female-headed households, the children may be better off there than in a conflict-ridden two-parent household. There is also plenty of data to suggest that kids do worst when constantly exposed to parental conflict. Single-parenthood may be worse on average than two parents, but it might be better than conflict-ridden families in many individual cases. As economists, we are used to asking "what's the next-best alternative?" A comparison of the real choices facing families might mean that the two-parent solution is the worse one. And, of course, different averages say nothing by themselves about the underlying distributions and degree of overlap.
That said, there are still policy measures we can take to help divorced parents, especially women, go it alone. One possibility is to move from "unilateral divorce" to "divorce by consent." This is not an abandonment of "no-fault" but rather a requirement that both parties consent to the divorce, whatever the reasons. The argument, best made by Alan Parkman, is that this would create opportunities for Coasean bargaining that would improve the situation of the parent left with the kids when the other bails (usually the man bailing and the women left with the kids, but not always).
The other point is that focusing only on the outcomes for the children ignores the interests of the parents. When family policy gets nearly-exclusively concerned with children, we run the danger of Helen Lovejoyism. Yes, children are really important, but parents matter too. And policy issues always involve trade-offs. Single parenthood, whether through divorce or by declining marriage, might be somewhat worse for children, but it might also be better for the parent than the alternative. Even if the evidence suggests that kids do better/best in two-parent families, if they are doing "well enough" (whatever that might be) in other family structures and those other family structures also serve the needs of parents (e.g., getting a woman out of an awful marriage), then it isn't clear a priori that there's a problem here. Policy should not be aiming for the corner solution of "but won't somebody think of the children?" but for trying to account for what's best for both the kids and the adults. I have no answers as to where exactly the optimal solution lies, but I'm pretty sure it's at neither corner and I'm also quite sure that just because two distributions have different means (two parent vs. single parent families), it doesn't mean that every observation in the lower mean distribution is below the mean of the higher one.
Sorry for running off at the keyboard here, but the exchanges at Cato Unbound were terrific and got me thinking about a bunch of issues. Plus blogging is just a form of drafting for other projects, right?