Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The benefits of marriage

The Beatles were wrong: money can buy you love, it seems.

The Tories have reaffirmed their belief that the tax and benefits system should be used for social engineering:

“I think it's time to actually do more in the tax system and benefit system to recognise that we want couples to come together and stay together.”

And David Cameron added:

“If you support marriage, including through the tax system, that's not insulting very hard working single mums who are doing a brilliant job bringing up their children.”

He’s right: giving money to married parents isn’t in and of itself an insult to single parents. And as long as the money to pay for this falls out of the sky, then it won’t be an injury to single parents, either.

Whatever virtues marriage has as a source of stability for children is presumably very much to do with the attitudes of the parents: they are committed to raising their child well together, and their marriage (often) reflects this.

But what happens to the commitment-enabling properties of marriage when the state introduces financial incentives? This will introduce a new factor that distorts the parents’ attitudes.

Goodhart’s law will come into play: an indicator (marriage rates) that is made the target of government policy will, through this policy targeting, come to lose the significance that it originally held. By creating a link between getting married and receiving benefits, you weaken the link between wanting to make a responsible family commitment and getting married.

Children need good adult role models, preferably more than one – in fact, preferably as many as possible. But not all adults are good role models. Do we really think that these fathers (predominantly) who have looked into their own children’s eyes and not felt moved to act responsibly are going to suddenly become a good, caring influence by dint of having a bit of cash thrown at them?

If only there were some enlightened political leader who could open people’s eyes to “the distortion created by well-intentioned government targets”.

Update: Another thought has just occurred to me: if being married, for whatever reason, actually makes people more responsible and committed (rather than just reflecting a pre-existing commitment), then why not introduce forced marriages for antisocial youths for their moral betterment? As the old joke goes, marriage isn’t a word – it’s a sentence.


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