12/21/1972: marriage enters the economic realm – Finance for all

In an article completed in December 1972, Gary Becker, a future Nobel laureate in economics, analyzes marriage as an economic phenomenon like “the others.” This approach, which has since been heavily criticized, has in particular been accused of representing a form of economic imperialism.

The field of economics according to G. Becker

The American economist Gary Becker (1930-2014), winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992, is known for using the tools of economic analysis to analyze areas that have not yet been considered a relevant part of the economic field: the phenomena of discrimination, crime, the determinants of the accumulation of human capital, birth rate, etc. More precisely, according to G. Becker:

“Any question that presents a problem of resource allocation and choice in the context of a situation of scarcity characterized by the confrontation of competing purposes falls within economics and can be solved by economic analysis” (G. Becker, An Economic Approach to Human Behavior)

According to G. Becker to study marriage as an economic phenomenon is therefore completely relevant. Marriage options are limited and rare. Furthermore, the choice of individuals is free. In the end, it is guided by a certain rationality: marriage is an important enough decision in a person’s life to think twice about it. Economists would therefore be wrong not to analyze marriage with their traditional tools.

Presentation of Becker’s theory of marriage

The article “A Theory of Marriage: Part I”, completed on December 21, 1972, appeared in a prestigious American magazine Journal of Political Economy. G. Becker develops modeling ” marriage market “. To him they are individuals Rational and able to identify their own preferences. In this context, they choose to marry if marriage allows them to achieve a level of satisfaction—microeconomists would say “utility”—higher than what they would get if they remained single. In fact, from a Beckerian perspective, marriage or cohabitation allows individuals to benefit from their spouse’s time and the production of nonmarket goods.

Individuals then compete to find a mate and to highlight their own characteristics and qualities: the ability to participate in domestic home production, create a more pleasant environment, procreate, etc.

According to surviving specifications, many conclusions can be taken from the model developed by G. Becker. For example, it may explain why celebrities break up more often on average. In fact, they have more fluctuating income than the rest of the population, which encourages their partners to reassess their commitments more often. G. Becker also justifies the existence polygamy. The latter actually gives individuals access to the production of greater quantities of domestic goods.

The American economist Ray C. Fair extends Becker’s theory of marriage and develops a model to explain infidelity based on the hypothesis, classic in microeconomics, that individuals prefer diversity.

Criticism and Progeny of Becker’s Theory of Marriage

G. Becker’s theory of marriage has been strongly criticized, both by economists and more widely by representatives of other social sciences. Some economists primarily criticized G. Becker for using complex models to achieve general results that were far from revolutionary. Thus, one of the predictions of G. Becker’s model is that single women are more likely to be actively participating in the labor market than married women because their households do not inherently benefit from their spouse’s income…

More generally, many thinkers from other social sciences, such as sociology and political science, saw in the work of G. Becker and those he produced in his lineage a form of ” economic imperialism ”, i.e. the expansion of the economy beyond its traditional boundaries. For example, sociologists have pointed out in connection with the theory of marriage that G. Becker tends to forget the role played by important non-economic aspects such as love, constraints or even feelings.

Despite these criticisms, the work of G. Becker and significant influence in both economics and other social sciencesas the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences pointed out when awarding the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1992. His methods have in fact become classics in economics, and some of his concepts have transcended the boundaries of the economic discipline itself.

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