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Marriage, society and the state

David Cameron has proposed incentives of £150 annually for married couples and civil partners earning less than £44,000. He spins this as part of claiming that under the Conservatives, Britain would be one of the most family-friendly countries in Europe. There are though, reasons to be sceptical about what impact this will have.

It is undeniable that there are benefits to society at large to couples getting married (or entering civil partnerships, while that distinction remains). The commitment of marriage provides a stable environment for any children the couple may have. The effect from young men settling down, tends to lead, if I may speak against my own demographic, to lower rates of crime and drink-driving. And for the couples themselves, being in a long-standing relationship leads to better health, both mentally and physically, particularly later in life. This is aside, of course, from the romantic benefits for the couple themselves, but by relieving strain on social and health services, there is a wider positive externality.

Cast in such economic terms, it may appear fair to distribute money towards married couples, in the same way that a carbon tax is designed to combat the negative externality of pollution. Family life, however, is more complex than transactions in the business sphere of life.

I would certainly agree that there should be no economic disadvantage to getting married, and such welfare traps that exist in payments to single mothers that would lead them to be worse off if they formalized their relationship with their children’s father should be eliminated. But £150 payments seem a very crude measure, an unwise distribution of state resources, and little more than an attempt to shore up electoral support without a real prospect in a change in behaviour.

As a new transfer payment, this stands likely to be something that in the next economic boom, governments will feel comfortable slowly increasing, all the while such resources could be better used to greater benefit at the points of need. Why should a child be discriminated against because they might have the misfortune to be born to parents who, despite the attraction of the incentive, do not have any intention of marrying?

This money would be better used to pay for graded tax breaks for children, based on the combined income of both parents. This would target resources at those most in need. The government should do more to oblige parents, usually the father, who have separated from their children to play a stronger role in their lives, in line with strengthening the rights of access custody of such fathers to their children. This could be dismissed as being too interventionist, but is preferable to either relying on social services, or the Conservative approach that families should be given money and then be allowed to decide how best to spend it. And social services can play a role, and could act more beneficially in some areas than this payment.

Granted, this is only one aspect of the Conservative family policy, but something that is trumpeted by them for the signal it sends. Moderate conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and Burke’s Corner have defended the policy as a relatively costless nudge. But such ideas, promoted by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge, are best when they are truly costless, such as opt-out organ donor systems. This, to my mind, seems no more than the Tory variety of wasteful spending. Even though I recognise that marriage is good for society, for the reasons above, we can’t make an across-the-board assumption that in every case a couple would be better off if they did marry. Relationships are simply too complex to be assessed in such a manner.

So, in summary, this new tax break is a wasteful and misguided use of resources that is spread far too wide to help those most in need, and based on generalized assumptions that often do not hold where there is most need. David Cameron talks of the need to replace the era big government with a big society. Yet here he favours a broad-brushed paternalist stroke to help tackle the difficulties families face.

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