An economist takes on modern marriage

The New York Times Freakonomics blog is always provocative, and a guest post by economist Justin Wolfers on the history and economics of marriage is no exception.

Quoting from an earlier essay by himself and Betsy Stevenson, Wolfers argues that the history of family life has been a move from shared production to shared consumption–and that marriage has bcome an “hedonistic” institution as a result:

Here is how they describe tradtional marriage:

[F]amilies have always played a role in “filling in” where incomplete market institutions would otherwise have hindered economic development. For example, even in the absence of well-functioning contract law, families found ways to enforce agreements among kin. This naturally gave the family a role as an organizing device for economic activity, and the limits of the firm often coincided with the limits of the family. … Similarly, prior to the expansion of the welfare state, the family had been a key provider of insurance, as spouses agreed not only to support each other “through richer, through poorer, in sickness and in health,” but also extended this guarantee to parents, children, and siblings. Before modern credit markets arrived, access to capital was often facilitated through family ties. … A number of goods and services, such as freshly-cooked meals or childcare, were historically not sold in the market sector. Thus, the family became the firm producing these household services.

But, as they note, things have changed:

The forces shaping family life have changed with the development of the market economy. An increasingly sophisticated system of contract law has made possible enormous economic benefits, but in the process the modern corporation has come to supplant the family firm as the key unit of production. The development of social insurance has spread greater security to many but has reduced the role of the family as a provider of insurance. Most recently, technological, social and legal changes have reduced the value of specialization within households.

. . .

So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production to shared consumption. In case the language of economic lacks romance, let’s be clearer: modern marriage is about love and companionship. Most things in life are simply better shared with another. … The key today is consumption complementarities — activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives “hedonic marriage.”

The Freakonomics post can be found here. The original essay can be found here.

As we said at the outset, this is provocative stuff. Clearly, this is the view of marriage from an economic perspective, and does not purport to fully explain modern marriage. Still, what do you think?

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