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.
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 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.