I agree with Becker that marriage should not be subsidized. The primary concern motivating proposals for a marriage subsidy is that children do better if they are raised in a household in which there are two parents. (It is an open question whether it makes a big difference whether the two parents are of the same or different sexes. My guess is that only if having parents of the same sex leads the child to be ridiculed by other children are children raised in homosexual households highly likely to suffer, and the more common such households become, the less ridicule there will be.) I assume it is true that children benefit from being raised in a household with two parents, but this point argues not for subsidizing marriages, many of which are childless (or the children are grown), as Becker notes, but for penalizing divorce or (if the parents are unmarried) separation (including deliberate single-parenthood).
Penalizing divorce, presumably limited to cases in which the divorcing couple has minor children, could operate as either a tax on or a subsidy of marriage: a tax because it would increase the cost of exit, but a subsidy because by increasing the cost of exit it would provide more security to each spouse. It is unclear which effect would predominate, and therefore it is unclear whether the amount of cohabitation would rise or fall relative to marriage whether or not there was also a penalty for dissolving a cohabitation when there were minor children.
I do not think there should be either a marriage tax or a marriage penalty. We are speaking here of Pigouvian taxes‚Äîthat is, taxes designed to alter behavior rather than to raise revenue for government. The principal effect of a tax on or subsidy of marriage is likely to be to induce substitution of cohabitation for marriage, in the case of the tax, or of marriage for cohabitation, in the case of the subsidy. When an activity has a close substitute, the principal effect of a tax on the activity is to induce substitution for the taxed activity, and in the case of a subsidy to induce substitution of the subsidized activity. It seems unlikely that the decision to have children as a couple or as a single parent, or to stay together with the other parent after children are born and until they become adults, is strongly affected by the precise legal form of the relationship. Given no-fault divorce and the declining stigma of nonmarital sex, the practical difference between marriage and purely contractual forms of family relationship has shrunk to a point at which tinkering with the marriage rate through taxes or subsidies seems unlikely to produce social gains. Of course, a heavy tax on cohabitation (perhaps in the form of a heavy separation tax) would drive couples to marry--but an effect of taxing both divorce and separation might be to reduce the birthrate. This is not certain, however, because each spouse would have greater assurance that the other spouse would remain part of the household, to help take care of the children either through personal services or financially; and this assurance would increase the willingness to have children.
Of course even if there were an exact contractual substitute for marriage, as in domestic partnership laws in force in some states and some foreign countries, many people would have strong religious, moral, or sentimental reasons to prefer marriage to the contractual substitute, and a few people would have strong moral or political reasons to prefer the contractual substitute. These preferences should be honored. But it is not clear why the legal, including tax and subsidy, consequences of the choice should differ.
A serious social problem is created by the practice of some poor women of having children with no expectation that the father will participate in the support or upbringing of the children, but instead with the expectation that the government will support them. The practice--in which the role of government becomes that of financial father of children born out of wedlock--nurtures criminality and perpetuates poverty. Subsidizing the production of children by persons who because they are poor single parents lack the resources to support their children properly is highly dubious social policy. Welfare reform has reduced the problem but not eliminated it. Whatever the solution, it is unlikely to be a marriage subsidy. A man who does not want to be married and support children will marry if marriage is subsidized but will divorce or abandon his wife after pocketing the subsidy. To prevent this gaming of the marriage subsidy would require costly and probably futile enforcement efforts by the government.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, whom Becker mentions, bases his pro-marriage policy on the following sentiment: "There's something special about marriage. It's not about religion. It's not about morality. It's about commitment. When you stand up there, in front of your friends and your family, in front of the world, whether it's in a church or anywhere else, what you're doing really means something. Pledging yourself to another means doing something brave and important. You are making a commitment. You are publicly saying: it's not just about me, me me anymore. It is about we--together, the two of us, through thick and thin. That really matters." But more than 40 percent of British marriages end in divorce, suggesting that the public commitment involved in a wedding ceremony doesn't have much sticking power. True, the number of cohabitations that end in separation is surely much higher, but many of them are entered into with no expectation of permanence. So far as I am aware, those cohabitations that are entered into with such an expectation are no more (or perhaps not much more) likely to end in separation than marriages are to end in divorce.