Families and time preferences: Should a libertarian society be childfree and polyamorous?

Usually when libertarians talk about marriage, it’s about how the government shouldn’t be involved. When we talk about children, we debate whether or not we can sell them. Rarely do we ever talk about the role of the family in a free society. The US is experiencing a huge decline in the nuclear family, and with it, some very clear economic costs. Fewer people are getting married and the ones who do are waiting longer to take the leap. The average number of children per family is down to .9 from 1.3 in 1970, causing some people to refer to our current period as the “baby bust.” In the face of these statistics and the popularity of social experimentation among young libertarians, it is essential to take another look at the role of the nuclear family in relation to both the well-being of society and the individual.

At first glance, it’s easy to look at these statistics and sing the praises of human progress and individualism. In his article, Capitalism and the Family, Steve Horwitz argues it was capitalism that pulled women out of the household and into the workforce, while simultaneously reducing the demand for child labor. In other words, the birth rate declined and women were able to focus on building their careers before getting married.

While I admire independent women (and men, for that matter) and respect a couple’s personal decision to have fewer or no children, I think my generation is going to experience a huge amount of non-buyer’s remorse for choosing the #singlelyfe or the increasingly popular DINK life. To be clear, I think that less child labor and more working women is likely a good thing; I just think that the pendulum may have swung too far to the other side in an attempt to rebel against the “shackles” of traditionalism.

As Bryan Caplan would say, people who choose to live a “childfree”, unmarried life seem to be suffering from myopia. Marriage and children have huge upfront costs – weddings, name changes, hospital bills, babysitters! The list goes on and on. But for both marriage and children, many of the benefits come later in life.

Marriage as a social institution is an economic powerhouse. In a study done by the Employee Benefit Research Group, researchers found that married workers were more likely to have a savings plan and were surveyed as being much more confident in their ability to provide for themselves in old age than single workers. According to another study issued in 2012 by economists James Poterba of MIT, Steven Venti of Dartmouth, and David Wise of Harvard, the median married household has $111,600 in savings as opposed to the $12,500 of the median single-person household.

Financial savings of households with those aged 6569 in 2008

Marriage seems to be an incredible downward force on time preference rates, causing couples to prefer future well-being over immediate consumption. Not only is more savings a good thing for the person/people who get to enjoy them, but as any good Austrian economist will tell you, savings is essential for increasing capital, and in turn, essential for economic growth. Savings decreases interest rates, frees up resources, and signals to entrepreneurs that more, longer-term profits are now available. Even for those who are not interested in marriage, they stand to benefit from living in a society where marriage is common.

The economic benefits of marriage go beyond just splitting costs and pooling resources. Married couples in which both individuals work outside of the household have the benefit of choosing between two healthcare plans, allowing them to gain in ultimate value by comparing packages. Married couples are also perceived as less risky and therefore enjoy lower auto insurance rates, instant life insurance quotes over 50 and more favorable loan offers. And of course, there are all of the little things that add up over time, like family discounts.

So, if marriage is such an economically efficient way of living, wouldn’t resource-sucking children only prove to be a burden? Yes and no.

Children cost a lot when they’re growing up, but the marginal cost of children falls with each new addition. This is precisely one of the many points Bryan Caplan makes in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. One of the points that he doesn’t make as much is that children are also more likely than strangers to help take care of you when you’re older. Not all kids will be willing to help, but on the whole, they’re probably more likely to write a check to your nursing home than your dog. If they can’t pay for a fancy facility, they may have an extra room for you to crash in during your final years. If they don’t have the money or space, at the very least, they will visit you in your nursing home.

I’ve heard justifications for the DINK life based almost solely on happiness data. As Caplan indicates, people without children tend to be slightly happier than people with children (every child makes you about 1 percentage point less likely to call yourself very happy). With this in mind, I don’t think basing life choices off of certain statistical aggregates will give you the whole picture. In fact, in 2003 Gallup conducted a poll on adults with and without children. The findings: nearly two-thirds of all childless people over 40 wished they had had children, while 91 percent of parents said they would do it over again if they could. The conclusion: raising kids isn’t a blast at the time, but people who participated liked it, and people who didn’t wished they had.

Marriage and families are very useful traditions. In a world where time is scarce, traditions act as models to help us make decisions about our life by relying on the experiences of the past. This isn’t to say that we should follow every tradition we come across; some are more useful than others depending on each of our individual circumstances. Models are just like maps. Maps are great for helping us get from point A to point B, but if our goal is to appreciate and view all of the different kinds of trees along a certain pathway, then our map may not fit our circumstances.

Given the success and benefits of the nuclear family, I am confused as to why libertarians are more enthralled by the rationalism of social experimentation rather than the careful study of tradition. While social experimentation serves a key role in society, it is only part of the larger picture. Needlessly pushing social boundaries without  an understanding of tradition is to reject all of the knowledge of the past, reinvent the wheel, and in this case in particular, possibly compromise your future well-being and happiness.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts. At the ISI seminar this past week I told the students that I had made any number of mistakes in my career. But marrying at 24 and having children in grad school was not one of them. As I write I am visiting my oldest son and his three grandchildren. He was born midway through my masters program. I am sure it cost time and money. But that hardly seems important now.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. This article is so true. As libertarians we tend to drive down this lane of theoretical concepts and almost ignores that libertarianism covers only a part of our life. It doesn’t solve all of our problems in life, however it does put you on the right track. We still need to build up a life that allows us to practice being a libertarian.


  3. You couldn’t be more wrong. Those of us who are married and child free (by the way that’s 1 in 5 women over the age of 40!) couldn’t be happier. How about just respecting our life choices and leave it at that – not imposing your values or life choices. And seriously!? You implied that people make the choice based on statistical data!? What planet are you from – people make decisions based on their values, priorities, life stages, health factors, and more. Before you comment (judge!) others about some things so deeply personal, at least try interviewing a large sample of childfree women and men (young and old) before making such erroneous assumptions about supposed regret. By the way, the reasons most people cite for having kids is what is really selfish – it’s all based on “I want x”…. “x” being to pass on my genes, have someone to care for me when I’m old, to keep from being lonely, etc. Or worse yet – most people just have kids without even thinking about it – they just do it because of societal pressure and then can’t take it back. I know all too many people that when in a safe environment to admit it, say they love their kids, but if they had it to do over again, they wouldn’t.


      1. Yes, “anonymous” – I’ve read that and many more research results and articles. It is accepted across numerous studies that the current # is 1 in 5 women over the age of 40 (the accepted age at which most childbearing years is considered to be past) do not have children, most of them by choice. Interesting that you call it a “diatribe” just because I voiced an opinion. If you had any idea the negative, rude, judgmental, intrusive, and ridiculous comments I have to deal with almost daily you might understand. It’s interesting that as a woman I get the third degree and treated as if I’m less of a person while no one EVER mentions it to my husband. I hope you (and anyone else reading this) at least use this an opportunity to educate yourself on how many more women/couples are childfree and happy… and hopefully it will help encourage more compassion, eradicate rude and intrusive comments, and lessen the unwanted pity. Try this article: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/06/25/childlessness-up-among-all-women-down-among-women-with-advanced-degrees/ or this one:http://womensenews.org/story/books/120915/smart-women-not-having-kids-or-getting-support#.U-vdKHl0zcs or this one: http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201104/no-baby-boom-non-breeders or this one: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/complete-without-kids/201202/childfree-choice-growing-trend or this one: http://researchshows.bangordailynews.com/2013/09/18/home/setting-the-record-straight-on-6-myths-about-childless-adults/


      2. Yes, “Anonymous”, I did read it… AND I’ve read MANY more studies and articles on the topic. The prevailing research says that 1 in 5 women over the age of 40 (the norm for the end of child bearing years) do not have children, most by choice. I would share a few of those links here but I doubt you’d read them – if you’re interested, please feel free to Google it. I will share just one from Pew (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2010/06/25/childlessness-up-among-all-women-down-among-women-with-advanced-degrees/ )

        I find it interesting that just because I have an opinion, you call my comment a “diatribe” (a forceful and bitter verbal attack against someone or something) so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you did that by mistake or just didn’t know what it meant.

        What you fail to understand (because you clearly haven’t walked in my shoes) is that I have a strong POV (not a “bitter or aggressive verbal attack”) because of the narrow-minded, ugly, selfish, invasive comments and questions I’m met with regularly. As a woman, I’m met with judgment and/or pity while my husband is NEVER asked a thing nor judged. It’s infuriating that some people act as if a woman without children is some how “less than”… and articles like the one posted here just reinforce it. Most people that have kids don’t even think it through, they just go with the pronatalist society we live in and do it just because… however, ask any woman/couple without children by choice and you’ll find a RESPONSIBLE, THOUGHTFUL, ACCOUNTABLE thought process.

        I sincerely hope that dialogue about this will help open people’s eyes and HEARTS to respect women/couples for their choices (not guilt or shame them) and exercise some compassion. My choice not to have children doesn’t mean your choice to have them is bad. They’re just different choices — but pronatalist, ill-informed articles/posts like the one we’re both commenting on doesn’t help. This kind of thinking is based on breeding fear and marginalizing good people.

        With love… and yet a strong opinion,
        Childfree Christian Woman Who is Tired of the Pronatalist Assumptions and Child Worship in Our Society


      3. P.S. The article’s study (and the one you linked) was from 2003, the one I referenced was from 2010… there are more recent ones you can find if you’re really interested in the subject.


    1. Laura – you’re arguing personal anecdotes against statistical survey data, and you present the results of a more recent study which doesn’t measure the same thing as reported in the previous study as if it contradicts the previous one.

      *That* is why anonymous referred to your rant as a “diatribe” – you’re not addressing the question in a substantive way, and you’re not addressing the original post other than to pick a small nit, badly.


  4. Who is the author of this text? I might make a reference to this interesting idea (austrian economic analysis + marriage) in an article I’m writing, and I would be glad to cite him properly.


  5. This is a brilliant post!My saving grace is that my MIL doesn't speak English, so my husband handles all calls from her. And when we're in Brazil, I just pretend not to understand when she's being snarky or downright awful. [ .fqkj{position:absolute;clip:rect(445px,auto,auto,488px);}approval ]


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