In honor of National Unmarried and Single Americans Week, I’m going to pose a question that may be somewhat controversial: Is there an economic rationale for government incentives to get married? By ‘government incentives to get married’, I’m talking about all the ways in which the government (and society in general) privileges married people. Of course, this is something that the gay community has been yelling about for a long time but I think many straight people don’t really, fully grasp the extent of the issue.* One widely-cited statistic is that there are over 1000 benefits, rights and protections in Federal laws that are based on marital status. Some of these benefits can still be obtained by the unmarried, with additional work (e.g., I can manually change the beneficiary for my retirement accounts or sign an advanced health directive so my partner can make medical decisions for me) but many are simply not available to unmarried people, period. It’s no wonder that single-sex couples are so eager to gain access to legal marriage (completely aside from the social acceptance aspect, of course).
But to me, the bigger question is: why should people have to get married to get these benefits in the first place? Is there any economic rationale for government policies that confer benefits on the married? In my Principles course, I teach my students that government intervention may be warranted in situations of market failure; that is, where the market outcome may be inefficient, such as when there are externalities, asymmetric information, natural monopolies, public goods or common resources. Alternatively, the government may want to intervene in some scenarios where the market outcome seems inequitable. But do either of these apply to marriage today?
Many of the pro-marriage laws on the books today were actually adopted decades ago, when the marriage market looked very different. In the 1950’s, few women worked so I can imagine that policies to encourage marriage and protect housewives could have been justified on equity grounds (i.e., marriage was a way for women to avoid poverty). But that obviously doesn’t make sense today. From an efficiency standpoint, the only argument I can think of must involve externalities somehow. That is, people other than a particular couple presumably benefit somehow from that couple being married. I guess the conservative argument is that married couples are more “stable” and better behaved (?) and this is therefore better for society than if those people were running around just cohabitating or being single. I don’t know that there is really much evidence of this – a quick Google search turned up lots of rhetoric along the lines of ‘family values’, and studies about how marriage benefits the people IN the marriage (though the psychologist Bella DePaulo has also written a lot about how those studies often don’t actually show causality), but I couldn’t find much showing that marriage, per se, has positive externalities, such as causing people to act any better (for society) than before they were married. The closest I could find was arguments about the impact on children (i.e., kids
do better when their parents stay together) but if that’s the basis for
government incentives, then all the benefits should only go to couples with
kids, not just anybody who is married.
Although I can’t think of a good argument for marriage benefit policies based on the standard idea of economic efficiency (i.e., the market ‘underprovides’ marriage so the government needs to provide incentives to boost consumption/production), I can imagine an argument based on administrative efficiency – i.e., some policies were probably adopted simply to reduce paperwork (e.g., most people would name their spouse as their beneficiary/spokesperson in most situations anyway so making that the default saves time and effort), or because “legal spouse” seems like an easy shortcut to identify “Very Important Person in my life”. But given that 46 percent of American households are now maintained by unmarried men or women (including 6.7 million specifically ‘unmarried-partner’ households), and the increasing trend in the percentage of couples choosing cohabitation over marriage, it seems like perhaps we should starting questioning whether marriage as the ‘default’ is really the most efficient way to go…
* Full disclosure: I am in a committed lifetime relationship but with no plans to get married because my partner is a relatively staunch Libertarian who doesn't think the government should be involved in the marriage game (for people of any sexual orientation). Because of this, I've been learning a lot about the things people have to do to work around policies that privilege the legally married.
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