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Why Do Economists Urge College But Not Marriage?

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marriage_moneyFrom an economics perspective both getting a college degree and getting married are beneficial for one’s earning potential. So why do economists promote the college wage premium while downplaying or ignoring the marriage wage premium? As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry says,

In contemporary societies, there is a strong college wage premium. That is to say, people who go to college make more money on average than people who don’t. While a minority of economists (including Cowen) have questioned why this premium should exist, the majority of economists generally take the existence of this college wage premium to mean that college is good and important, that more people should go to college, and that public policy has some role to play in promoting and subsidizing college attendance. I would bet a goodly sum of money that if you picked at random ten tenured economists from top-20 economics departments, and asked them to list what an 18-year-old should do to increase his chances of getting high wages, a majority would say “go to college.”

There also exists a marriage wage premium, which is roughly as significant and as consistent as the college wage premium. To say that the marriage wage premium doesn’t get the same amount of attention is an understatement. Economists recoil at the idea of praising marriage and supporting public policies that increase marriage. They are much more likely to dismiss the marriage wage premium as reflecting selection bias (it’s not that marriage makes people earn more money, it’s that people who would have earned more money anyway tend to get married) or intone that “correlation is not causation”–criticisms that apply equally to analyses of the college wage premium. I would bet a goodly sum of money that if you picked at random ten tenured economists from top-20 economics departments, and asked them to list what an 18-year-old should do to increase his chances of getting high wages, none of them would say “get married and stay married”–even though the data on the marriage wage premium supports this conclusion to the same extent as it does going to college.

Gobry posits that the reason is bias: economists have an education bias because to become an economist requires numerous years of higher education and they have a liberal-cosmopolitan bias against government encouraging people to make intimate choices.

I think this is generally correct. Almost every marriage promoting economist I’ve ever seen has been politically conservative and/or Christian. In other words, they have pro-marriage biases that are as strong, if not stronger, than their education bias. I also believe this is why the heated debates in our country over social issues have a parallel in the economic realm. The “Culture War” is a heated clash while the economic-social is still a Cold War struggle. But they both are rooted in modern society’s two primary principles which are, as James Matthew Wilson says, autonomy of appetite and free consent. Because marriage and family limit our autonomy of appetite (and our free consent in engaging in the modern sexual buffet), it is considered by many elites to be gauche, if not downright immoral, to imply that people should voluntarily restrict their intimate choices by signing up for a (potentially) life-long commitment.

This also explains why, as Gobry notes, economists tend to “almost exclusively focus on productivity growth and completely ignore population growth” despite the fact that population growth leads to economic growth.

Economists have countless ideas on how government might do things to improve productivity growth, but the idea of using government to improve population growth is, quite simply, taboo. If economists are biased by a perspective which finds the idea of natalist policy squeamish, this makes perfect sense. If economists are dispassionate analysts, it doesn’t.

Of course, economists with a liberal-cosmopolitan perspective could certainly not openly endorse, much less propose, pro-natalist policies. That is why their preferred method is population growth is increased immigration: they want to take advantage of other countries pro-natalist attitudes.

We’re unlikely to change the minds of economists who have biases against getting married and having babies. But we need to be aware that such biases exist. By understanding that certain policies aren’t preferred solely because they are the optimal option, we can counter with our own preferred—and admittedly biased—approaches to economic and social policy. We may not be able to take bias out of economics, but we can at least insure the right biases are put in.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Megan McArdle has a simpler explanation. Urging college but not marriage makes more sense for economists personally:

    Which makes me gravitate towards a more parsimonious explanation: all economists are, definitionally, very good at college. Not all economists are good at marriage. Saying that more people should go to college will make 0% of your colleagues feel bad. Saying that more people should get married and stay married will make a significant fraction of your colleagues feel bad. And in general, most people have an aversion to topics which are likely to trigger a personal grudge in a coworker.

  • emt22

    interesting topic. These two issues do not seem to be the same, particularly from a causal perspective.

    I don’t think any self-respecting economist (or social scientist) would deny that an increase in education leads to an increase in earnings. Of course we could argue about the size of that premium, whether it is decreasing, and variance among different groups.

    With marriage, however, there are numerous confounders that do not make the relationship as clear cut. One of those confounders is socio-economic status: that is, individuals who come from a more stable socio-economic background tend to marry at higher levels than those from a lower socio-economic background. At the same time, there is issue of marriage longevity: once again, class seems to play an influence, although there it varies across classes.

    Thus, if you were to take the marginal individual and advise them to go to school or to get married, education would seem like a safe bet; marriage would not, At least, until further work can be done to entangle whether the marriage premium is really capturing the benefits of marriage, or is simply capturing the benefits of two individuals coming together from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

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