The right’s silly obsession with marriage


1:00 pm - October 17th 2009

by Chris Dillow    


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The right’s prejudice in favour of marriage can sometimes lead it to some very sloppy thinking. Two recent pieces suggest this. First, the Spectator’s leader cites ONS research showing that married men are more likely to find work that single ones, and infers that “perhaps it’s time to chivvy the unemployed to church.”

This inference suffers from two problems. One is: why does marriage enhance employability? It could be because marriage causes men to want to work more, perhaps to escape the wife’s nagging. Or it could be that marriage is merely correlated with factors that make men attractive to employers: good social skills, reliability, a conventional mindset etc.

There’s lots of research (pdf) on this question – none of which the Spectator cites – which is gloriously ambiguous.

This question matters. If the marriage-employability link is correlative rather than causal, then chivvying the unemployed to get married won’t improve their chances of getting a job, simply because it won’t give them the features that make men employable.

But even if the relationship is causal, there’s another problem – the fallacy of composition.  It might be true that being married increases an individual man’s chances of finding work. But for all men, the chances of getting work depend upon aggregate demand.  Yes, you could tell a story in which  if men become more employable, demand for labour will eventually increase. But it won‘t do so immediately, and the Speccie doesn’t even try to tell this story.

Speaking of bad articles brings me to Jan Moir‘s now notorious piece. On first reading, I thought this was cunningly written, intended to convey an innuendo without exactly saying so. Reading her “apology”, however, makes me suspect it’s just slovenly rubbish.

Now, many people have objected to Moir’s frothing, hateful, sickening homophobia. There is, though, another flaw – she’s committed an elementary howler of reasoning. She’s taken two cases – the deaths of Kevin McGee and Stephen Gately – and drawn some kind of inference: “the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships“, a “more dangerous lifestyle”.

But she hasn’t asked the basic question: what is the sample from which these observations are drawn? She seems to be drawing inferences from the extreme of a distribution without asking: what are the properties of that distribution? This is just irrational.

Had she began from those cases, then asked: are gay civil partnerships generally less happy than straight marriages? and produced good evidence on this question, she might have had a perfectly acceptable article.

As it is, she’s just failed statistics 101, and shown an inability to think.
I say this not to question the value of marriage; for some legitimate evidence, try this pdf. I do so merely to point out that some of its advocates sometimes produce mere irrational babble.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


1. Luis Enrique

and, even supposing Moir had thought accurately about distributions, the next question is where she’d go from there. Let’s say she had constructed a sensible argument that the distribution of “likelihood of having a threesome” or “likelihood of taking drugs” does differ between gays and straights, Moir proceeds as if this would somehow invalidate arguments for “tolerance and understanding” and validate nasty homophobic prejudice. So even if she was statistically literate, she’d still be a small minded bigot.

Apparently, there are some measurable health benefits from being married:

“We provide evidence in this paper that marriage has a much more important (positive) effect on longevity than high income does. For men, it almost exactly offsets the large negative effect of smoking. Economics, however, plays little or no role. After controlling for health at the start of the 1990s, we find no reliable evidence that income affects the probability of death over the subsequent decade.”
http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/faculty/oswald/augmortalitygardneros2002final.pdf

Never mind marriage, there are important social benefits from children growing up in stable families:

“One quarter of the adult prison population has been in care and almost 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children (only 2% of the general population spend time in prison).”
http://www.thewhocarestrust.org.uk/pages/the-statistics.html

Bob B: Both observations are about incidence rather than causality (what may create a benefit).

In your first case, it may be that happiness (rather than marriage, per se) explains the health benefits. Or perhaps miserable gits don’t marry and thus become happy. Or something else.

In the second case, I note your use of the expression “stable families”. The institution of marriage does not guarantee stable families.

In the worst case, when children need to be taken from their parents, why assume that the state or voluntary organisation is a bad parental substitute? It does not have to be the case.

Personally I rather like the idea that children grow up with the two humans who created them. If marriage strengthens that arrangement than so be it. Obviously marriages don’t work all the time and the law should take that into account. What bothers me though is those on the Left who seem to have it in for marriage (which admittedly is a minority).

@5: “Both observations are about incidence rather than causality (what may create a benefit)”

There are well-known philosophical issues in defining and demonstrating “causality”, with especially challenging contributions from Hume and Popper:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hume#Causation

I’m aware that statistical correlations don’t conclusively establish causality but large correlations, whether positive or negative, are impressive evidence of likely causal relationships and the citations posted above provide impressive evidence.

After all, for the proposition to be meaningfully scientific according to Popper, those who claim the social extent of married relationships yields no social benefits at all are obligated to say what observations would constitute a refutation of the claim. If no conceivable observations can refute the claim then we may conclude that the claim can be disregarded as worthless.

Even this following diluted claim, about the stability of married relationships, yields insights:

“Some relationships are more stable than others. Although marriages tend to be more stable than either cohabiting or dating relationships, this could be a function of the couples who choose to get married, rather than a feature of the state of marriage.”
http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/0/2/0/0/1/p20016_index.html

Given the observed decline in social propensities to marry in many affluent countries, we can consider why that is so and what the likely social consequences are.

In his seminal study, Bowling Alone, Putnam suggests that there is a declining trend in virtually all social bonds of personal relationships in America:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bowling_Alone

If so, that is likely to have wide ranging implications, perhaps especially concerning the extent of trust, a social bond about which Francis Fukuyama wrote this:

“people who do not trust one another will end up cooperating only under a system of formal rules and regulations, which have to be negotiated, agreed to, litigated and enforced, sometimes by coercive means. . . .Widespread distrust in a society . . . imposes a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity, a tax that high-trust societies do not have to pay.” Francis Fukuyama: Trust (Penguin, 1996) p.27.

Which might explain why the old motto of the London Stock Exchange apparently no longer applies: My word is my bond, and the current widely distributed pressure for tougher regulation of financial markets.

‘I’m aware that statistical correlations don’t conclusively establish causality but large correlations, whether positive or negative, are impressive evidence of likely causal relationships and the citations posted above provide impressive evidence.’

If the correlation of success in relationships and employment is epiphenomenal then the SIZE of the correlation is irrelevant.

‘After all, for the proposition to be meaningfully scientific according to Popper, those who claim the social extent of married relationships yields no social benefits at all are obligated to say what observations would constitute a refutation of the claim’

You’ve got that arse over tit: it’s not for those who reject the supposed causal link to disprove it, it’s for those who claim it exists to demonstrate it.

There’s a correlation between global warming and a reduction in the numbers of men dressed like pirates. I don’t think there’s a causal link; if someone can demonstrate such a link I’ll accept it but I’m not going to buy a parot and an eyepatch until they’ve done so.

“You’ve got that arse over tit: it’s not for those who reject the supposed causal link to disprove it, it’s for those who claim it exists to demonstrate it. ”

No. As Hume pointed out in the 18th century, a finite number of observations cannot logically prove a proposition purporting to hold for an unlimited number of cases.

Consider the familiar example: “it is unlucky to walk under ladders.” Those who walk under a ladder are likely to suffer some misfortune at some future time. Would that demonstrate the truth of the proposition? No. The objection to the proposition is that it cannot be rebutted by reference to experience because there is always the possibility that some unwelcome event will transpire eventually after walking under a ladder.

Scientific theories are (only) hypotheses: we have confidence in the hypotheses if they have been subject to many falsification tests and survived the tests. Even then, it may eventually happen that someone comes along with a more general theory which subsumes the previous theory as a special case. This is what happened when Newton’s theories of motion – which were adequate for predicting planetary orbits in the solar system – became a special case of Eistein’s theory of relativity because the latter could explain a wider range of phenomena, including events at near light speeds, which Newton’s theories could not. Surviving scientific theories remain scientific hypotheses.

Those proclaiming it is a prejudice to favour marriage have a difficulty reconciling that with the observed beneficial effects on male longevity – although not necessarily female longevity – and the evidence that children brought up in stable family relationships are less likely to suffer health problems or end up in the care or prison systems. And married relationships, as a fact, are more enduring, on average, than cohabiting relationships.

Note: in Britain, we are now in a situation where nearly half of all children are born to couples who are not married.

This is all a bit much for a Sunday morning so I shall need to go and rest soon.

But do you agree that it is generally better for the child to be born into loving, stable relationships and that we should therefore not be encouraging people, through the benefits systems, to have children outside of marriage?

Clearly encouraging marriage is not the best way – the reason children are better of in married families is precisely because the couple is not forced or encouraged by the state to wed – but we should consider removing or reducing the encouragement to have children outside of marriage.

To put it another way, if you pay single women to have children, you’re going to have lots of single mothers.

“To put it another way, if you pay single women to have children, you’re going to have lots of single mothers.”

It’s a serious mistake to discount the potency of economic motivation, I agree, but unwelcome consequences could also flow from failing to support single mothers as well. With almost half of all children born to unmarried couples nowadays, turning back the clock to times when almost all children were born to married couples is likely to prove challenging.

As for the range of economic motives, it is now much easier for women to get a good education and hold well-paid jobs alongside single parenting.

“WOMEN university students now outnumber men across all subject areas, from engineering to medicine and law to physical sciences.”
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-2356965.html

If we are wanting to change the economic motivation for single parenting, we might need to change that too but I wouldn’t advise doing so, not least because of the electoral consequences. Personally, I blame Daniel Defoe for writing this in 1719:

“I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women. We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence; while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves.”
http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1719defoe-women.html

Mark M @ 10

To put it another way, if you pay single women to have children, you’re going to have lots of single mothers.

Isn’t that premise based on a rather ridiculous implication though? Surely, you are not asserting that single women are ‘paid’ by the state to have children? For such a claim to be even half way true, you would have to pretend that bringing up a child has zero cost. Of course, most people realise that child rearing is an expensive business.
For there to be any ‘profit’ in such a venture, you would have to take the cost of bringing up a child from the benefits that woman receives. I would like to see such a GENIUNE comparison between a married/co-habiting couples against a single mother’s ‘profit’ for having a child.
Of course, you then have to completely have to discount the human element in this. Relationships breaking down, unplanned pregnancy, chaotic lifestyles, abuse etc.

Okay, forget all the nonsense, forget all the PC for a second. Let us assume that the evidence is confirmed and marriage (as opposed to every other family unit) is proved to better for society.

How do you encourage marriage and help people into wedded bliss; and just as importantly, how do you keep people who hate each other stay in a marriage?

I mean, of course, help people who are not likely to get married as opposed to rewarding those are already married or likely to get married anyway.

#13: “How do you encourage marriage and help people into wedded bliss; and just as importantly, how do you keep people who hate each other stay in a marriage?”

That’s a good, very pertinent question. As best I can make out the usual proposal is to re-introduce tax breaks for married couples but not for cohabiting couples.

Btw about 5 years ago I noticed that around where I lived in London, the majority of women had taken to wearing trousers/jeans/slacks instead of skirts and dresses. Today, on a regular Sunday shopping trip by bus, I thought I’d do a rough ‘n’ ready poll of the women I saw out shopping: none were wearing skirts or dresses, all were wearing trousers/jeans/slacks regardless of age, height or shape.

When I worked ‘oop north in the early 1980s, a young woman colleague was threatened by a very senior official with instant dismissal if she came in again the following day wearing a tailored trousered suit. How times change.

About a quarter of the drivers on the buses I depend on for travel are women. I live close to one of the major trunk routes out of London to the south coast ports: it is not at all unusual to see women, some young and very bonny looking, driving heavy commercial vehicles.

“The Left hate families . . ”

And Berlusconni, prime minister of Italy, is a model family man?

How about the late Rt Hon Alan Clark MP?

“what Clark felt for the girl who began working for him in 1988 was very different from his vigorously sexual relationships with women such as Valerie Harkness, the wife of a South African judge, and her daughters Josephine and Alison Harkness, who were also bedded by the insatiable Clark and whom he jovially called ‘the coven’.”
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1189588/Revealed-The-identity-woman-Alan-Clark-considered-leaving-wife-for.html

And the late Bob Boothby?

“Boothby had a colourful, if reasonably discreet private life, mainly because the press refused to print what they knew of him, or were prevented from doing so. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, said in a 1991 interview with Woodrow Wyatt that “The press knew all about it”, referring to his affairs.[2] She also described him as “a bounder but not a cad”.[2] He was married twice: in 1935 to Diana Cavendish (marriage dissolved in 1937) and in 1967 to Wanda Sanna. The writer and broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy has asserted that Boothby fathered at least three children by the wives of other men[3] (two by one woman, one by another). From 1930 he had a long affair with Dorothy Macmillan, wife of the Conservative politician and later Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Boothby,_Baron_Boothby

Etc.

Bob B @ 14

“As best I can make out the usual proposal is to re-introduce tax breaks for married couples but not for cohabiting couples.”

This is rather typical of the Right’s position on ‘marriage’, however, that rather misses the point somewhat. For a start is normally about punishing the co-habiting couple and it goes without saying that the evil ‘single mother’ gets it in the neck too.

It doesn’t explain how such a tax cut would encourage single mothers living in a grotty council house in a grotty council estate to get hitched to a jobless teenager with no prospects of ever working.

Nor does it explain how some horny guy who is willing to shag the local barmaid at the risk of everything is going to resist her charms for the sake of twenty quid a week, or turn the gay straight, or stop incest, or child abuse or people arguing/fighting/domestic violence/rape or everything else that ends marriages.

To be honest, this is a way of smuggling a tax cut to the rich, middle class, stable families in happy circumstances, and penalising those whose lives have not turned out as nice.

Perhaps if the population had decent and comfortable lives then they would be more likely to get married.

Curiously: “it was the Conservatives under John Major who began cutting the married couple’s tax allowance in 1994/95. It was finally abolished by a Labour government in 2000. The allowance appears to have had little effect on the marriage rates in England and Wales. Marriage has been in steady decline for many years.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/6287486.stm

An interesting chart there and data relating to the trend change in marriage rates. I wonder why marriage has been in steady decline for many years?

Divorce has also been in steady decline. Perhaps the people who would’ve got divorced are now not getting married in the first place.

BobB @14:

Btw about 5 years ago …

… I’d really like to know how everything in your post which follows this relates to the disccussion? It appears to be a rant on the subject of how women should be at home looking after their husband rather than working, you know, jobs; and how they should always wear skirts (the only rationale for which seems to be that it’s easier to lift a skirt off a struggling woman than it is to pull her trousers down). Seriously, could you clarify how the hell that pair of paragraphs belongs in this debate?


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