Megan McArdle asks in an article titled “Why Do Economists Urge College, But Not Marriage?” the question we wonder. Of course, it’s not just that we don’t encourage marriage, we actively penalize it in the USA (that’s before counting things like divorce theft and the threatpoint of family “law.”)
College improves your earning prospects. So does marriage. Education makes you more likely to live longer. So does marriage. Yet while many economist (sic) vocally support initiatives to move more people into college, very few of them vocally favor initiatives to get more people married. Why is that, asks Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry? His answer:
Meanwhile, economists’ “cosmopolitan perspective” (as Cowen puts it) makes them not feel good at the idea of public policy that would interfere with personal choices (allowing for a second that getting married is a “personal choice” in a way that going to college isn’t). Most economists think that government should not interfere or have a stance one way or another with decisions that feel intimate to people. That is a complete value judgement. And it’s a completely defensible one.
But at the level of the economics profession, this leads to bias: much more ink is spilled on, and thought given to the college wage premium than the marriage wage premium. One is mostly praised and interpreted in a certain way, while the other is mostly ignored. And, of course, the thing that academic economics focuses on has an effect on elite debate and public policy, especially when the socially liberal, pro-higher ed biases of economists line up well with those of the rest of the elite.(bold added)
Now, of course, we observe some truisms. The mentally retarded are unlikely to marry, and unlikely to live long. It’s a bad bet to take as a spouse a woman whose father died of Huntington’s disease; she has a 50% chance of carrying the gene for it and dying in her 30s, leaving you to care for the children she might have given the gift of the Huntington’s gene herself. So it is perhaps the case not that marriage makes one healthier, but that healthier people are more likely to get married. The same would hold with economics; in a Patriactionary world, economic status would again loom large (as it does to some extent today) as a spur to marriage. What is cause and what effect is not easy to tease out, but real, 1.0 marriage provided benefits to men, women, and especially children, the future of any society.
McArdle has a few other ideas. “(I) gravitate towards a more parsimonious explanation: all economists are, definitionally, very good at college. Not all economists are good at marriage. Saying that more people should go to college will make 0% of your colleagues feel bad. Saying that more people should get married and stay married will make a significant fraction of your colleagues feel bad.”
In the end, having the government come out explicitly in favor of marriage is likely to lead to the same sort of catastrophic collapse that state churches caused in religious belief in places like Sweden. One envisions Ben Stein as a minister, reading the marriage rite with the same enthusiasm with which he once called “Bueller? Bueller?“