Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Zeb Baccelli
This is the first of a two-part essay on the economic value of traditional marriage. The second part will be published on Wednesday, September 6.
PART 1: The economic case for civil marriage
Too often the debate about which domestic arrangements should be recognized as marriage have failed to clarify what marriage even is. Is it a simple honorific we can bestow on any arrangement? Is it an ontological reality to be discovered and recognized through philosophical argument? A sacrament crafted by the churches? A legal construct at the mercy of the state? A cultural tradition emerging through pure historical contingency and open unlimited evolution? When arguing about what should count as a marriage, one must specify which of those senses is guiding consideration.
I think each sense is a valid way to talk about marriage, and I would not insist “marriage” should necessarily only be used for arrangements of one man and woman one in each of those approaches. If it’s only an honorific, just a word, we traditionalists could let go of it. Marriage has certainly been construed differently in other times and places, stretching to include polygamy and proprietorship. If the word evolves to absorb other variations, we can accept that reality.
But as a political party it is the legal sense of “marriage” that most concerns us. In their landmark paper What is Marriage (1), Girgis, George and Anderson demonstrate convincingly that what is often now called “traditional marriage” is a significantly different kind of arrangement from all others; whatever we call it, that particular arrangement has important and special economic consequences. Much of the modern legal structure of marriage served to address those special economic consequences, and it is a matter of economic justice that we reestablish a legal structure around the unique domestic arrangement that I will call here “traditional marriage.”
Capitalism leaves uncompensated any work that cannot be commodified or that people will do for free, no matter how essential, valuable or productive the work. Men and women must be induced to give up their freedom and labor for someone else’s gain, but they will mate and care for their children for free. And yet society depends absolutely on the labor of bearing and rearing children, and capitalists likewise depend on the constant replenishment of both labor and demand.
Procreative families create inestimable social value at significant economic cost to themselves, and society can reap the benefits even without having to pay for them. Women bear the burden of this economic imbalance the most. Natural, cultural and personal factors lead women to give up economic opportunity in order to bear and rear their children. Not only do they miss months or years of paid labor, they are slowed in their career advancement by the time they may take off, leading to lower lifetime earnings. Despite legal protection they still face workplace discrimination due to their higher likelihood of missing work for parenthood. Though not as much now as in the past, they continue to be relegated to lower wage and less secure jobs.
In the early days of the labor movement women’s economic position was far more precarious than today. Jobs were few, wages were low, and there was virtually no social safety net. Women largely depended on economic support from men who could earn a living wage. Among the early demands and gains made by the labor movement were survivor benefits for spouses of those killed on the job so women and their children were not left in the cold if their breadwinner was killed at work. As pensions and health insurance became standard employment benefits, they were extended to spouses. Government benefits like SSI followed this trend, meaning the widow of a retired worker would be supported after his death. These spousal benefits were a way of extending ‘male privilege’ to the women who volunteered for the uncompensated labor of child-bearing and child-rearing. This was an unprofitable subsidy by both private and public sectors: a married man effectively cost more than an unmarried one though financially he produced no more. However, justice and social necessity embodied in the labor movement demanded this indirect compensation for women’s labor and loss of economic opportunity. It was a way of distributing resources according to need rather than strictly according to market forces. It was a way of balancing the injustice of devalued labor and sacrifice, one which the market alone would never do.
This is why marriage as a legal and economic institution is so important to maintain. Parents will continue to sacrifice economic opportunity for their children, and that sacrifice will continue to come disproportionately from women. Generous spousal benefits allow parents to work as a team and put their children’s well-being first, knowing that whichever parent sacrifices career gains will share in the gains made by the other. But why should these benefits be maintained under a restricted institution like “traditional marriage”, rather than opened to a wider diversity of domestic arrangements? That’s the question I’ll respond to tomorrow.
Tara Ann Thieke