Tuesday, August 13, 2013

No Divorce

Ryan points me to a post by Alex Tabarrok on no-divorce laws:
It’s easy to see why a divorce law might arise that allows men relatively easy divorce, as in the Old Testament which lets men divorce almost at will (as written, interpretations differ) but gives women no right to divorce at all. It is also easy to see why a society might adopt mutual consent under which both parties must agree in order to get a divorce or no-fault unilateral rules in which either party can get a divorce without the consent of the other. What is difficult to understand, however, is why a society would adopt divorce laws that make it difficult to get a divorce even when both parties want a divorce.
I think he knew I would have some fun with it.

Warm up (the boring answer...sigh): Maybe if people believe that God wants them to enforce his will of no-divorce, it's not that surprising when it gets written into law?

There's a long tradition in society of prohibiting "sinful" behavior for its own sake, even if the parties involved do not impose (non-psychic) externalities on others.  For example, charging interest, privately believing in the wrong god, gay anything...

In fairness, psychic externalities do matter for social welfare. But that's not today's topic.

Okay, now let's actually have some fun with this. There are some fine reasons for no-divorce laws.  Let's build them up and tear them down!

I: Incomplete information!
The willingness to enter into a no-divorce marriage reveals information about your long-term commitment to each other.

There are good apples and bad apples.  Good apples will stick around to help you raise the kids, but bad apples won't.  Suppose you only want to build a family with a good apple, but you can't tell them apart.  The trouble is that a bad apple may say he's the kind of person who wants to raise kids, but it's cheap talk.  If only there was some way of distinguishing the good apples...

Enter no-divorce marriage.  Only a good apple is willing to be with you permanently, and thus you are able to separate out the good apples by requiring them to enter into a no-divorce marriage.

The interesting thing is that, in this world, the no-divorce law isn't keeping anyone from getting divorced!  Everyone who is married wants to stay married anyway!  But it helps to reveal important information that otherwise would not be available.

The Problem: In reality, people don't know everything about their own future preferences and characteristics up front.  Only over time do they learn what will be best for themselves and for each other in the future.  In light of this, sufficiently costly divorce is probably a better option.  This would enable up-front screening while still allowing people to exit the marriage should they turn out to be a poor fit, 10 or 20 or 30 years down the line.

II: Insurance!
On that note, no-divorce marriage can be thought of as a form of insurance.  You don't know the future. You don't know if you're going to be sick down the line, but you sure would like a guarantee that someone will be there to take care of you when the going gets rough.  So you find a friend and promise to support each other through the hard times.  But maybe once you get sick, they don't feel like following through with their promise.  So, you chain yourselves together with an unbreakable vow.  No-divorce marriage as a way of committing to each other no matter what!

The Problem: Wouldn't mutual-consent divorce be even better for this purpose? It guarantees each party at least the marriage payoff, with the option to exit if each can be made better off by doing so.  On the other hand, unilateral divorce does not look so good from this perspective.  Even though the parties will bargain to an efficient outcome (assuming transferrable utility), unilateral divorce does not give either side property rights over the marriage itself, so one party can get left in the lurch.

(Note that unilateral divorce instead gives each person property rights over their outside option, instead.  Someone else can extol the virtues of this arrangement!).

III: Dynamic inconsistency!
In a many-selves model with dynamic inconsistency, no-divorce marriage can serve as a commitment device which protects the "individual" from acting on short-term impulses that are not good for the "individual's" long-term wellbeing.

I am being very loose here, but it's an agreeable enough sentiment.  Don't get too comfortable though, because I am now going to violate the hell out of it.

The Problem: The thing is that by the very same token, no-divorce marriage is a prison for all future selves whose preferences do not happen to agree with the guy who got married way back when.  As soon as dynamic inconsistency is in play, there is no such thing as the "true" self against whom all actions are properly judged.  When multiple sets of preferences are on the table, who's to say which is "right"?

Actually, I could muster up a satisfactory answer to that question, maybe even one that strikes a chord with your intuitive sense of having a "true" underlying version of yourself, but that is not my goal today.  Instead, let us recognize the underlying truth that:

  • You are a collection of multiple selves arrayed out through time.
  • These selves don't all agree with each other.
  • Earlier versions of yourself have power over later versions of yourself, which matters because they don't all agree on what's best.
The natural next question is, to what extent should you be allowed to exercise that power?  A contract that you enter into today will become binding to a future person who had no say in the signing of that contract!

Most forms of indentured servitude are illegal in America.  It is illegal for a willing donor to contract to provide a kidney at a future date.  There are contracts we are not allowed to write, and one very good reason is that "we" may not truly be the parties responsible for fulfilling the terms.

No-divorce marriage is one heck of a long-term contract, with huge potential to violate the preferences of future selves.  That makes me really uneasy.  It is primarily for this reason that I think no-divorce marriage should not be mandatory, and perhaps not even an option at all.

But that's me, what about you?

We are unavoidably bound in many ways to the choices we once made --- that is the true tyranny of the young --- but our society moves increasingly to restrain this tyranny.  

Now go away and think about potato chips, tattoos, life in prison, social security, universal healthcare, your childhood...


  1. I'm glad you brought up potato chips.

    Moreover, your answer to the credible commitment is precisely what I had in mind when Ryan sent that e-mail out. My favorite quote of the whole thing: "The thing is that by the very same token, no-divorce marriage is a prison for all future selves whose preferences do not happen to agree with the guy who got married way back when."

    This kind of deeper-level thinking is precisely what made me think of Jeff Ely's post on "it pays to be dumb."


    In some circles, it is conventional wisdom that credible commitments (can) make people better off, and that is the justification for laws like no-divorce laws. But, if you're just "dumb" enough to question that conventional wisdom (i.e., to be puzzled what it means to be better off), you come to a really cool answer about dynamic inconsistency.