Monday, July 12, 2004

Does Divorce Encourage or Discourage Marriage?

The gay marriage debate has gotten me thinking about the effect of divorce on marriage. That divorce has a deleterious effect on marriage as an institution is a notion shared by both the advocates of gay marriage (“What’s really undermining marriage is divorce, not homosexuality”) and opponents (“Gay marriage, like divorce, will further the degradation of traditional marriage”). But is it really true that divorce is bad for marriage?

From an economic perspective, the answer is ambiguous. Marriage is a kind of contract. Divorce is a means of ending the contractual relationship. What happens when you make it easier to get out of a contract? On the one hand, people will be less inclined to enter a contract if the other party can bail out, potentially leaving you in a difficult situation (say, stranding your relationship-specific investments). On the other hand, people will be more inclined to enter a contract if they know they can end the relationship when it’s no longer beneficial for themselves. For example, if I like an apartment but I’m unsure I’ll enjoy living there, I’m more inclined to rent on a short-term lease. Likewise, if the landlord think I like a good tenant but can’t be certain, they’re more inclined to rent to me on a short-term lease. There’s a reason that business contracts often contain escape clauses: without such an option, some parties won’t contract in the first place.

The application to marriage is straightforward: easier divorce could increase or decrease the number of marriages performed. The participants in some potential marriages are made better off by divorce, others worse off. Now, the conservative defenders of marriage might argue that the total number of marriages, or the satisfaction of the participants, is not the issue – the real issue is having stable marriages, and easy divorce decreases stability through both the routes described above. People become less willing to make investments in a relationship that might end, and they become more willing to enter such relationships lightly because they have an escape hatch.

But why do we want marriages to be stable? The main argument is “the good of the children.” Realize that many couples who might consider marriage already have kids (or kids on the way). Being unsure about the lastingness of their relationship, they might be unwilling to marry if marriage is hard to quit, but willing to give it a try if it’s easy to quit. If they get married with an easy divorce option, the kids could end up better off because their parents are more inclined to stay together than if they hadn’t tied the knot. And even if the parents wind up getting divorced, arguably the kids are no worse off than if the parents had never married in the first place and eventually went their separate ways.

I’m not claiming the effect just described is significant enough to make easy divorce, on net, a good thing. But it is something to keep in mind, because it means that divorce’s effects are ambiguous in theory, even if we focus solely on its effects on children. In principle, it would make most sense to allow couples to choose the terms of their own marriage contracts. That would allow couples who feel the need for an escape clause to include one, without obligating other couples who want a stronger commitment to follow suit.

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