Charity And Temptation

Bryan Caplan responded to John Marsh:

Nearly two-thirds of poor children … reside in [single-parent] homes. … “If poor mothers married the fathers of their children nearly three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty.”

In a world of cheap, reliable contraception, any woman can easily avoid single motherhood with near-certainty. Simply use birth control until you find and marry a reliable man. Avoiding single motherhood, to be blunt, is a choice.

Bryan further commented:

b. Sex with birth control, unlike abstinence, does not lead to chronic burning lust.
c. Potentially poor women who delay child-bearing have a high chance of finding a reliable man before becoming infertile.

Karl Smith took issue:

Baby lust is quite real, almost certainly genetically determined and probably explains a fair fraction of the differences in outcome among women. … Potentially poor women [do not] have a high chance of finding a reliable man before becoming infertile. … There is a serious dearth of reliable men. .. Bryan’s prescription of promiscuous birth-controlled sex lowers a women’s rank in the marriage market. … My natural assumption [is] that poor single mothers are engaging in utility maximizing behavior. This implies that the alternatives to being a poor single mother are worse and that people accept this fate because they have low endowments in the marriage market.

Let me first make two points:

  1. The reliability of men is only an issue because we have weakened the commitment of marriage. Most farmer societies made marriage into a strong commitment, and encouraged young women to hold out for it. This led to an equilibrium where most women, even poor ones, married, so that most kids had two parents. Men now choose to be unreliable more often because we have greatly lowered its penalties.
  2. Even with weak marriage it is possible to identify reliable poor men. If you can’t tell, ask your parents, grandparents, or their siblings. But the hypergamous mating preferences of women typically lead them to prefer other men, especially in a relatively rich society like ours.

What to do? First, why not offer the option of a strong marriage commitment? More women would end up with reliable husbands if couples could choose between strong marriage, weak marriage, or no marriage. But surely even with this option, many women in our rich society would still choose single parenthood, and the relative poverty it implies. What then?

Now Bryan is clearly right — this is in fact a choice. But Karl is also right — it is a choice made in the face of relatively strong desires. The key question is: how weak do temptations have to be to make the choices they influence unworthy of charity? We feel only weak inclinations to help people who choose poverty, and could easily have chosen otherwise. But we feel much stronger inclinations to help folks who could have avoided poverty only via quite unusual levels of self-control and determination. Where in this spectrum does the temptation to single parenthood lie?

Given forager sharing norms, forager fathers only needed to reliably help kids for a few years. But farmers, who shared less, had to set a higher self-control bar for charity eligibility. A farmer could quickly starve by being too generous with neighboring charity cases. Now that we are richer, we can be more indulgent, but it seems to me an open question whether we should. I tend to agree with Bryan that very poor foreigners seem more deserving of aid that self-indulgent not-so-poor natives.

Added 5p: Karl Smith responds:

Central to Byran and somewhat shockingly to me – Robin’s – thinking is whether or not the single parents deserve charity.
On Facebook I think Robin framed the question as “how weak do temptations have to be before they make people less deserving of charity”
My clear answer would be that there is no level so low. Human suffering is bad. Reductions in human suffering are good.
Why humans are suffering is of concern to us in knowing when our interventions might be productive but it doesn’t affect whether they are warranted.

If we commit ahead of time to making our help contingent on certain behavior, that can have good effects in inducing such behavior. This is probably the origin of our intuitions that certain behaviors make folks less worthy of help.

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  • Psychohistorian

    “The reliability of men is only an issue because we have weakened the commitment or marriage.”

    Your fundamental claim here appears to be that increase the cost of something will consumption to go up. I don’t think you’ve even gotten within sight of sufficient evidence to support such a claim.

    You’re basically saying that the reason men are unreliable today is because of no-fault divorce. They are legally incapable of making a strong commitment, therefore, the medium commitment they can make is not preferable to no commitment. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Divorce is still unpleasant and expensive. Furthermore, even given relatively low exit costs, at least half of each of these man-woman pairs does not want to get married. It is unclear how making marriage a higher-risk proposition would improve this situation.

    There are many cultural changes that have made men less reliable, principally an increased emphasis on individual and sexual freedoms and the dissolution of strong, community-enforced gender roles. No-fault divorce is likely an effect of these greater social changes. Certainly, if we were to abandon no-fault divorce for a more rigid form, at this point in time the end result would very likely be fewer marriages. Something more than that one change explains men’s unreliability.

    While I tentatively support giving people the option of less dissoluble marriages, making it optional would likely not help the people we’re talking about here. They already don’t want a medium-strength marriage, so why would they want a high-strength marriage?

  • John

    In before feminist rage.

  • One other point: our society is fairly devoted to the ideology and implementation of individual freedom, choice, and autonomy. But part of that freedom is the freedom to screw up using conventional methods. From what I can tell, it seems that we collectively now have more freedom in our romantic and workplace lives than we once did—but the flipside of that freedom is a greater ability to make choices that might impair earning potential or offspring fitness.

  • M

    Even with weak marriage it is possible to identify reliable poor men. If you can’t tell, ask your parents, grandparents, or their siblings. But the hypergamous mating preferences of women typically lead them to prefer other men, especially in a relatively rich society like ours.

    The implicit assumption here is that there are more reliable, available men than women seeking them in the populations with the highest rates of single-parent households. But this simply doesn’t appear to be the case. Men bear fewer of the costs of childrearing, the absolute supply of marriage-age African American men is much lower on account of drug policy, and the sorts of lower-class women that end up having children out of wedlock simply lack the habitus to count for anything on the dating market. And the fact that that the “society” in question is relatively rich is not exactly a status-booster for those at the bottom of it.

    To a great extent, child support and to a lesser extent alimony laws are simply taking on the original – coercive, lovelessly economic, necessary – role that marriage once played, with marriage now standing for much more historically recent notions of emotional companionship. Of course there are enforcement problems, though that was also true under the old nomenclature as well. On a practical level reducing incarceration rates are probably the best thing we can do in the long run on this question.

    It may also be that earlier childbearing allows young mothers greater access to the care labor of older relatives – both because they can make more of a claim to helplessness and because there’s probably a point where the competence of grandmothers peaks.

  • nazgulnarsil

    Women aren’t being given the tools to make these sorts of decisions. We’ve eviscerated the cultural norms of shaming women who pursue unreliable men. we lack decent male role models in popular culture. In fact more often than not the man who checks the traditional boxes of providing a stable home life for his family is made the object of ridicule. Thus we have generations of women growing up who have no idea how things actually work until they hit 35, lose their desirability in the market and flip out. They suddenly realize that if they wanted to have a baby with a reliable man they needed to be paying attention to markers of reliability back when they were 25. of course when they were 25 they were looking for the man who gave them the biggest emotional high. We look at cultures that have things we regard as extreme such as arranged marriage and shake our heads without investigating why those structures evolved in the first place.

    Forager cultures solved this problem by having everybody raise all the children. We still see this in cultures that were forced to be nomadic far longer than most farmer cultures (jews, romani are the prominent examples). Farmer cultures dealt with it in a variety of ways, most of which are now deemed oppressive. Lots of systems that are designed to protect older women will look oppressive to young women.

    Of course that brings me around to parroting one of Hanson’s points: we are returning to forager norms as we become wealthier and should expect frictional costs as different parts of our culture return to these norms at different paces.

  • ” I tend to agree with Bryan that very poor foreigners seem more deserving of aid that self-indulgent not-so-poor natives.”

    You have to vigorously hump folk notions of free will to get to that (or for that matter, the inverse) endpoint.

    I think the better place to start is the concept that the absence of a regulation is a default regulation. Then we can turn it into an existential risk minimization problem.

  • This is an interesting debate. I would like to see some explanations from single mothers though. Karl, Robin and Bryan give interesting analysis but the desires and opinions of single mothers will be important to understand and it might be hard to figure this out from this outside a perspective.

  • IVV

    If there aren’t enough reliable men to go around, would polygamy be a reasonable solution? Especially in a world with working mothers?

    • Julia Wise

      For sex, I think polyamory is a decent solution (and one that lots of people are practicing, minus informed consent of the partners). For childrearing, usually not. Even reliable men are unlikely to want to support multiple households worth of children.

      • IVV

        Is reliability a necessary condition for polyamorous sex?

      • We’d need to unpack the euphemism “reliable” better to answer that.

  • I don’t think it is quite so easy to tell who is reliable and who is not. Take Joe Walsh for example. He got elected to congress, so he got more than 51% of the voters to think he was more reliable than the other guy, but he is behind by more than $100k in child support.

    Is he reliable or not? The GOP leadership seems to think he is reliable. His ex-wife has pretty good evidence that he is not, but she once thought he was reliable enough to marry and have 3 children with.

    I think what we are seeing with so many unmarried mothers is not the inability of single women to weed out the unreliable men, but the ability of men to falsely signal that they are reliable.

    I suggest that the problem is not that our society is so wealthy, rather that unreliable people (like Joe Walsh) feel as if they are very poor because their resources don’t match what they want to acquire. They also spend more resources trying to falsely signal being reliable, rather than honestly signaling how reliable they are.

    What is also interesting is that given that a deadbeat and unreliable dad like Joe Walsh isn’t shamed into being reliable by his peers, why would anyone think that shaming unmarried women would somehow cause them to make better choices? The only choice that Joe Walsh’s ex-wife could have made was to not marry him and to not have children with him. If Joe Walsh’s peers in Congress told him to get act together and be reliable, does he have the capacity to? If he does, why doesn’t he? If he doesn’t, why do his peers tolerate such an unreliable peer in Congress?

    Or does his skill at falsely signaling that he is reliable extend even to his peers in Congress? If that is true, then it is completely unreasonable to expect single women to be able to weed out men so good at falsely signaling that they are reliable.

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  • Julia Wise

    “If poor mothers married the fathers of their children” – phrasing this as if the choice is entirely on the women’s side is just silly.

    The weakening of marriage has less to do with easier access to divorce, I think, and more with the advent of birth control. Before, premarital sex was less appealing to women because it meant a high chance of pregnancy and therefore terrible stigma. Because women were unwilling to have premarital sex (including higher prices for prostitution), men had a greater incentive to marry. Now, women who don’t want babies can have protected premarital sex, and men have easier access to such women. Thus, everyone has more access to low-cost sex outside of marriage.

    The ethnography “Promises I Can Keep” is about low-income mothers who don’t marry. The researchers’ conclusion was that poor women wanted children because they wanted a source of unconditional love, and because babies were a way of gaining status in the neighborhood. These women had high ideals around marriage and didn’t want to marry the largely unreliable men available to them. Many of them were waiting for everybody to sow their wild oats for a few decades and then marry in middle age, after childbearing.

    • lemmy caution

      “Promises I Can Keep” is a good book.

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  • About 70% of black children grow up without both parents in the home.
    What message does that send to the children?
    How unwelcome they must feel in this world.
    It’s so very sad because it needn’t be.

  • Susan B. Anthony

    I never felt I could give up my life of freedom to become a man’s housekeeper. When I was young, if a girl married poverty, she became a drudge; if she married wealth, she became a doll. Had I married at twenty-one, I would have been either a drudge or a doll for fifty-five years. Think of it!

  • Steven Ehrbar

    First, why not offer the option of a strong marriage commitment?

    It’s available in several states, most notably Louisiana. It doesn’t have much uptake.