Gary Stanley Becker Marriage

Gary Stanley Becker Marriage

Another of Becker's pathbreaking ventures is his development of an economic theory of marriage (1973, 1974), part of a growing literature on the economics of the family stimulated by his work and that of Theodore Schultz-on fertility and human capital.

Once Becker's method is understood, the relevance of his approach to the institution of marriage becomes apparent. Here is a major and persistent phenomenon with ramifications in every economy. Whatever the precise legal arrangements, the majority of adult humans have 'married' throughout recorded history. Individuals (or their parents in some cultures) choose amongst competing potential spouses in an attempt to maximise utility, measured in Becker's terms by the consumption of household-produced commodities of the kind discussed earlier. The ubiquity of marriage suggests to Becker that male and female labour is complementary in certain types of household production, not­ably the rearing of the partners' own children.

An individual marries when the expected gain from a partner­ship exceeds the expected cost of marriage in terms of the alternatives foregone (staying single or marrying the next best alternative spouse). Because of imperfect information, indi­viduals engage in search. This is costly, and therefore individuals may eventually settle for spouses with less than ideal cha­racteristics. Or they may engage in bargaining to achieve compensatory concessions; these may include sums of money (dowries etc.) or behavioural commitments (promises to give up fishing). In Becker's view, however, there is sufficient freedom of choice and sufficient information to ensure an equilibrium where there is a Pareto-optimal sorting of partners (any rearrangement of couples could only increase some individuals' utility at the cost of reducing that of other individuals).

The use of the household production approach as an analytical framework may seem simply an economist's joke, an intellectual game; certainly some of its conclusions seem banal. But it does throw up interesting predictions which other methodologies do not. For instance the approach predicts that gains from marriage-and therefore, presumably, the probability of marriage -will be greater for couples between whom there is a considerable variation in earning power, basically because there are greater 'gains from trade' within such a marriage if one partner specialises in paid work and the other in household production.

The analysis is developed further to incorporate non-selfish motives for entering marriage. 'Caring' for the partner is introduced: in the model this means that the individual's utility function includes the partner's consumption as well as his or her own. This is shown to affect the allocation of output produced by the marriage and increase the potential gains from it. The analysis is also linked to earlier work Becker produced on charity and social interaction.

Again the model is not tested in a systematic way and we occasionally get the impression that the anecdotal 'evidence' adduced is of slight value. However Becker has produced another paper (Becker, Landes and Michael 1977), which tests some of the ancillary predictions of the theory with reference to data on marital instability. For instance, the approach suggests that major changes in the variables on which potential spouses make their decisions to marry will make them reconsider their decisions; if divorce is cheap, marital dissolution may follow. This appears to be the case. For example, where earnings are unexpectedly higher or lower than originally anticipated, the probability of divorce increases. The amount of time spent in search is also related to marital instability; those marrying young, on the basis of limited information about the characteristics of their partner and available alternatives, are particularly liable to divorce. There is, then, something to be said for the approach. While it cannot explain all aspects of marriage, it does at least suggest that human mating behaviour is less tightly constrained by biological and institutional factors than is often suggested.