I know how much people hate it when abstract ideas and emotions considered to have special significance like love, hope, fear, the origin of life, matter and energy etc are explained in scientific terms. It seems to take away the touch of magic, the aura associated with these terms.
Today I was reading a paper which like many other of its ilk I feel, provides evidence that marriage is a contract entered into with considerations of associated costs and benefits and an increase in costs, like the economics costs of getting married would decrease the rates of marriage. Don’t get me wrong, I am a romantic at heart who believes in love and companionship for a lifetime. I do however see marriage as a contract that two parties enter into for economic, social and cultural reasons which can all be broken down into their costs and benefits.
A lot of work has been done in this area of economics, but the one I am referring to here is Changing the Price of Marriage – Evidence from Blood Test requirements (Buckles, Guldi, Price, The Journal of Human Resources , 2011).
A lot of us know about the Blood Test Requirements some countries and states have enacted with regard to marriage. These laws exist to decrease the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and reduce the number of children born with complications due to stds. The focus here is not on the effectiveness of these laws on reducing the above rates but on whether the additional cost of complying with them decreases the rates of marriage registration. A natural experiment which presented itself as most states started repealing BTR requirements helps make this analysis possible.
The authors have presented evidence which I see as a resounding Yes. They used marriage licensing data across US states from 1980 to 2008 to figure out whether the change in price of marriage actually made an impact on people’s decision to get married. They used a within group estimator with state level fixed effects and time trends to arrive at their results. What this basically means is that they were aware that marriage rates could vary from state to state due to trends specific to those states and also across time due to other factors (a growing importance of career for women could be one I guess). So they separate out these trends in a way that what’s left behind gives us the impact of Blood Test Requirement (BTR) laws on the licensing of marriage.
Whats to be gleaned from the analysis is that while marriage rates have been historically falling overall, the gap is much more between the states which had BTR compared to those which did not. The repeal of BTR also lead to a jump in marriage licensing rates. The authors found that BTRs result in a 6 percent decrease in marriage licensing rates of the state. Only a third of this was associated with couples moving to a non BTR state to get married. The other considerable chunk (3-4) percent of couples just chose not to get married! Presumably due to the monetary, psychological and time costs of BTR.There are numerous other papers which show that increases in price of marriage due to government policy or an increase in opportunity cost of marriage due to other available options decrease marriage rates.
This has got nothing to do with my position for/against marriage or for/against BTR. (I personally do think arranged marriages make a strong case for BTR though.) This however is considerable evidence that marriage like many other things glorified in life, is just a contract and slight changes in the cost benefit equations result in major changes in the willingness of parties to accept it.
Buckles, K. , Guldi, M. , & Price, J. (2011). Changing the Price of Marriage. Journal of Human Resources, 46(3), 539-567.