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March 09, 2009


Joyless Moralist

I'm not a good person to address your moral question because I don't have enough of the right assumptions to consider it in the light in which you're posing it. So, for example, I don't think it's okay to tinker with social norms and specifically marriage in *any* way that might improve economic efficiency... but on the other hand, I'm amenable to the idea that husbands and wives might play different roles in a marriage, and that certain types of inequalities between them are acceptable and even healthy.

Just in general, equality is a sad ideal for marriage. Equality implies sameness, and too much sameness can become quite boring and restrictive in human relationships. Perhaps there is some place for it, insofar as we want to affirm that both spouses are of equal moral worth, and that the interests of both are equally important (though of course, if the marriage is healthy, these will be deeply interrelated.) And, it should also be noted, similarity can be rewarding on other levels too; sharing attitudes and life goals can provide a good basis for enduring attachment, and most studies have shown that marriages tend to be happier when spouses don't have wide disparities in intelligence or economic background. But to try to achieve sameness across the board would make a marriage very dull indeed. Complimentarity, rather than equality, is the most fitting goal -- most happy marriages will pair spouses who have a nice mixture of similarities and well-matched differences. That allows each spouse to shore up some of his/her deficiencies by playing on the other's strengths, but also, it keeps the relationship interesting.

Within that general formula, there's room for a great amount of variation, and wide disparities in one area can sometimes be compensated for by other kinds of similarities; for example, I've known quite a few couples in which one spouse was considerably more educated, but the other was still intelligent and had a lively curiosity that made it very easy for them to find conversational topics or enjoy stimulating activities together.

Here's something to keep in mind, though, with a proposal like yours. Certainly there have been a lot of cultures it which it's customary to have a large gap between men and women in age, education level, etc. However, I think in our society we tend to expect more out of marriage, emotionally speaking. In some of the more traditional cultures that I've seen, people don't seem to expect to be too terribly intimate with their spouses. By our standards, the relationship looks very functional but not terribly emotionally satisfying. People make up for that by being much closer to their relations and neighborhood friends (mainly people of their own sex); many of the women I knew in Uzbekistan seemed to assume that one's deepest and dearest secrets were told to one's mother or sisters or female friends... not to husbands. But in our society, where other social resources are thinner, those relationships that we do work to preserve acquire greater importance for us emotionally, and marriage is chief among these. So, while I think the "less intimate more functional" model can work in some cultures, it might not be well suited to ours.

On the other hand, I do think there's something to be said for changing our paradigms a little, seeking out complimentarity instead of equality. And in that vein, there might be ways of moving towards something like what you suggest, without sacrificing marital intimacy. GK Chesterton makes a suggestion that you might like when he proposes that society should expect that men become "specialists" while women are encouraged to be "generalists." His general idea is that we need some people in society to devote a significant amount of their attention to pursuing particular specializations... but it's also good to have some who are more the jack-of-all-trades. Or, as the case may be, jill-of-all-trades. On this model, men would be expected to learn trades, while women would be encouraged to learn a little of everything. This would lend itself well to a pattern of men working and building careers, while women take charge of the household, but also do a number of other things by way of improving the community, the schools, the parish, and so on and so forth.

I think it's an intriguing idea (though of course not quite so simple as Chesterton makes it sound, since the extraordinarily talented woman will probably still want to specialize, and the specialist man might still benefit from a fairly broad base of knowledge.) The other trouble is that it needs to be done on a large scale in order to really work. In a world in which many/most women were generally educated but did not pursue regular careers (at least not until later in life), you would find them organizing book groups, musical clubs, gardening co-ops and so forth. Not only would these women not be lonely, they would also have chances to feel useful and appreciated, because once they were "networked", women would tend to figure out who had a talent for what, and find ways to use those talents. And you'd also probably find that a lot of work that people are presently hired to do, would be taken over by women on a volunteer basis. (I'm thinking of the sorts of things done by social workers, youth ministers, etc.) And a lot of other jobs might come to be regularly occupied by older women whose children were grown. A jill-of-all-trades would be very well suited to become a teacher, a librarian, a decorator... well, I can think of lots of jobs that they might very ably fill, if they wanted a regular job later on in life. And, going back to the marriage thing, the specialist/generalist could be a very complimentary match. Each would know things the other didn't, and that would give them lots to say to one another, as well as increasing their combined practical skills.

But again. The more people do it, the easier it'll become. If all the other girls are going to college, of course a bright and active girl will want to do the same; marrying a 35-year-old and starting a family right away looks pretty lonely and isolating to your average 19-year-old today. And we're definitely not going out of our way, at present, to clear a path for the 50-year-old woman who's ready to start her late career.

Nathan Smith

re: "So, for example, I don't think it's okay to tinker with social norms and specifically marriage in *any* way that might improve economic efficiency"

Uh, wait a minute. So suppose there is a culture in which it was considered absolutely mandatory, socially speaking, to throw an exorbitantly expensive wedding party costing $100,000 or so. As a result, only a few rich people were able to do it. Wouldn't it make sense to try to alter that social norm for improved economic efficiency?

Nathan Smith

Good points, especially about the specialist/generalist distinction and the importance of networks. Being a generalist could be good for networking. In a world in which women married young to older men with a certain established profession, their playing the role of network managers might be an extremely useful function, for which they would be qualified, and which would teach them something about the world. And it might even be sort of fun if it basically consisted of keeping in touch with large networks of other women and exchanging information about who needs work and who's good at what and having ideas about who to put in touch with whom. And of course, if women were expecting careers later in life, they would learn a whole lot about the nature of labor markets and what skills it would be useful to acquire. And they'd learn this without being under unbearable pressure.

But I don't know. Networking is a serious business, and it would take a certain serious bent of mind to be good at this in one's early 20s. And the economy today is just hard to understand, and I think ordinary people just wouldn't be able to make sense out of nine of ten job descriptions. If you knew from childhood that this would be part of your life, and prepared for it, you could do it. You could even pick it up as you went under high and explicit pressure. But I don't think it would just occur to your average young women to take charge of her husband's networking, and I'm not sure how you would inculcate this idea. (It would work well for making marriage partners seem equal, though, because if husbands were often dependent on their wives, or their wives' friends, for getting them jobs, a feeling of indebtedness would offset any sense of superiority for being older and more experienced.)

Marital intimacy is certainly important and not something we would want to sacrifice. But would a larger age difference sacrifice it? I wonder if a larger age gap would make marital intimacy a bit harder to achieve in the short run, while strengthening it in the long run. Young people are plastic; their interests and personality traits are not fully defined yet. It's easier to predict, I would surmise, what a 30-year-old will be like in 10 years, than what a 20-year-old would be like. So a woman who marries an older man might know what she's getting better than one who marries someone her own age. And of course, a ten-year age gap becomes steadily less significant with time. A 10-year-old and a newborn are completely different; a 20-year-old and a 10-year-old hardly less so; but a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old, and by the time you're comparing 30 and 40, or 40 and 50, let alone say 70 and 80, there are hardly any differences left that would make it difficult for people to relate with one another. A couple who marries young will influence each other to a large extent, but the development of their interests will follow certain internal laws and they may have to make an effort to prevent them diverging. A couple who marries later will have become more set in their ways, and it may be harder to find someone similar enough to relate to, though if you do, the similarity will be more persistent. Of course, in a work context, you'll find people who are quite similar in some ways, but maybe not the ways best suited to making a harmonious *marriage* (as opposed to, say, business relationship).

Finally, "the more people do it, the easier it'll become." Yes, or as I'd put it, marital patterns are characterized by a high degree of multiple equilibria, path dependency, and coordination failure, so that social norms, as distinct from pure market transactions on the one hand or laws and state coercion on the other, are the crucial factor. And I think our culture values free choice in a somewhat naive way which causes us to misunderstand this. "You can be anything you want to be" is the message children get, but no, you can't, and there's no reason you should be able to. There may be no legal barriers to it, and that absence may be laudable and important. But you can't really do a lot of things, partly because of barriers of talent-- you just wouldn't be good at it-- but partly because you might not know the right people or be in the right place at the right time. That's not necessarily bad, and indeed it's inevitable. The number of people who are president of the United States in any period of, say, three or four decades, is far smaller than the number of people who did everything in their power to achieve that office. It's just mathematically impossible to arrange things so that "you can be anything you want to be" is feasible. It would be better for people to come to terms with that early.

Which might mean giving different signals to boys and girls when they're young.

To boys: You have to have a career and be the breadwinner of a family, so prepare early, build skills, look for opportunities, acquire credentials. You can leave marriage until you're stable and established, and it would probably be wise to do so.

To girls: You will probably want to marry and have a family at some point, and your ability to do that may peak in your early 20s and will fall off rapidly after 30. It may also be easier to do this if you're a virgin-- and it will contribute to your husband's peace of mind, which is a nice thing. It's not as critical for you to build career skills, because if you marry at all well you are unlikely to be the sole income earner in a family except temporarily when your husband is between jobs, at which time you could use your savings and turn to family for support. But your networks will be at the heart of the life of the community.

Again, I see some reason to think that this type of gender role differentiation might make sense from an economic point of view and make life less difficult for young people. I am sufficiently trained in egalitarian values, though, that it makes me a little uncomfortable writing it, or even thinking about it.

Nathan Smith

One more thing. For me, personally, I have come to feel that I would more or less refuse to contemplate a marriage to someone who seemed to expect that the internal structure of the marriage would be highly egalitarian. For example, if a woman thought her career was as important as mine, so that, for example, if one of our jobs required us to move there should be no presumption that my career path took priority over hers. Perhaps I'd make an exception if her salary was much higher, though even then I'd be reluctant. And I don't think the reason is pride. If we're going to have kids-- and a marriage without them seems like a pretty sad prospect which in any case I'd rule out on moral grounds-- then someone has to look after them. I cannot commit to an equal share of this responsibility when I anticipate working full-time and, very likely, sometimes more than full-time. Even if I managed to do this much child care, I could do it only by cheating my employers. In that sense, an egalitarian marriage would simply be dishonest, from my point of view.


Interesting -- perhaps even a viable solution. Another point in its favor is that up to a point, males tend to be less mature than females of the same age -- college guys are notorious for their aversion to "commitment" and girls get frustrated, resorting to the hookup culture as there are fewer male prospects that wish to engage in exclusive relationships. Of course, to make this actually work on a large scale (assuming that girls should acquire at least a bachelor's degree before marriage) would require a drastic change in the university culture so that women are ready to marry and prepared to raise children upon exiting the university. Without a concrete liberal arts foundation, they probably would not possess a rich enough worldview for raising children (if the educated, established husband wants his children raised on firm principles, morals, etc.)

A glitch could be that the younger girls would not possess a sufficient sense of security. With the prevalence of divorce in today's society, a girl (and her parents, friends, etc.) might wonder if it is prudent to marry so young before honing the skills necessary for a higher earning potential -- if her husband were to leave, how would a single 28-year-old woman with four children ever manage? (though one could argue that the characters of individuals who would bother with the nuisances of a ten-year age gap, in terms of possible social disapproval, would be such that they are more likely to be serious about the relationship)

Of course a minority of girls may indeed desire to start a family early; however, others (most?) -- even those who accept the proposal as a logical theory -- may retain a nagging notion that they are pursuing the more primitive way of life, thanks to society's emphasis on (and elevation of) career-building for both men and women, and the seductive promises of individualism that supposedly cannot be achieved within the traditional domestic framework.


It is, of course, very difficult to engineer such things. I personally don't think that people who marry at a young age and close to the same age--say early to mid-twenties--have a disadvantage. People used to do it all the time. There was an old joke that women got their PHT degree--put hubby through. People expected to be poor together for quite a few years, but they got along, entertained themselves cheaply with their equally poor friends, had children and even looked back later in life and thought that was their happiest time! They weren't behind the game as a result. After all, studies show that married men and women do better in all ways, health, education, earning potential, etc. I don't think this "marriage advantage" is limited to people who marry after being somewhat established so long as the couple doesn't marry TOO young (in their teens.)
The other problem with your proposal is that since women have a longer life expectancy you would have many young widows at the other end, perhaps with children still in college, a very expensive time when the primary earner is crucial. As for the morality of your gender division of labor--many people subscribe to that view even today. I think the pendulum has actually swung back toward approval for women who choose motherhood as their primary career. The climate was pretty hostile for this in the 70's and 80's, in the wake of the women's movement. Feminists actually lost a lot of support because they were so militant about women having careers--younger women wanted husbands and families and didn't want to be told that this was a lesser option.

Nathan Smith

re: "It is, of course, very difficult to engineer such things."

It's hard to say how changes in social norms are brought about. But they certainly habit. Witness the worldwide retreat of polygamy.

re: "I personally don't think that people who marry at a young age and close to the same age--say early to mid-twenties--have a disadvantage. People used to do it all the time..."

Yes, but have there been changes in the way the economy works that make it harder now? More competition for prestigious jobs? The hollowing out of middle management and other routinized intellectual work? Possibly degree inflation? Or just a more complex world that requires more human capital to navigate?

re: "studies show that married men and women do better in all ways, health, education, earning potential, etc."

A case of reverse causation, or co-causation perhaps? Maybe responsible (and perhaps, unadventurous) people marry more and also earn more etc. because of traits that are hard to observe statistically. Also, what about the long term? A man who marries young might have to look for the job with the greatest short-term payoff just to get by, while those who marry older can think more about building human capital. And to the extent that being unmarried reflects *divorce*, it will obvious reflect both personality traits and major life disruptions.

re: "A glitch could be that the younger girls would not possess a sufficient sense of security. With the prevalence of divorce in today's society, a girl (and her parents, friends, etc.) might wonder if it is prudent to marry so young before honing the skills necessary for a higher earning potential -- if her husband were to leave, how would a single 28-year-old woman with four children ever manage?"

It seems likely, though, that an older guy would be less likely to get divorced, not because of a selection effect but just because he knows his goals better, and also because he would have less time to meet someone else.

It is a little sad to think that people would have to be hedging against the possibility of divorce like that. Sad, and inefficient: you might acquire skills you don't need just as a precaution, which is a waste of resources.


I still don't see why marrying young makes it harder to get a good job. That fact of being married should not make that harder unless both people in the marriage are not united in wanting to make the sacrifices to pursue education, etc. I will grant you that children complicate the picture but don't see why marriage per se should make things more difficult.

Joyless Moralist

Just to clarify, I think you misunderstood the force of the "any" in my statement about changing social norms for the sake of economic efficiency. The usage was ambiguous, I admit. It could have meant:

"I disapprove of *any and all* changes that might be made to social norms on the basis of economic considerations,"


"I would not approve of *any change whatsoever* merely on the grounds that it improved economic efficiency."

I meant the latter, but you seem to have read the former. Sorry for the confusion. Indeed I do think that there are some fundamental truths about society, and marriage in particular, that should not be swept aside merely to increase efficiency. But I grant that economic factors do clearly make a difference to society, so they will certainly play some role in shaping our social institutions.

I never really meant to suggest that young wives could take over entirely the role of networking in the professional/business world. That will always turn largely on people actually in the relevant fields (or at least in administrative positions that give them power over those fields.) I meant more that women would form networks of their own that would be excellent for attending to more community and social concerns -- worrying about local institutions like schools or hospitals, but also providing assistance for families in times of serious distress, and even attending to domestic concerns like helping find playmates for lonely children or eligible matches for single adults. Networks of women excel at that sort of thing, and when they don't exist, some of that work gets turned over to salaried workers (e.g. social workers or youth ministers), and other things just don't get done. But sure, I expect that such networks, where they exist, might sometimes take over some of the functions of the kind of business networks you're talking about. If the Joneses are in distress because the husband is unemployed and the Petersons are looking for workers in a relevant position, their wives might get this information relayed in a way that worked out well for all involved. Still, as you point out, the great complication and diversification of today's labor market would make this more difficult than it might have been in simpler times.

Concerning marriage as an obstacle to building a career... it seems to me that there are points on both sides. On the one hand a married man has more responsibilities, which might make certain stages of the process more difficult. He has to worry about his wife's needs as well as his own; that might make him feel obliged to earn more money right away, and insofar as career building involves some years of moving or traveling frequently (which is not uncommon), marriage makes everything more logistically complicated. If a single man has an opportunity to advance his career by working abroad for four or five months... sure, why not? For a married man there would be more factors to consider. Would his wife be welcome too, and would she want to come? Would the increased expense of two people going abroad make the plan unfeasible? Etc. Being on the road constantly, or taking on jobs with a high risk (rescue workers, firefighters, military special ops, etc.) seems much more acceptable for a single man than for a married one. Now, as you point out, young wives sometimes work to put their husbands through school, and couples might delay children until they're more established. But even if you don't have moral objections to that, it basically defeats the original point of the plan, which was to enable women to start families when they're younger and more fertile rather than waiting until they're in their thirties. And once children come into the picture, the parents definitely have more responsibility and less flexibility.

However. Having said all that, I would support ms' point that, quite apart from the age gap issue, there are many pluses to being married. A married man may need to look out for his wife... but she also looks out for him! All of Nathan's points about reverse causation may be relevant, but I still think that the married state is generally healthier and happier for most adults. Your hardworking, career-building men may be inhibited in certain ways by having young wives, but they'll probably be happier and psychologically stabler for having someone to come home to in the evenings. While there are certainly exceptions to this, I think in general single men are less likely to adopt healthy living habits, and wives tend to make their homes pleasanter and to help improve their diets and very possibly their dress/grooming habits. And, while a married man may be less likely to take risks of a sort that might help his career, I suspect he's also less likely to take risks of a more destructive sort by letting himself fall into gambling or alcoholism or petty crime. In short, while there probably are specific individuals who do well to delay marriage until they've built up their career, I suspect for the majority it's optimal to reap the benefits of marriage earlier than 35.

Perhaps we could find a reasonable compromise? While I agree that it's unwise for women to postpone having families until they're well into their 30's, I've never seen why it's so pressing to get them married off at 20. (I have encountered traditional Catholics who seem to think that it would be really great if we could make that the norm.) Sometime mid-twenties would leave time for several children (given normal fertility) and still let the women get at least a bachelor's degree if they liked. Meanwhile, do the men really need to wait until 35? If the men married in their later 20's or early 30's, that would leave them a fair amount of time to get the requisite education and some job experience, and then the average age gap could be closer to five years than fifteen.


Separate but equal doesn't ever lead to equal. Now, sometimes inequality is impossible to avoid - even PETA doesn't object to the disenfranchisement of non-human animals. Likewise some people are just not equipped to reach economic success.

It is almost inevitable that a complete analysis of sex differences would show that men or women are, on balance, more economically valuable*. Pure chance dictates that this will also be true between the races, or righties versus lefties, those with descending versus attached earlobes and so on, but the gap between men and women is likely to be greater, based on meaningful differences rather than statistical jitter. This is not necessarily a very interesting fact, assuming that the gap is below the noise floor of everyday life. If it is not, however, it's very worrying.

At the end of the day, culture responds to a variety of different kinds of power, of which moral force is only a junior party. When other powers balance, moral force tends to win the day, and so history staggers drunkenly toward the right. But in cases where matters remain consistently imbalanced, then moral force seems to hold less sway.

I am, of course, a Western Feminist with all the biases that implies, but the immense catalog of injustice visited upon women throughout the ages seems to come from a persistent lack of power suffered by women as a class. Only with the rise of mechanized labor** that lessened the meaning of have women started to achieve something like parity, but even then there were significant steps back, as mass production reduced the economic value of home-based labor.

Would any of the above proposals really result in effective parity of power? That is to say, would it leave women as a class in just as good a bargaining position as it does men? If the answer is "no," then how could that not lead swiftly to a situation in which those men who wished to take advantage put pressure on culture to lessen the ability of women to oppose roles that would be convenient to those men?

Yes, perfect equality isn't any more desirable or achievable in relationships than is in the economy, but planned systemic inequality seems likely to lead back down to all the old evils, or even new ones that make the old ones seem nice. I don't see any level of economic growth being worth that.

*Obviously neither has any value in the absence of the other, but likewise we determine that CEOs are more valuable than line workers, despite the fact that the former is worth nothing in absence of the latter.

**And reliable firearms of a weight to be carried by a variety of physiques?


Of course, recent figures suggest to me that the main things keeping women from amassing significantly more economic wealth (on average) than men due to better work habits and greater academic achievement is their statistically lesser relative desire for economic success. So perhaps we better keep convincing women that they better subordinate their careers to childrearing or men will be the ones who find themselves locked out of the cultural narrative.

Nathan Smith

re: "So perhaps we better keep convincing women that they better subordinate their careers to childrearing or men will be the ones who find themselves locked out of the cultural narrative."

I'm not sure whether Nato is joking here or not. But of course, the reply is obvious, and has already been given in the original proposal: Fertility is an important constraint on the timing of a woman's life cycle in a way that it is not for a man. If women try to pack in the extra education and educative jobs with low pay and super-long hours for high learning, they'll very quickly find themselves pushing the limits of marriageable fecundity. Which of course is happening already. "Lesser relative desire for economic success" probably reflects sociobiology-- some men's drive for success is a sublimation of the competitive instinct that nature bestows far more on men, who could practice polygamy for a huge reproductive payoff, than on women, whose reproductive possibilities have a smaller range and far less risky. That aside, it's a perfectly rational response to the likely structure of the marriage market which will emerge due to the biological fact of women's more rapidly declining fertility.

Nato seems to see gender relations as like war. It's all about power! I think it would be more realistic to emphasize love and complementarity-- "gains from trade," if you will. Among other problems with this view, I'm not sure that it would be possible rigorously to define the meaning of a phrase such as "a persistent lack of power suffered by women as a class." What is power? How does one measure it?

What I do think is true is that men have generally had more freedom to define the big facts about their lives than women have had. And I am sort of suggesting that this is inevitable. You can compare it to differences in social class. Maybe in America, both an inner-city black kid and a suburban white kid from a wealthy family can go to Harvard and become lawyers. But it's going to be far more difficult for the black kid. It may be both possible and desirable to *increase* equality of opportunity to some extent. It may come at a cost, though: for example, if Harvard is required to be "blind" to the quality of the high school applicants attended, this will reduce Harvard's ability to create an excellent academic environment. And at some point it may be impossible.

What I am suggesting is that the drive for career equality for women comes at a high cost and is ultimate impossible to achieve, for biological reasons related to the time-distribution of fertility.

re: "I do think that there are some fundamental truths about society, and marriage in particular, that should not be swept aside merely to increase efficiency."

That doesn't to be a rephrase of JM's original claim that "I don't think it's okay to tinker with social norms and specifically marriage in *any* way that might improve economic efficiency," it seems to be a retreat from it. Some changes in social norms may be made for the sake of economic efficiency, but there are moral constraints. I agree with that in a way. If someone were to prove that having half of women work as prostitutes, or letting successful men practice polygamy, were economically efficient, I would not condone these changes. However, I think the moral social norms pretty much coincide with those that are conducive to economic efficiency.


"Fertility is an important constraint on the timing of a woman's life cycle in a way that it is not for a man"

Partly because childrearing expectations fall far more heavily on women. Every child has two genetic progenitors, but the proportion of children without mothers is far smaller than that without fathers. Even those with both parents living together, the impact is usually much greater for the mother. having children young doesn't much discommode fathers like mine whose wives prevented childrearing from impacting their careers, but young mothers don't generally get the same help. Why? Because by and large, we don't expect the young fathers to sacrifice as we do the young mothers, so they don't.

Of course, even in a perfectly feminist world, one would expect that at least half of women would be giving up some degree of career achievement in order to raise their children, but one would also expect that a much higher percentage of men would choose to do so instead.

"Nato seems to see gender relations as like war. It's all about power! I think it would be more realistic to emphasize love and complementarity-- "gains from trade," if you will."

Yet we talk about market power, and how gains from trade are distributed. If men as a class have all the market power, then women as a class are going to be in quite a difficult position when trying to protect their interests.

Nathan Smith

re: "we talk about market power, and how gains from trade are distributed"

Yes, we do. And the reason that we (economists) are interested in this is generally that we think market power leads to "deadweight losses," that is, to inefficient supply reductions. I don't see how that's applicable here, unless it's that as women marry older and gain more career responsibilities they tend to have less children, which points in the *opposite* direction, suggesting that market power (if that's what's involved here) *increases* supply. And since that's basically the only reason that economists regard market power as undesirable, I don't think objections to gender differentiation can be assimilated to this.

"[Fertility is a constraint...] Partly because childrearing expectations fall far more heavily on women."

Well, maybe, but that didn't play a role in my argument. Women simply cease to be able to have children sooner than men do, and older pregnancies are difficult and riskier. So women need to worry about get married sooner than men do, for purely biological reasons, even if we somehow arranged things so that childrearing responsibilities could be evenly split between spouses, or that some men could take the whole responsibility. Also, of course, men tend to be attracted to younger women, while women are often attracted to older men, a pattern that is partly cultural but has obvious sociobiological roots.

Why don't young fathers take on childrearing responsibilities to help their wives' careers as much as vice versa? Well, the first thing to observe is that career and childrearing don't go together very well. Typically, there just aren't enough hours in the day to do both. High-pressure jobs may require meetings before day care opens, or may require you unexpectedly to stay late when you were planning to pick up junior from school. And what if your kid is sick, and your colleagues can't spare you for a day? So it makes sense that one parent should specialize in childrearing, either not working or getting low-pressure flex-time jobs.

And it doesn't really make sense for that decision to be made on an *ad hoc*, couple-by-couple basis. High-powered careers involved large and risky *ex ante* human capital investments. To have half the population making those investments and then not using them is highly inefficient. Think of a firm, let's say a bath-house, which has two jobs: fire-men who stoke the fires to heat the water, and water-men who haul the water from the well. Suppose the tasks require non-trivial training. There are 20 employees. The firm has to choose between two plans: 1) train all workers in both skills and then see which are best at which, or 2) arbitrarily assign them to Group A and Group B. If you do (1), you might get a slightly better matching of aptitudes to jobs, but you incur more training costs. So (2) is probably more efficient. So in society it may be more efficient to put men in Group A, the breadwinners, and women in Group B, the childrearers.

At any rate, a model along these lines, though of course too crude to represent reality very accurately, would fit the stylized facts that men don't do childrearing. Probably this is embedded in natural inclinations for sociobiological reasons. I see no reason at all to think that the general pattern of women being more nurturing and more attached to their children is merely a function of culture. And to the extent that culture reinforces the natural inclinations, why shouldn't it? It solves a coordination failure problem. And even aside from natural inclinations, if we are going to have Group A/Group B, the fact that women's fertility declines after 30 or 35 and that women therefore need to marry sooner and will have trouble making the human capital investments needed to start high-powered careers before childbirth seems sufficient reason to assign them to Group B. No strong reason, after all, is needed, if we're just solving a coordination failure.

In my own personal case, I would have to refuse a marriage to a woman who expected me to take an equal share of childrearing responsibilities, not out of male pride, but from the simple fact that as far as I can tell, labor markets are such that I would be deceiving employers if I offered them my services when I was committed to childrearing responsibilities which would be more time-demanding than is consistent with full-time work. To agree to such a marriage would be as dishonest as taking on a second job which required me to sneak out of work early.

Joyless Moralist

"That doesn't to be a rephrase of JM's original claim that "I don't think it's okay to tinker with social norms and specifically marriage in *any* way that might improve economic efficiency," it seems to be a retreat from it. "

Like I said, you just misread the intended significance of the "any." Think of it like this: "I don't think it's okay to tinker with social norms in any way whatsoever just because it might improve economic efficiency." If I really meant it the way you read it, the statement would be quite absurd. It would sound as though I proposed that the fact that a change in social norms would increase efficiency would OF ITSELF mean it was a bad idea, even if it had other social benefits as well.

You may be right that following moral constraints with respect to marriage/family life will also be the most economically efficient way to structure a society... but I'm not willing to bet the farm on it. Certainly efficiency and morality don't coincide in every sphere of life.

Joyless Moralist

"Separate but equal doesn't ever lead to equal."

But surely that isn't true, if the kind of equality we're interested in is moral equality. A healthy and diverse society depends on people separating and differentiating themselves in all kinds of ways; as I said before with respect to marriage, so will it be in larger groups of people, that trying to bring about widespread sameness would make for a very dull society indeed. Not to mention a very inefficient one. Differences in skills and abilities, in rank and authority, in wealth and age and cultural practices, are all just part of building a society; except perhaps for the wealth and the cultural practices, they're all pretty much necessary to any functioning society. But surely one can agree to that without denying a certain equality of moral worth that extends to every person regardless of other differences.

Now, presumably your reply is that differences are fine, so long as we preserve some basic democratic principles wherein every group has some kind of leverage, or power, that enables them to protect their interests. Basically, everyone gets a "vote". And if they don't, you assume that their interests will be buried as the "empowered" group tends to their own needs first. Now, to be fair, I think something like that *can* happen when you have one group in power, and another group that's more detached from the first, about whom the first group is not inclined to care. That happens sometimes with different ethnic groups or social classes, and it can certainly lead to injustices and social unrest.

But surely your balance-of-power law doesn't apply to any grouping of people you can theoretically construct. If it did, children would be in quite a bad way -- they can't vote and they don't have any political or economic power, so obviously nobody's going to bother about them! Except people do bother about them, because children (most of them anyway) have parents and relatives who care about their welfare, and THEY can vote and exercise their power (in whatever form) to protect the children's interests. Similarly here, it doesn't seem right to suppose that the only way to prevent women from being exploited is to ensure that they have equal social/political/economic "power." In a society in which men regarded their wives/mothers/sisters with the right kind of love and respect, women's interests would be protected even if, on balance, men had a disproportionate amount of power. This is how the war between the sexes will never be the same as ethnic conflicts. Ethnic groups can become segregated to a significant degree, such that enmities can develop. Men and women, on the other hand, fall in love with each other. They build families together. Problems between them can certainly arise, but they're not the sort that can be solved just by embracing democracy (so to speak.)

Note that I'm not proposing anything about how power (of whatever kind) ought to be distributed. I'm not allergic to women in authority per se, but it doesn't seem to me that equalizing power between men (as a group) and women (as a group) should be a significant societal goal. If we teach people to love and respect their friends and families in the right sort of way, that sort of negotiation shouldn't be necessary.

None of this is to deny that women have a very hard lot in some cultures. I've seen firsthand some countries in which they do. Creating harmony between the sexes is not an easy thing, and both men and women have often suffered from customs that drive a wedge between them. However, I for one think it is rash to assume that contemporary Western women necessarily live under such wonderful conditions. I wouldn't want to underestimate the value of the educational and professional opportunities they enjoy. But the sexual exploitation of women in our society is really despicable, and many of the other goods that have always been of great importance to women especially (community life, domestic security, etc.) are in pretty short supply here.


Contemplating social engineering, eh? It doesn't have a very good track-record, but it sure makes for good arguments!

"Would it somehow be morally wrong to promote stronger gender role differentiation, if it were economically efficient to do so?"

That's a tricky question; I will assume that by promote you mean encourage rather than state-sponsor. It smells a bit like Machiavelli: do ends justify the means? It's not quite that, though, for if gender role differentiation is good, then the promotion of it is naturally justified. In a way, Nathan's question is rhetorical: assuming that gender role differentiation is economically efficient, how could it possibly be immoral to promote it? The same rhetorical trick could be employed to support any point of view. Is it morally wrong to promote slavery if it's economically efficient to do so? What about sodomy, divorce, the existence of unicorns? Is it morally wrong to promote X given that the promotion of X is good (er, economically efficient)?

Maybe the real question is: can promoting a thing be both economically efficient and morally wrong? I suppose it's conceivable, though any such thing would surely be Machiavellian. In order for the promotion of a thing to be immoral, the thing being promoted would have to also be immoral, methinks. If the promotion is to be economically efficient, it's hard to imagine the thing being promoted not being economically efficient. So what sorts of things qualify as both economically efficient and immoral? Maybe the meat industry, or perhaps industries that heavily pollute ground water and city air. Gender role differentiation? Probably not on either account.

In short, we can not conclude that the promotion of gender role differentiation is morally wrong given that it is economically efficient. But what if it is not economically efficient? What if it is in actuality economically inefficient? How can we be justified in promoting inefficiency? The justification must be moral in this case. For instance, environmentalist policies are usually inefficient, but some of them have good moral justification. If the justification is morally neutral or morally wrong, then the inefficiency should not be promoted. If the thing is both economically and morally neutral, then the promotion of it is irrelevant. In my view, the promotion of gender role differentiation falls into this last category. Nathan's promotion would likely have little to no impact on the economy, and the differentiation of gender roles is neither very good nor very bad.


There are reasons to believe that XX is going to be statistically more nurturing than XY even independent of culture, but I'm not sure that the meaning of that is so obvious. However, I'll set aside the argument that gender is a good natural category on which to base an otherwise arbitrary A group vs. B group specialization split. My main complaint is that it isn't necessary.

Nathan has made the point before that it's too much to ask each person to renegotiate ethics and social contracts, making public norms necessary for guidance. The ideal norms, in Nathan's analysis, usually turn out to be somewhat traditionalist*, though I think his modern sense of justice prevents him from going whole-hog reactionary. Ultimately, however, the impetus toward a less chaotic, more heavily defined role-set for people is clear in Nathan's thinking.

I have to admit that Nathan's positions are highly plausible to me. I've always been a member of that class of people who has the resources to and expectation of understand the world, so it has taken a while for me to realize that I have great luxury in being able to fearlessly** ignore norms and conventions that most people do not. I can afford not to make the sort of unspoken bargains that trade freedom for stability in the lives of the less fortunate. And even so, this manner of living my life has sometimes lead me into pretty serious mistakes where I thought I was wise enough to do something and proved that I was not.

This is part of what has softened my libertarianism. I have met quite a few adult Americans who simply do not really know what to make of all the financial advice they receive, and so take on risk profiles totally inappropriate for them. Neither do many people (most?) understand quite how credit agencies work. These aren't stupid people; they just didn't find themselves amongst others who understood these things, and so only discover how they worked if they took it upon themselves to do some focused research. They literally rely on the government to make it illegal to really trick them badly, since they don't have the necessary context to understand the details of terms presented to them. I remember when I took out my first car loan trying to figure out exactly what "simple interest" would mean on a loan I was paying back.

Yet it's not quite so difficult to figure out who has the better employment prospects in the relatively near term. This is the sort of thing people are pretty good at estimating. In the longer term, yes, markets change and it may become necessary to swap one for the other, but boy is it nice to be have two possible caregivers from which to choose, thus yielding two possible primary earners. My mother got her degree while raising her small children, and became a systems analyst making about as much money as my father when we were both school age. Either one of them would have been enough to make sure the family got by, so there was always the security of knowing that we were unlikely to be in financial crisis again. _That_ is stability and reassurance, not arbitrary specialization.

Someday, I'd like to be able to work from home so that I can take a primary role in raising our kids. I don't get upset easily and when I do I'm usually good at managing it, so both my wife and I agree that this would be ideal. Unfortunately, I
can't see me making enough from home to get us both by, so hopefully once she completes her education she'll be able to replace my income. If not, then perhaps she'll be the primary caregiver. Simply assuming that she'll be the primary caregiver because she's the woman would limit our options without simplifying anything.

*Insofar as one can say they turn out in any particular way, since they're mostly posed as for-instance proposals.

**"fearless" not in the sense of being inured to danger, which I am not, but rather in the sense that I have tremendous privilege as a relatively wealthy, well-informed, healthy white heterosexual male from a upper middle class family that shields me from a variety of pitfalls.


One important thing to remember is that life is actually harder when there are too many options. Every generation can't reinvent the wheel. I grew up at a time when most mothers--though not mine--were at home with kids (at least in my little Idaho community.) Women had three career options: teacher, secretary or nurse. I wouldn't recommend going back to that, and yet I think it is a good if women see nurturing children as an important part of their life course. Since my mother worked as a teacher and my father was a farmer, he cared for us in the winter and she in the summer before we went to school. That worked pretty well for our family and I daresay most families find some combination of childcare between Mom and Dad that works for them. I still think, though, that norms, especially ones that have worked well in the past, help people live their lives and avoid the confusion of too many choices. Children are little for a very short time. As Nato pointed out, there was time for his Mom to raise them and pursue a career, which gave the family security.
A couple of points relating to the original post--Nathan said something about the work involved with raising children being mundane and low-skilled. This sort of true and at the same time really not true. Yes, you can hire a teen-ager to take care of your kids for the evening, and that makes parenting seem low-skilled. In reality, though it seems trite to say it, there is no job in the world that takes more skill, though it doesn't necessarily take education to do it. Watch a few episodes of Wife Swap and you will see what I mean. I would love to see motherhood and fatherhood get the credit they deserve in a non-treacly way. Especially motherhood, since that is many women's main career. Again, though I wouldn't go back to a 1950's world, the expectation that women will have careers has perhaps taken some of the credit away from women whose career is motherhood. You are supposed to be a mother AND something else to get respect.
I still dislike the idea of a normative large gap in ages between spouses however. And--you really shouldn't talk about marriages between girls and men. Those of us who grew up in the 60's and 70's notice that stuff!

Nathan Smith

re: "A couple of points relating to the original post--Nathan said something about the work involved with raising children being mundane and low-skilled. This sort of true and at the same time really not true. Yes, you can hire a teen-ager to take care of your kids for the evening, and that makes parenting seem low-skilled. In reality, though it seems trite to say it, there is no job in the world that takes more skill, though it doesn't necessarily take education to do it... I would love to see motherhood and fatherhood get the credit they deserve in a non-treacly way."

Yes. I wonder if the modern distaste for seeing women as "barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen" has tended to prevent this. If you see childbearing and childrearing as a woman's primary purpose you'll measure women by their capacities, or prospects, in that area, as I think cultures past have often done. I don't think there's a danger that fatherhood will be respected in a "treacly" way, and I think respect for good fatherhood may have increased in recent decades, though probably not nearly as much as respect for motherhood has been eroded.

re: "And--you really shouldn't talk about marriages between girls and men."

In Russia, the word *devushka,* or "girl," can be used for women through their 30s and after. There's a a joke: "devushka - devushka - devushka - devushka - starukha." Girl - girl - girl - girl - old woman. The terms and terminological faux pas do get a bit confusing...

Joyless Moralist

In Uzbek the difference between the words for "girl" and "woman" is explicitly understood as the divide between virgins and non-virgins. It felt weird and wrong to refer to myself as a "girl" in front of my students, but since they knew I wasn't married, it would have been a real blow to my reputation to call myself a woman. In the early days when I was still getting a grip on these niceties, I once made the mistake of telling a high-ranking government official (to whom I had just been introduced) that his teenaged daughter was "a very lovely young woman." Whoops.

I can't tell you how many times I was asked what Brittany Spears could possibly mean that she was "not a girl, not yet a woman."

Anyway, I was going to say that ms' comment about respect for mothers is one of the things I like about Chesterton's specialist/generalist distinction. It helps get past the idea that to be a mother, you pretty much don't need any special skills or qualifications beyond a minimal ability to do housework and such. Mothers are one of the most significant influences on our lives. If they're shallow and ignorant, that will certainly take its toll on their offspring. Educating girls in a wide range of subjects (as well as teaching them household skills) is an excellent way to prepare them to be good mothers.


"One important thing to remember is that life is actually harder when there are too many options."

This would be true if a single option lead everyone to the highest rate of success while the multiple options increased the chances of bad outcomes, but I don't think this is the case. Though failure rates of marriages have increased, the level of happiness within marriages seems to have increased as well, with GFK Roper finding only 5 percent of modern married couples being unhappy with their marriages, versus 20-40 percent in the 50s. Additionally, two-income families do not suffer some of the same disruptions suffered by single-income families. When one controls for income, of course, single-income homes win, but life doesn't control for income. If the family can get by with a single income, that's great, but having two highly employable parents seems to make many ways to succeed as a family, not many ways to fail.


Also, how long before frightening stuff like this:
becomes widespread? This isn't what anyone on this blog would want or condone, I'm sure, but it illustrates where this sort of thing can go.


Well, there are always nut cases out there. But I don't think we really disagree, Nato. I'm just saying that I think it is best (and necessary for the race to continue) if most children are socialized (though I think nature plays a role in this too) to grow up, get married and have some children. There's time to do all kinds of other things too--to exercize other options-- but I think it's best if most people assume that raising children will be part of their life. We have to remember that while there are always a few strange people who take any idea to ridiculous extremes, nevertheless a culture where it is not assumed that people will have children, where children are entirely "optional" is a culture with a norm and a moral attitude toward parenting as well. One norm has simply been exchanged for another. I'm just saying that I think it's a good thing when most people want to make marriage and parenthood a part of their lives. I see that as a culture of life.


"I think it's a good thing when most people want to make marriage and parenthood a part of their lives. I see that as a culture of life."

About that we can certainly agree.

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