What REALLY Happened to Traditional Marriage: An Economics LessonBy: Stephen Marsh
Introduction: More than 70,000 years of tradition
Traditional marriage — by which I mean what marriage meant from before the Neanderthals went extinct to 1900 AD or so — was an economic institution. Actually, for at least 70,000 years…
Neanderthals like Middle paleolithic Homo sapiens did not have a division of labor between the sexes. Which is why they went extinct over a long period of time, rather a short one.
Ok, what does that mean?
For most of history, men and women have had different roles. The specifics did not matter — the difference did. By having different roles, they got better at what specific things they did rather than being mediocre at everything. So, in one society, men would farm and women would hunt. In another, men hunted and women farmed. In some (e.g. Cherokee, for example), you could opt out or opt into a group’s specialties on a basis other than your sex.
Marriage was an economic entity, which allowed partners to operate in a synergistic relationship together, which is why arranged marriages dominated much of human history and culture.
To quote Tina Turner’s most successful single: “What’s love got to do with it?”
It is easy enough to think that Romantic Love is where it all started to go down hill, but the real end to traditional marriage came about because of prosperity.
But to go further upon what has happened to traditional marriage, I will quote from an article from The Exponent that touches upon this issue, but focuses on the changes in roles of the housewife from one primarily of production to one primarily of consumption. To quote:
…in pre-industrial society, women were essential to the survival of the family because they spent the vast majority of their time engaged in production — gardening, sewing clothes, making butter etc. In these pre-industrial societies, if your kid needed socks, there was one way to get them — the mom knit them. Purchasing such items was not economically feasible for most families, which generally lived in a subsistence mode. They produced the vast majority of what they consumed.
Additionally, women were essential because the survival of these families depended on producing labor (children) who would grow to work the fields, help nurse the elderly. Men, on the other hand did the heavy work with the plows, etc., work that women generally didn’t do because it would endanger pregnancy.
The economics changed. Both between men and women and between parents and children.
So, children went from being a resource for production to being a luxury good. Marriage went from being an essential economic unit for survival to being about self-fulfillment and relationships.
Basically, marriage ceased to be about survival and became about happiness.
Where do we go from here?
First, I’m glad we marry for happiness. Man is that he might have joy.
Second, we are in a continuing and profound re-evaluation of what marriage and children mean. In over half the countries in the world child birth is at lower than replacement rates. That has profound implications for social welfare and other policies and programs based on growing tax bases.
Third, well, what do you think it means and where do you think it takes us? I’m crowdsourcing the conclusion to “what really happened to traditional marriage” to the readers here.
Let me know your thoughts.