Marriage and the Family in Economic Theory and Policy

Article excerpt


Human beings are social by nature; the most basic manifestation of this sociability is the family. (1) In his article, Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo underlines the reality that man is a social being who is naturally oriented toward the family--family based on the natural unit of marriage. Marriage, the union of a man and a woman, generates children. Marriage in itself establishes the beginning of the family community. (2) A community is something radically different from considering "family members separately" (3) or as a sum of isolated individuals living together by simple chance or biological reasons. Rather, a community is "a social subject," (4) "a unit into which all the members of the family are integrated." (5) It follows from this view that an understanding of either marriage or the family that converts a relationship between persons into an exchange of "things" or "objects" is not fitting to them. A person normally comes into the world within a family, and it is there where he develops, grows, and matures into an adult capable of being a productive member of society. (6)

From an economic policy point of view, both marriage and the family are important. Healthy families are essential because they directly impact human, moral, and social capital; and, therefore, they impact resource use, economic activity, and economic structures. (7) Thus, resources are used inefficiently when they are directed toward policies that weaken families instead of policies that strengthen them. This, in turn, hampers the sustainability of real economic growth and perpetuates poverty. (8)

Both economic theory and policy are engaged in trying to understand the reality of marriage and the family within economic activity. Within economics, Nobel Prize winner Gary S. Becker's work on human capital and his neoclassical economic analysis of human behavior, including the family, have set the course of these efforts for the past four decades. (9) More recently, economists such as Jennifer Roback Morse and John D. Mueller, among others, have attempted to contribute to mainstream economic theory by introducing a more holistic understanding of the person into the economic analysis of human behavior. This article presents some of the approaches that mainstream economic theorists have taken toward the analysis of marriage and the family, and it evaluates their consequences for policy design as well as implementation. In doing so, this article proposes some modifications to this framework to analyze the family within the economy. With this view in mind, it evaluates some of the policies implemented in the past fifty years in both developed and developing countries, taking into account the needs of the families in these regions and the empirical evidence thus far available.

Empirical data indicate that when economic policy is either indifferent to the family structure or undermines it, the consequences for the economy of a country are disastrous and economic growth can become unsustainable. (10) Policy shapes behavior; thus, it behooves policymakers at all levels to design policies that foster and support healthy families, both directly and indirectly. Since, as previously mentioned, an individual develops within the family, it follows that this person will be able to contribute the most to society as an economic agent when the family is promoted by the very same economy in which the member is working. Furthermore, evidence seems to suggest that when the family is framed by an individualistic understanding of the human person, the natural sociability of men is reduced to utility, which in turn leads to the view that relationships are exchanges of commodities for the sake of utility maximization. (11) Until recently, mainstream economic analysis and policy have fallen into this mistaken view, which is particularly damaging when addressing marriage and the family. In order to be effective, economic policy must take into account the effect it has on the family, the latter considered as a social subject rather than a sum of individuals connected by a contract. …