Till death us do apart

August 19, 1997

Till death us do apart

Dear Bridget,

When we crossed swords recently, you said that many of us who are concerned about modern trends in family life are simply gazing nostalgically at the 1950s, when both women and the working class allegedly knew their place. But I am not attempting to turn back the clock. I am simply worried about developments in family structure, because of the costs they impose both on the members of families and on society as a whole.

At least you spared me the command to "celebrate the family in all its diversity." But your arguments seem to come from the same liberal stable. Is the collapse of the family really to be welcomed because this in some way promotes the independence of women?

You say I want to have women once again "huddled over the washing lines on their council estates"-but this is exactly what modern trends have achieved. The single parents on income support-with almost 2m children to care for-are not exactly overburdened with lifestyle choices. You claim that they have "discovered at least a version of independence." Well, that is a new concept in political theory-how is a group almost entirely reliant on the goodwill of taxpayers in some way "independent"? They are not just married to, but shackled to the state.

The metropolitan professional elite can manage on their own, but that is no reason to project their experiences onto the rest of the population. Spare us from the Bel Littlejohn view of the world.

We are both economists, so let us use the jargon of our trade for a minute. Marriage as an institution carries positive externalities for the rest of society. In plain language: marriage in general brings benefits not only to the direct participants in the contract, but indirectly to a wide range of others. So it is in everyone's interest to promote it.

Take the evidence on children. It is now widely accepted that, on average, children brought up in a two-parent stable family do better than in other family types. It is well known that family break-up often damages children, even when it makes one of their parents happier. And the rest of society bears the costs which often follow.

At least as serious are the implications of modern family trends for the elderly. Stable families create a network of reciprocal obligation between generations, siblings and partners. This helps to ensure support in times of need and is the primary source of care in old age. The increase in lone-parent families, divorce and family reorganisation means that many millions of people have no close family ties of any kind. Who will look after the old in 30 or 40 years' time? The long-suffering taxpayer, that's who.

Marriage is a powerful source of social stability. It is a supportive framework in which to raise children and it provides a natural network of care for the elderly. It has also been an important way of socialising young men-something you are rightly concerned about. Whatever the shortcomings of this institution, it is the best we have got.

To perform its functions properly, marriage must have both a special status and special responsibilities. People should be encouraged to get and to stay married. Unfortunately, many of the fiscal and legal changes we have adopted in Britain are serving to undermine this institution. Of course, finance is only one of the reasons why people both get and stay married. That is why wider measures are needed, such as more difficult divorce and restoration of the concept of justice in the marriage contract, as well as shifts in the tax and benefit structures in favour of married couples.

None of this carries any moral overtones. It is just a recognition that, from a purely functional point of view, marriage serves both the participants and society as a whole better than the alternatives do.

Best wishes,


27th June 1997

Dear Paul,

Yes, I am a liberal. Actually, I am proud of it, and I think that you are in danger of taking the easy way out of the debate. It is too simple to jump from the statement that children do better in a stable two- parent family to the policy conclusion that marriage as an institution must be supported. For a start, it is still by no means clear to me that children always do better with two parents than one: the word "stable" carries various implications. But it seems to me that the language of economics which you have introduced can take us further than you allow it to.

You say, rightly, that the institution of marriage (or the family-do you think a distinction should be made?) creates externalities. But there is another side to this. All the benefits that you cite are positive ones. You are suggesting that people do not consider the wider effects of their decisions-on the taxpayer in particular. But there is a downside to marriage too, in creating powerlessness and trapping people-particularly women. It is, after all, women whom we expect to provide these externalities of child care and care for the weak and elderly.

I agree with you that single parenthood is very often bad news and that it can trap parents and children alike. If you are arguing that we need to think more carefully about reciprocal responsibilities, the role of fathers, and how care-the kind that does not get costed-should be divided, then I am on your side. But that is not what seems to happen in these debates. That's why I am worried. It seems to come back so easily to the responsibilities that we load on women-and particularly mothers. Is it any wonder that one in five women apparently does not want to have children at all? And that men tend to regret divorce far more than women do?

Of course it is a strange form of independence to be reliant on state support. But it may seem less of a burden than being reliant on the handouts of a particular man. The difficulty with this debate is that it so easily becomes emotional and coloured by one's own experience. I am trying to avoid that-so the comparison with Bel Littlejohn is rather hurtful. Maybe there is a tendency to see all this too simplistically as an attempt to control women. But so much of what I read does seem to have this sub-text. Can you reassure me that making divorce more difficult and encouraging people to get married and stay that way does not disadvantage women?

Best regards,


30th June 1997

Dear Bridget,

Well, we do have some common ground. You accept that single parenthood is very often bad news and that the family generally creates positive externalities-these are crucial points which many liberals still have difficulty in acknowledging.

By the way, I am not saying that children always do better with two parents rather than one. Just that on average they do. That is the nature of evidence in the social sciences.

And I am not carrying any hidden moral agenda. I am only interested in what we can do to get society functioning better again. I know why you are worried. And I concede that a lot of the talk about "family values" is a front for some pretty bizarre ideas. But recent history has shifted the intellectual argument sharply towards being pro-family, warts and all. You have to ask yourself: why is this? To be frank, it is because most liberals (but not you) seem to disconnect their brains when they enter into these arguments, and make statements which are easily refuted by the weight of empirical evidence.

I could not agree more that we need to think about reciprocal responsibilities and the role of fathers. What does this imply? Well, some measures which the analytical bit of you should accept, but which emotionally you might reject. Let us try one out-just brace yourself and contemplate economic theory.

We both understand the fundamental importance of the concept of contract. But if no contract exists, neither party has any rights to enforce. So lone mothers who are unmarried cannot expect the fathers to accept any responsibility for the children. And, provided due notice is given, they should not expect the taxpayer to bail them out either.

The marriage contract properly enforced-in other words made more difficult, but not impossible, to get out of-seems to me to give most women more rights than they have at present. The liberal attack on these rights in the professions and the courts has seriously weakened the position of women overall.

This may sound a bit too hardline for you, but what concrete proposals do you have?

Best wishes,


2nd July 1997

Dear Paul,

Well, I am not sure whether contract-implicit or otherwise-takes us in the right direction. But before we get on to that, I want to ask whether the elision which everyone makes between the "family" and "marriage" is the right one. I fully accept that, for example, I have a responsibility to my mother, as indeed she still feels she has for me. This has nothing to do with either her or me being married, but it has a lot to do with the family. This sort of mutual responsibility seems to me much more important than a marriage contract. It gets mixed up with marriage because of the fact that it (usually) takes two to produce babies.

If this is right, it is the contract between generations that is the problem, as much as the contract between those needed to give support across that gap. The marriage "contract," signed so joyfully by the childfree, does not seem to work too well when there are two small children, money is tight and the housework still has to be done.

To enforce such a contract, therefore, is simply to look backward. It was devised for circumstances which no longer exist and which I would not want to see revived. The marriage services mostly used in this country employ words and concepts which date back long before the day when women were allowed to retain their own property after marriage.

If you want to enforce such a contract, it needs a hell of a lot of redesigning. Perhaps we should have a commission (not Royal, though) to discuss this. Do you want to chair it? Not only must we find a better form of words, but people have got to sign up to it. How are we going to achieve this? What about people who cannot or will not meet your high standards?

Best wishes,


3rd July 1997

Dear Bridget,

Who is this person with such high standards? Not me. But fair enough, just as your views can get mixed up with rotten liberalism, so mine can be seen as moralising. I have no objection to homosexual marriage or polygamy, so long as a commitment is made. Working out an appropriate contract is, as you say, the difficult part.

But the problem is a deeper one. Relationships, contractual or implicit, are never ideal, but this has been lost sight of. The transitory nature of many relationships, and the unhappiness within them, seems to me to arise largely because expectations are too high.

People have become conditioned to expect instant, total gratification, and get angry and frustrated when this does not happen. I am not sure what to do about it, what signals to send to make people more realistic (although a serious dose of unemployment among the public sector middle class might help).

Reform of marriage was necessary, but reforms have gone too far. Women used to be trapped as chattels, now they can be discarded like an empty can of lager. That is not liberation.

I know that reforming the tax and benefit systems and making divorce harder sounds a bit limp in the face of these great changes in private behaviour-but we cannot wait for ever to work out the perfect solution. I would love to be joint chair of a commission-it would keep us both busy for a long time. In the meantime, let us at least have some action.

Best wishes,


5th July 1997

Dear Paul,

I do not mind action; I am just not convinced that taking benefit from single mothers or making divorce more difficult is the appropriate sort of action.

I am also not so sure about instant gratification-is that not as old as humanity? Perhaps, today, we are just more aware of more options. Communications technology, mass media and mobility have freed us from slavery to the seasons and to our local villages. And people may value change as well as stability.

Alongside these changes we want to ensure that children and the elderly are still properly looked after. I do not see how making divorce more difficult does this except by springing a trap. And I do not see how it can be enforced without sending the message of women's responsibilities to hearth and home. Making divorce more difficult seems to be about men's financial responsibilities and women's social ones. As far as I am concerned, this is not the route forward.

Nor will tightening up the marriage contract prevent it breaking down. Successful contracts are those which do not end in the courts. And if the consequence of failure becomes more expensive, then it is marriage that will cease to exist. And indeed, more relationships now exist outside marriage than ever before.

Not so long ago, life expectancy was such that a long marriage might last about 17 years; now it can be 50 or 60. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that some people find that a very long time and start developing in directions which make continuing the relationship difficult.

It is marriage that we need to look at, not divorce. The Anglican marriage service (which is the only one I have to hand), says that marriage has three purposes: the begetting of children, the prevention of sin and mutual support. Children are clearly important, although in an over-crowded world, not so central as before. Sin can be defined in different ways at different times. We all need mutual support and it is true that having one other person who can be relied on is a big advantage. But as people's needs change, so too does the support they need and can give. What is wrong with acknowledging this?

We need to recognise the changes in social behaviour and demography that are occurring all around us, and redesign the rules of relationships. Make marriage fairer, not divorce more difficult.

Thanks for the exchange,