Friday, 5 October 2012

Why Marriage Was Allowed To Collapse (1)

In the previous post I decided that the payoff from marriage - absent old-school fantasies - was net less than zero, and one serious contribution to that is the fact that the UK lifetime cohort divorce rate is around 40%. I didn't know that until I wrote the previous post, and it turned my head round. 

Forty freaking per cent. No businessman would go into a venture with a forty per cent failure rate. No Western armed force now would take any mission with a projected forty per cent loss of its troops. No engineer would build a structure that had a forty percent chance of falling down. I'm guessing a serious poker player would fold at the forty per cent prospect of a one hundred per cent loss. The only people who think that 3:2 on is good odds are people who bet on horses - and people who open restaurants.

And this institution is one of the pillars of our society? Nuh-huh. The way you know it isn't is that not one politician or commentator makes a fuss about that forty per cent lifetime divorce rate. Not. A. One. They make a fuss about the consequences, but not the cause. "Broken homes" are like the weather: it's what happens and we have to deal with the results. Anyway, it seems marriage never was a pillar of society, more that society was a pillar of marriage: the experiment run by Western societies since 1970 shows that marriage needed to be propped up by tax breaks and punitive laws, and created a lot of misery when it was enforced. Marriage isn't the cure, it's the disease itself. It was an institution designed to solve problems of legitimacy and inheritance, to resolve feuds and cement alliances between families. Marriage was always a social institution intended for an economic and political purpose. It was made redundant not by the Death of God and the Sixties, but by the Joint Stock Company, the Trust and laws codifying inheritance for tax purposes, which did the job much better. When passing on an extra couple of goats could mean the difference between poverty and comfort, inheritance and marriage mattered. By the mid twentieth-century, two wars, inheritance taxes and a rise in asset prices meant that inheritance was minimal in effect, and therefore irrelevant to the economic circumstances of most people.

The married couple were never supposed to be happy - that was a nice-to-have - they were supposed to be solvent and fruitful. All that advice to husbands and wives was not given because they were unhappy, it was given because they had been pushed together and were being told to make the best of it. By the mid-twentieth century, married couples were not happy, but nobody was pushing them together, so they had to accept it was their own dumb fault for getting married in the first place. Whereas in the past a divorce might have had serious economic consequences for the families, now it just affected the couple, and this began to look lie a decision that if made badly, should be reversible. In 1969, the legislators passed the Divorce Reform Act (1971) as the first step in removing the social and legal props supporting the institution.

The dissolution of marriage wasn't a feminist conspiracy: it was simple legal engineering. The legislators could not have been more clear about their purpose without actually stating it: marriage was a dysfunctional institution that was no longer going to be supported by the State. They created no-fault divorce, removed tax breaks for married couples, separated husband and wife for tax purposes, re-framed Family Law so that divorce was a viable financial strategy for women, and privileged the mother in custody settlements. The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 made it politic to employ women. Married men lost their income and career advantage over single men. The legislation was done in about five years. Divorce rates have soared, marriage rates have fallen, and not one legislator is saying "Ooops. Looks like we went too far with this one." Not even the Church of England is calling for a change to the divorce laws.

Then the problems hit.

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