Friday, 18 June 2010

Set Subsidy to Love

Now it's time to push on from my post on pro-freedom attitudes towards the family. There, I argued that ideological attempts to control the shape and dynamics of other people's families have no honest warrant and yield evil consequences. That was setting out my own view of a genuinely family-friendly policy, i.e. that the friendliest policy was for people to mind their own business about other people's living and child-rearing arrangements as far as humanely possible.

Today I want to carry the play into my opponents' half of the pitch, and argue that inasfar as their own objectives are credible, 'family friendly' economic policies must still tend to subvert and frustrate them.

'Family friendly' policies fall into two linked classes: those that promote marriage, and those that promote childbirth and child-rearing. For this post, I shall consider the former.

There are four typical pretexts for encouraging people to marry. These are: the promotion and rationing of approved sexual relations; the intrinsic benefits of marriage to the couple; the wider economic efficiency of marriage; and the promotion of child-rearing in a 'stable' home background. Here I'll look at the first three. What effect will economic incentives for marriage have on each?

The idea that people's sexuality will be affected by a tax break or benefit tweak is, to put it mildly, ludicrous even were its desirability granted. The idea that their fidelity or monogamousness - by no means the same thing - can be so constrained, is even more ridiculous. If the spouse is at least tolerant of extra-marital sex, the incentive has no effect; if they are not, then I would humbly suggest that the loss of a transfer payment will barely register on the horizon of Costs Of A Potential Break-Up. We can flush this turd right down the Toilet of Debate without more ado.

Alas, it is a floater. Back it comes bobbing up when we look at the other Number Two: the intrinsic benefits of marriage to a couple. According to this argument, marriage makes people happier, longer-lived, more virtuous, and quite possibly stops hair growing on the palms of their hands. However, it requires at least some sacrifice. The weak-willed may not be able to steel themselves to it; the indigent may simply not be able to afford the investment. A cheap and gentle boost over this hump may greatly increase the sum of human weal. So why not?

Remember, I am not this time concerned with whether romantic heterosexual monogamy (my private preference), or shacking up with one's closest possible cousin to produce a race of kings, or a cold-blooded rationalistic choice of the partner who promises the most future profit and pleasure, are good or bad things for anybody or everybody. I am only concerned with whether their advocates can buy with economic incentives what they think they are buying.

I say they can do no such thing.

Let us presume that, whatever the form of marriage favoured, it has the supposed benefits. For whom has it been observed to have such benefits? For the population of those who have hitherto chosen to marry.

Furthermore, by universal observation, not all marriages are equal. Some are very good partnerships indeed. Others are so bad, and so intimate and thorough in their badness, that at least one partner will kill themselves suddenly or by degrees to be shot of even the memory of them.

Those who are most inclined to marry, from amongst the pool of potential partners who will actually have them, are by definition those who have already done so. Whatever the intrinsic benefits of marriage may be, these are those who value them most for their own sake. Those who need an economic nudge will clearly be drawn from amongst those who value either marriage itself, or the specific partners whom they can woo into it, to a lesser degree. Thus, any material incentive can be expected to reduce the average quality of marriages. As the incentive increases, the initial quality of each new marriage added at the margin must decrease correspondingly, until at some point each new marriage becomes an actively destructive one.

Further, it is not clear that such secondary material benefits as more robust mental and physical health could possibly inhere in marriage itself. If they are the products of mutual support and affection, then bad or merely insincere marriages engineered to obtain them are likely to prove grievously disappointing in their fruits.

The level at which incentives to marry become destructive of marriage's non-mercenary purposes, cannot possibly be extracted a priori from any honest value system. It may be zero. It may even be negative - that is, it is logically possible that only a marriage-fine (a custom with plenty of historical precedent) can possibly weed out mischievous marriages contracted idly, wantonly, and without the slightest intention of fulfilling any of the commitments involved.

Since there are costs involved in all involuntary financial transfers, as well as injuries done to the unmarried individuals from whose labours any marriage premium must be funded, the default assumption about that premium ought to be that it is zero.

All this holds true whatever the nature and benefits of marriage are supposed to be, provided only that marriage is not being promoted solely on the grounds that it increases the partners' economic efficiency, and that the results are positively correlated with the partners' free mutual choice of each other.

What about that third possibility - that marriage promotes economic efficiency, and is therefore a utilitarian candidate for funding?

If the gains accrue to the partners, then there is no case for subsidy at all - that would just be taking from those who have not, and giving to those who have. If they accrue to others, who are those others, and why should couples or n-tuples be paid to serve their interests?

The usual answer is 'children', and I will defer responding to that one.

Another credible possibility is that some class of rent-takers are able to extract special gains from the efficiencies produced by combining other peoples' households, and possibly to exploit marriages by other means as well. If these panders are in or close to positions of power, this would explain much about the 'family friendly' cant pervading the modern rent-taking policy-making community.

And, what do you know, I see several clear opportunities for just such enterprise!

I will inspect these in my next family friendly post.

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