Research Handbook on the Economics of Family Law

Research Handbook on the Economics of Family Law

Research Handbooks in Law and Economics series

Edited by Lloyd R. Cohen and Joshua D. Wright

The Research Handbook on the Economics of Family Law gives us a series of original essays by distinguished scholars in economics, law or both. The essays represent a variety of approaches to the field. Many contain extensive surveys of the literature with respect to the particular question they address. Some employ empirical economics, others are more narrowly legal. They have in common one thing: each scholar employs a core economic tool or insight to shed light on some aspect of family law and social institutions broadly understood. Topics covered include: divorce, child support, infant feeding, abortion access, prostitution, the decline in marriage, birth control and incentives for partnering.

Chapter 2: Diverging Family Structure and ‘Rational’ Behavior: The Decline in Marriage as a Disorder of Choice

Amy L. Wax

Subjects: economics and finance, law and economics, law - academic, family law, law and economics


2 Diverging family structure and “rational” behavior: the decline in marriage as a disorder of choice Amy L. Wax 1. INTRODUCTION The past 50 years have witnessed a growing divergence in family structure by race and social class. This chapter attempts to understand these dramatic trends. It argues that this dispersion can best be explained as the product of growing differences in styles of thinking about partner choice and reproductive behavior. Drawing on the work of psychologists Richard Herrnstein and Gene Heyman, the chapter presents a model that contrasts two distinct types of “rational” choice: “global” and “local.” It then demonstrates that average disparities by race and class in the adoption of local or global decisionmaking methods can account for the significant demographic variations now observed in rates of marriage, divorce, and out-of-wedlock childbearing. The chapter then suggests that this diversity emerged in the wake of the normative deregulation of the sexual revolution. The demise of strong heuristic mores and institutional constraints, and the rise of ad hoc individualism and moral improvisation, facilitated the development of contrasting decisionmaking styles in intimate relations. 2. THE DEMOGRAPHIC DISPERSION IN FAMILY STRUCTURE The past 50 years have seen dramatic changes in sexual behavior, patterns of reproduction, and family life. Fewer people are getting married, cohabitation is on the rise, divorce is commonplace, extra-marital sex is pervasive, and out-of-wedlock childbearing has grown steadily for decades.1 These general developments mask important trends well known to professional demographers: the composition of families has diverged dramatically by...

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