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July 10, 2007


Chris Williams

Not only that, but the average UK wedding costs about twenty grand, and a divorce is nearly thirty. Twenty quid a week doesn't cut it.


What's more, people already have big incentives to get married; married people are richer, happier and healthier (pdf) than singletons.

But again, surely this is exactly the kind of selection effect you're talking about?

Peter Briffa

"Few extra people are likely to get married becuase of financial incentives".

Depends what those incentives are, surely. Or have you thrown away your economist's hat here, Chris, just so you can go all class war on us again?

You might as well say that few people are likely to get jobs because of financial incentives.


This echoes something that I was going to put in the comments under your Campbell post yesterday, but didn't get round to.

The point of this taxbreak isn't to get people to change their behaviour. It's to get married people to vote Conservative. And as long as political parties are able to campaign on coherent individual policies without the fear that robust independently-minded backbenchers will derail them, you can expect more of this.

The more political parties are allowed to turn elections into an auction house of policy offers and counter-offers, the closer we will get to the US presidential race - where every election is highly marketed and the final result will always be too-close-to-call on the election night.

As long as elections are between national parties that can boss local candidates around, you can expect more of this.

And, on these terms, New Labour is a stunning success by comparison to 70s Labour. It won elections on a declining vote. Both were piss-poor comparisons to 1951 Labour which got it's largest ever share of the vote and lost the election to the Tories anyway.

You can trace almost every degradation of modern political life to the way that centralised political parties can eclipse their local candidates.

Laurent GUERBY

(off-topic for this post)

"Management" and Pirates:


from Marginal Revolution:


The Pedant's Apprentice

Surely "hath" is singular?

Dave Hill

I'm ploughing through the IDS report and associated papers from the Social Justice Commission, one of which acknowledges 'selection effects' but claims that marriage is inherently/of itself beneficial anyway. I'm trying to find out which research they are drawing on to make this assertion. Until they do and it convinces me I'll still be inclined to dismiss the 'support marriage' lobby's frantic insistence that the direction of causality regarding marriage and family wellbeing can only ever be in one direction.


Hmmm...Chris...can we suppose that tax breaks to entrepreneurs are equally as ludicrous on this analysis?

Matt Munro

Dave - There is an avalanche of research, going back decades to show that children, in particular, benefit from married parents. I'm only going by psychology research but the main effects are:

Higher birth weight, which correlates with better adult health

Better educational outcomes

Better employment outcomes

Less Criminality

Better Mental health

Less likely to be unemployed/homeless

More likely to form long lasting, stable relationships themselves

Yes there is a direction of effect issue, maybe the sort of people who get married are just more stable/better parents to begin with, but that surely is a reason to support marrriage, in the hope that more people will acquire good parenting skills, than to abandon the institution. And its not as if the alternative - a 30 year liberal experiment in social policy - has been a stunning sucess is it ?
I can't help feeling that a lot of the opposition to marriage is a residue of baby boomers "It's only a piece of paper, man" conformist non-conformity.

Igor Belanov

Higher birth weight?

How the hell does marriage ensure that?

And it is 'only a piece of paper'. It depends on the parents and on peoples' relationships and attitudes, not 'the institution' of marriage.


I liked the bit in your book where you pointed out the dangers of political argument by metaphor - Thatcher's "good housekeeping" etc.

Analogy seems equally dubious - but having decided on an analogy this is a particularly poor one.
Here's a better version:

We decide we want people to be healthier, through physical fitness. We know we particularly need to focus on the poor, who are least fit. Some people, who don't own their own home, have to go to a gym. Others, who do, would rather buy exercise equipment and use it at home.

The government decides to subsidise exercise through the benefit system. They decide, however, that they'll only subsidise gym membership, and not equipment. For many homeowners, this doesn't matter, because they are well off enough already. But for a substantial minority, who are homeowners but not rich, this is an arbitrary penalty, given that they earn no more than those who rent.

They become less fit as a result.

Add to this the presence of a large body of evidence, which is nonetheless debatable, that exercising at home is more effective and more likely to be maintained long term than gym membership, and the disparity just looks weird.

Eventually somebody proposes equalising the benefits, as there is evidence that homeowners are making little progress in fitness, which detracts from the effectiveness of the whole benefit. A blogger ridicules the idea that ending the disparity will encourage homeownership. He has missed the point.

Laban Tall

It's not intended to change behaviour in the short term, except at the margins - it's a 'signifier', a wee flag saying that 'we value couples who are married' - unexceptional stuff fifty years back but contentious now.

To change behaviour in the long term means trashing the current 'needs driven' benefit system.

"married couples differ from unmarried ones because of selection effects; people select into marriage if they think their relationship will be strong"

Up to a point true - there may also be something about the public ceremony and public avowals - especially religious ones - that reinforces commitment when times are tough.

I look forward to hearing you - or any of the other 'selection theorists' telling people that they're not married because they haven't enough confidence in the strength of their relationship.

Alas your last point ("What's more, people already have big incentives to get married") is contradicted by the previous one - this may just be a selection effect. People with confidence in their primary relationship are likely to be healthier.

It was different once, before the Welfare State. In ancient days (the Golden Age that never was) the disciplines of work and marriage subdued man's natural tendencies to naughtiness of all kinds. No work meant no food - and perhaps more important for socialisation, no respect from your peers. It also meant no marriage - and no marriage meant no sex - unless you were wealthy, lucky or unusually desirable.

For women, if you wanted children you needed a roof over your head and financial support while raising them over perhaps 20 years. This came via things called 'husbands'. Now Daddy State provides.


That was well argued Chris.
Have you read and benefited from books on argumentation or rhetoric?
I'd be grateful if you could recommend a couple, if you have.


Whats wrong with "ideals"?, without much question "family" is the basis for society.
No offspring, no society! something the childless, charmless left do not seem to get...oh I forgot immigration is the answer to that one.

No one is saying thats its ideal for everyone, but is it not the point of leadership, that our elites set out what is ideal, and support it with public policy? as long its not forced upon you?

Igor Belanov

You can have the family without having marriage.

Chris Williams

Laban: "It was different once, before the Welfare State. In ancient days (the Golden Age that never was) the disciplines of work and marriage subdued man's natural tendencies to naughtiness of all kinds. No work meant no food - and perhaps more important for socialisation, no respect from your peers. It also meant no marriage - and no marriage meant no sex - unless you were wealthy, lucky or unusually desirable."

For someone who bangs on so about the virtues of a proper education, Laban doesn't half know very little about British social history.


My grandfather did not have much in his childhood in Yorkshire, but as he lived his final years in terror from being mugged and glassed while walking in the local park he told me even so it was safer then..and this is a guy who was one of the first troops to reach bergen belsen concentration camp, so I guess he knew a thing or two about horror and feeling safe, but as he was not enlightened by a university education in post modernism and moral relativism he too knew very little about British social history


My argument was not about the merits of marriage, but about the cost-effiectiveness of tax breaks to promote it. This rests upon several questions:
1. How many extra people will get or stay married as a result of tax breaks?
2. How much better will they bring up children as a result of being married rather than living together/divorced?
3. What is the benefit to the rest of us of those better brought-up kids?
4. How does that benefit compare to the costs of the tax break?
Even if your answer to 2 is "much better", you can still be sceptical about tax breaks if the answer to 1 is "very few".


Make marriage harder to get into, and harder to get out off as well as tax breaks and I think you will see a marked difference.

Afterall is it not the job of the state and its judicial system to enforce contracts and agreements made between people freely?


Chris Williams should take a look at historic bastardy rates. This paper shows rates from 1845


but they'd been pretty constant since Tudor times. You can see the small fall in Victorian times, the bumps in WWI and II followed by falls. As recently as the early sixties, when in Larkins' words 'sexual intercourse began' and Lynne Reid Banks wrote 'The L-shaped Room', the rate was less that 50 per 1000 live births. It had doubled by 1979 and accelerated in the Thatcher years to eight times the 1961 rate. It's now over 40% (in 2001), and in places like Wales half the babies born are bastards.


Chris Williams

Yabbut, pre-1970 bastards were largely born into single-parent families. Post-1970 bastards are often born to couples in stable relationships. Same legal status, very different social context.

The problem with blaming it all on the Welfare State is that the rise in single parent families post-dates its inception. Feminism is a better explanation.

Laban Tall

The whole point is that those relationships AREN'T stable and that parents DO need that piece of paper from the City Hall.

"Cohabitations last an average of two years before dissolving or being converted to marriage. Of cohabiting couples who do not marry, only about 18% survive at least ten years (compared to 75% of couples who marry)."

"Children born into married unions are estimated to be twice as likely as those born into cohabiting unions to spend their entire childhood with both natural parents (70% versus 36%)"

"Cohabitation is one of the main routes into lone parenthood. Between 15% and 25% of all lone-parent families are created through the break-up of cohabitating unions."


And the rise in OPFs doesn't predate the Welfare state. It took off in the seventies - 25 years on.

Chris Williams

I'm glad that you agree with me about the timing of the rise in OPFs - read what I wrote again.

My problem with civitas is that once you publish creationism, you lose all credibility - even though I like Christie Davies on a personal level.

But as for the matter in hand, how do you propose to restore this strand of social control? Mere calls for the return of stigma to single mums and their children can only get you a certain distance. Dad is long gone, alas. You could try rendering them penniless and homeless, but I'm afraid that there are too many do-gooders who will cry foul rather than watch people dying on the streets.

No, you need something equally coercive, but not so blunt. The workhouse? Magdalen asylums? A stolen generation? Send them to Canada? Penitence in church? Bring back the ecclesiastical courts? By all means stand for election with one of those on your platform: I'd be interested to see how far you get.

Actually, there is a social institution alive and well in the UK today, which keeps marriage front and centre, and almost eliminates births out of wedlock. Honour killings.


Isn't this simply a tax on an externality? The non-married's impose an externality on the rest of us through their delinquent and unhealthy children. Therefore they ought to be taxed (the tax being disguised as a benefit to the married, but it comes to the same thing).

As to your analogy, a better one would be that we should provide a tax benefit to all healthy people, to balance out the externality imposed by the unfit on society (extra NHS costs, bigger airline seats etc). Footballers are only a small part of the class of healthy people, so your analogy fails because it is too narrow.

As to whether the tax is enough, I don't know, but people do respond to incentives. But that may not be the main point, it is fairer to have "sin taxes" on externalities (eg pollution) even if it does not make the problem go away.

Mark Wadsworth

"people select into marriage if they think Their relationship will be strong."

Exactly, well-said S&M, did IDS really not even consider this? I can't be arsed reading a 250,000-word report.

Matt Munro

Higher birth weight?

How the hell does marriage ensure that?

And it is 'only a piece of paper'. It depends on the parents and on peoples' relationships and attitudes, not 'the institution' of marriage.

Posted by: Igor Belanov | July 10, 2007 at 01:44 PM

Low birth correlates with later poor health. The children of married couples on average have higher birth weight. Better informed, healthier parents and a more responsible attitude to child bearing are probably responsible, and by extension more widespread among the married populance.

Yes it's only a piece of paper in the same way that my employment contract, my life insuranec and a million other important pieces of paper are. The point is they have social consedquences beyond their physical form.

Chris Williams

If I want to get a life insurance certificate, I have to pay some money out each month. This results in a tangible benefit to my dependents. A marriage certificate is not the same. I doubt that it will make me a better parent, or make me more likely to stick with my girlfriend. There is no objective change in my circumstances.

When people get divorced, they almost always take a severe hit in their standard of living. But get divorced they do. This leads me to suspect that mere material inducement isn't very good at locking people into relationships that they don't want to have. Carrots don't work. Sticks might, but that's a non-starter becuase we're all too librul to accept them.

Roger Thornhill

Chris, I think the whole framing is wrong.

The argument should really be about how the State nurtures and incentivises fecklessness and indolence, if only by mitigating its social disadvantages.

I would not be against people being able to form a family "collective" which would be legally connected parents (civil partnerships or wedded) and even co-opting grandparents or siblings who wish to live in the same place and pooling their tax allowances and earnings. Imagine if one wage earner got 3 people's basic allowances? The home gets more money, the kids get mom and granny there and no need for childcare. It would be like setting up "Family inc" where each worker is actually an "employee" of Family Inc and who's services are billed to the place of employ and pooled. Alas, this is only done for benefit claimants and not for workers. Pathetic!

A flat tax and large personal allowances would help, too.

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