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(1930-)
Gary Becker
 
: Challenge, Jan/Feb96, Vol. 39 Issue 1, p9, 4p
Bergmann, Barbara R.
BECKER'S THEORY OF THE FAMILY: PREPOSTEROUS CONCLUSIONS
Feminist economist Barbara Bergmann takes on the economics of Nobel laureate Gary Becker. Can polygamy really be advantageous to women?
The promise of the "New Home Economics" was the development of a mode of thinking that would allow a deeper understanding of the needs and propensities that bring people together into families, and that affect their behavior within them. While such understanding would be desirable for its own sake, a "New Home Economics" should ideally serve as a guide to public policy. When we are faced with nationwide problems in the functioning of families, a valid and useful theory of the family should help us to understand whether ameliorative measures are needed and which, if any, of those proposed are likely to do more good than harm.
It should be obvious that we are indeed faced with developments in family formation, dissolution, and functioning that, if not compensated for or checked, will bring tragic consequences. The traditional family system--a lifelong alliance of a man and a woman--has in the past served as an institution for mobilizing the economic, moral, and emotional resources needed to raise children. This system now appears to be malfunctioning in two important ways. First, in many countries of the developed world, including our own, an ever-increasing proportion of children are now without the support of a two-parent family. Second, in many of the less-developed countries we see unchecked population growth and its attendant evils.
The theoretical developments in this field, far from being of aid in coping with our actual problems, are fatally simplistic and, where not irrelevant, are misleading. In my view, Gary Becker's A Treatise on the Family best exemplifies the state of this dubious art. If a judgement of quality is to be made on the basis of elegant utilization of the traditional tools of economic analysis (to say nothing of attracting the Nobel Prize in Economics), the type of work Becker does must be declared a success. If, however, the judgement depends on his contribution to a realistic appreciation of actual problems that are being encountered and the policies that might be applied to them, then the Becker approach fails badly.
In his analysis of the family, as in much of his other work, Gary Becker brings to bear the theoretical apparatus developed in the last hundred years for the analysis of markets and the explanation of economic growth. A major characteristic of this mode of analysis is the paucity of factors that can be taken into consideration, an unfortunate necessity if "proofs" using diagrammatic and algebraic modes of characterization and persuasion are to go through. Another characteristic of this kind of analysis is the tendency to idealize the phenomenon under examination as optimal and to argue explicitly or implicitly that outside interference by government tends to destroy that optimality. These characteristics are carried fullblown into Becker's work on the family.
Becker concentrates most of his attention on the Victorian ideal of the family, although it appears he would judge the harem, a still more retrograde version of the family, to be even more praiseworthy. A close look at Becker's analysis of the family reveals the lack of reality and the inapplicability of this type of analysis. I shall review three examples: the analysis of polygamy versus monogamy, the treatment of altruism, and the explanation of fertility.
POLYGAMY VERSUS MONOGAMY
Becker gives us a "proof" that women do better under polygamy than under monogamy, because the "price" they get for selling themselves into marriage under polygamy is higher. The demonstration consists of a comparison of the demand for brides under the two regimes. Becker assumes that women are willing to supply themselves to men as marriage partners if they will enjoy within the marriage a consumption bundle whose value is better than or equal to the one they could get outside of marriage. This bundle is broadly defined to include both the things money can buy and other items providing satisfaction. The latter are not specified in any detail, due perhaps to our author's modesty and tact.
Men's demand for brides derives from the potential increase to their consumption bundle if they marry. All that a woman would bring to the marriage, in terms of money income and other satisfactions, are assumed to belong to him and to be his to dispose of. (In early Victorian days this was the way the law defined the situation; by late Victorian days the law had changed in England and the United States. Becker has yet to catch up to this development.) The man would be willing to allocate to the wife for her consumption as little of this income as he has to. Becker tells us that under monogamy, the number of brides sought will be smaller than the number available at rock-bottom "prices," because he assumes that the number of marriageable males is smaller than the number of marriageable females. So women get nothing at all out of monogamous marriage, and men get to monopolize all the gains.
Polygamy would increase the demand for brides. Allowing second wives is the equivalent of increasing the number of males in the market, because it creates more niches for wives. The possibility of third wives would do even more in that regard. An increase in the demand for any commodity shifts the terms of trade against those on the demand side (in this case the men). Thus a shift from monogamy to polygamy would shift radically upward the "price" men will pay to wives (i.e., the share of the total family consumption bundle that goes to wives).
Becker emphasizes the benefits to women of a move to polygamy from monogamy but says nothing about the dramatic deterioration of men's position that his analysis shows would result from such a move. He does not inquire why men, who have historically controlled governmental processes, would ever opt for an institution that damages them so gravely. Becker does not take as having evidential value the opposition of women in a monogamous society to polygamy, or bother to look for any research results that might explain why they are taking a position that his analysis indicates is so opposed to their own interest. Were women truly considered to be "economic men," you would think Becker would find such blindness to their own interest worth commenting on.
We know that the argument Becker is presenting about the advantages of polygamy for women is false: in societies that allow polygamy, the status of women is abysmal. They have no opportunities for development of their talents, no freedom to choose mates, no ability to escape onerous marriages, and, in some cases, no freedom even to leave their dwelling. In such societies, women are virtually prisoners; men totally monopolize all power, freedom, fun and games. In short, there is something going on here that is not captured by supply and demand curves.
There are a number of possible reasons, all or none of which might be true, for Becker's disinclination to look at evidence that might run counter to the conclusion that women are better off under polygamy. Could it be a desire to show women that their aspirations for equality are perverse and that extreme subordination to their husbands under the most backward system on the face of the Earth is what they should really desire? Another underlying objective might be a desire on a loyal Chicago economist's part to show once again that government restrictions on trade (in this case the laws against bigamy) reduce society's well-being. The most charitable explanation is that in announcing this preposterous "result," Becker is the victim of a naive, not to say boyish, faith in the ability of pared-down models with as few as two variables to produce truth, even where the situation being analyzed has many variables, most of which cannot be represented handily on a supply-and-demand curve diagram.
ALTRUISM
Becker defines an altruistic individual as one who derives positive utility from the increase in another's consumption. Families, at least in the West, usually pool their income and consume out of the common pot. Given the state of the labor market, in which men have access to better jobs than women do, the husband generally throws more cash into the common pot than the wife does. For this good deed, Becker labels him an altruist. (In most cases, virtually all of the housekeeping work going into the common pot is done by the wife, even if she has a full-time paid job. Becker, however, seems to have no altruist's merit badge in his kit for her.)
In Becker's explanation of the family life of the altruist, he depicts only one particular type of husband--one whose tastes happen to favor equality in consumption between the two partners. Becker should have worked harder to harmonize the altruist story with the monogamy-polygamy story, since they are in the same book. If men are such grand altruists, then maybe monogamy is not so bleak.
However, the formal definition of altruism would categorize as an altruist a husband whose tastes favored his own consumption of 90 percent of the spouses' joint income, leaving the wife only 10 percent. In other words Beckerian altruism does not necessarily mean a propensity to favor equal sharing, or the same life style or standard of living for both partners, or similar privileges for both parties.
As is the pattern in some Moslem households, for example, if the husband does not allow the wife ever to leave the house, he is still an altruist by Becker's definition so long as he could consume more by giving her less but prefers not to do so. This in itself suggests that Becker, at least in the hours he devotes to writing his books, closes his mind to issues of status, personhood, and intellectual development, to say nothing of true kindness and the requirements of companionate marriage.
After defining altruism in this way, Becker goes on to assert that the presence of an altruist guarantees that everybody in the household contributes positively to net total income (again broadly conceived as anything that produces utility). If the wife did something that increased her income, but caused an even greater fall in his income, thus lowering family income, this would cause a fall in her own consumption, and so she would lose. So, being rational, she doesn't do it. Neither do any of the children do it. This wonderfully simple argument "proves" that every family containing an altruist has no problems with family members who make trouble.
In commenting on this "proof" that nobody in families gives way to happiness-destroying behavior, we can make the observation that in family life, behavior that is self-destructive is quite common. Secondly, what this analysis amounts to is not the depiction of the happy family safe and snug in the capacious arms of the altruist, but the wife locked in the power of the petty tyrant: Make a move I don't like, and you'll suffer for it. Becker gives an example of the operation of this principle. The wife had better not complain about the husband eating crackers in bed. If she denies him this pleasure, he would inflict a penalty on her that is worse than cracker crumbs in the bed. Of course, if the wife succeeded in earning more cash income than the husband, she would become eligible for the altruist role. In that case, it would be she who could eat the crackers in bed, and she might well end up better off.
But these latter thoughts are merely quibbles with a line of thought that is basically preposterous. Becker's analysis provides a purely deductive "proof" that a phenomenon that is in fact quite common--behavior that destroys family happiness--never happens. Of course, economists always assume that in the regular economy self-destructive behavior never occurs either, a result falsified by perusal of the financial pages of the daily paper, where such occurrences are reported frequently.
Again, we may speculate on the motives behind this mode of thought. One motive may simply be the enjoyment of the idea of males exercising authority within the family and a desire to show how well this kind of arrangement turns out for all concerned. A second possible motive behind this "theorizing" is to allow Becker, where it is convenient for him, to treat the family as essentially being driven by one will, so as not to have to consider the separate interests of different people. But don't worry because the person in charge is an altruist. Becker implicitly assumes that all males are altruists, which implies there are enough altruists to go around: at least one to a family. This ability to forget that the family has both a husband and a wife, each with separate wills and interests, certainly simplifies the discussion of fertility, to which we next turn.
FERTILITY
Becker's theory of fertility assumes that people have children so as to contemplate and bask in the thought of their children's happiness. The more parents relish their children's happiness, the more "altruistic" Becker declares them to be. The children's happiness is enhanced by their contemplation of their own children's happiness, and so on down the generations, so that each generation gets some indirect enjoyment of their entire posterity's happiness. But how happy will one's posterity be? According to Becker, it all depends on their standard of living, which will be influenced by the inheritance of capital they get and the rate of return on that capital. That rate of return is determined by the rate of interest, so for Becker the rate of interest is a key variable in my posterity's happiness and therefore a key variable in how many children I decide to have.
The mathematics embodying these thoughts leads Becker to the conclusion that the number of children people have does not depend at all on the cost of raising children, the level of consumption of the parents, the amount of capital the family starts with, to say nothing about any factor not represented. Fertility is seen to depend solely on the degree of "altruism," as defined above and the rate of interest.
The most obvious objection to this theory is the same one that is the most obvious objection to Becker's theory of polygamy and altruism in the family. It leads to plainly ridiculous conclusions because it is too simple. It leaves out considerations of prime importance, such as availability of contraception and abortion, religion, social relations between parents and children, and the position of women. The one thing picked out by Becker's analysis as significant is totally insignificant for the general population: an inheritance for children on which a financial return is earned.
Furthermore, remaining faithful to the neoclassical position, if we take the rate of interest to depend on real factors, suffering only temporary perturbations from the activities of the monetary authorities, then this theory again suggests that government can do nothing to affect fertility. The one exception is perhaps to educate people as to the amount of happiness their progeny will forego if the world gets too crowded.
ANALYTIC METHODOLOGY AND POLICY
Becker's method of thinking about the family leads, as does almost all neoclassical theory, to conclusions that the institutions depicted are benign, and that government intervention would be useless at best or, more likely, harmful. The increasing failure of the family in the developed West as a universal form of nurturance for children, and the failure of millions of third-world families to limit births, demand forms of analysis that will meet our need for policy guidance. Neoclassical forms of analysis of the family are at best a diversion of energy to recreational mathematics and at worst a source of misleading policy guidance.
If the claims made on the basis of this type of analysis are believed and are used as a guide to policy, we might worry that some real harm is possible. The claims made, however, are so preposterous that there is not much danger of their being believed and acted on--always excepting the committee that awards Nobel Prizes in Economics. On other topics, such as unemployment, the minimum wage, and the benefits from free trade, the weakness of the analysis by the economist-artists of oversimplification may be less obvious, and therefore more dangerous.
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