Is Marriage a Good Economic Strategy?

This idea entirely belongs to my Microeconomics professor, Dr. Siddiq Abdullah, but it’s so good I have to post it.

Elasticity is the responsiveness of one thing to another, with the most common example being the responsiveness of quantity of a good demanded to price.  From consumer’s stand point, and that means you, elasticity is a good thing because it keeps prices low.  So in general, it pays to avoid getting in a situation where you have to keep buying a good, even if the price goes up (think of being a taxi driver when gas prices are high).

Which brings us to the subject of marriage. Marriage is expensive!  Imagine what you could get for signing this contract: exclusive use of your person, fifty-fifty revenue sharing of everything you make for the rest of your life, the certainty of new responsibilities as the contract evolves and worst of all, the contract lasts until death with an extremely expensive opt-out clause.  This price is far too high for nearly any good, but marriage is the price for the least elastic good of all, love.  The most important factors for determining elasticity are the availability of substitute goods and the necessity of consumption and once you fall in love there is only one thing and you must have it.  So we pay.

But then once a person gets married, the incentives are all backwards.  Before the wedding both people have to be on their best behavior to ensure that no one gets sticker shock, but after the wedding the contract last forever and there are prohibitive barriers to exit so that previously suppressed idiosyncrasies come to the fore.  In game theory, this is the sort of contest where everyone always loses because of the tragedy of the commons – namely, the costs of cheating (not that good kind of cheating that would make marriage less expensive) are borne collectively while the benefits of cheating are accrued personally.  People go through years of misery because, without needing a contract year push, their partners never remember to take out the trash, find the clothes hamper, or always have headaches when they are in the mood.

A better economic strategy would be short contracts of 3 or 5 years.  That would be time enough to ensure that no one would be rash about jumping into one, but not so long as to ruin anyone’s life.  This would ensure that everyone stays on their best behavior to guarantee that their contract gets renewed.

Now the obvious flaw in this scheme is having children.  It wouldn’t do to have children and then complete your contract and move along.  However, this is also the obvious flaw with marriage too: your original contract is expensive to get out of, but once you have kids a hidden rider activates and now you are really stuck.  If you decide anywhere in the 18-22 years of this new deal that you wish to leave, the cost is so extreme that many people will think you are immoral to even try.  Surely if, instead of marriages, we had shorter contracts then a system would be worked out to accommodate children to our rational, self-interested lives.  In the meantime, try to avoid having any children during your first contract, perhaps you can agree to a longer term contract the second go-round once you have made sure you know what you are dealing with.  I mean, this is why universities have a tenure track, and there is no way that is more of a commitment then having a kid.

Or even better, never fall in love at all, because all the gain is in getting people to fall in love with you.

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2 Responses to Is Marriage a Good Economic Strategy?

  1. peniel says:

    There was a Celtic tradition popular in the late middle ages called “handfasting”, in which a couple would execute a trial marriage that lasted for one year and one day. After that time the couple could continue a matriamonial arrangement if both parties agreed. Otherwise, the deal is off and everyone goes home with no hard feelings. Who knows what impact this practice had on the culture from a social or economic standpoint. Either way, it apparently wasn’t a fix-all solution, and the ideal was eventually killed and has been dead for around 300 years. Your life would have been happier had you been born a few centuries earlier.

  2. Carr says:

    I know the impact this had on the culture: the Celts had fewer children later on on life as a direct result of this practice. Furthermore, inheritance law was complicated and wealth generally fizzled out. The Celts may have been more satisfied with their spouses, but when it came to defending themselves from invading Romans and Germanic tribes, they found themselves old, poor, and out-manned.

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