One of the ideas often put forward when discussing declining marriage rates is that our elites are likely to enact a Roman Empire style bachelor tax. I admittedly don’t have much background knowledge of how the Romans went about this, but from the bit I’ve read from W.F. Price it seems that the bachelor laws were as much about brutally reinforcing Roman patriarchy as they were about coercing men into marriage via taxation. I assume those talking about a bachelor tax aren’t talking about reinforcing the patriarchy, so for this discussion I’ll focus on government coercing men to marry.
I see three main reasons a bachelor tax is an unviable solution for our elites:
Problem #1: Reversing our feminist mindset
Even focusing strictly on coercion would require a reversal of much of our present feminist mindset. Under the feminist view when men work harder and do more dangerous and difficult jobs than women do, this is proof that men are enjoying some sort of gift of the patriarchy. This is most commonly expressed as the gender pay gap, with the claim that women are only paid roughly 80 cents for every dollar men are paid doing similar work. This same foolishness is also accepted unquestioningly by the academics studying marriage, but instead of calling it the gender pay gap, it is called the marriage premium. Here is how the American Enterprise Institute explains the marriage premium:
Men obtain a substantial “marriage premium” and women bear no marriage penalty in their individual incomes, and both men and women enjoy substantially higher family incomes, compared to peers with otherwise similar characteristics. For instance, men enjoy a marriage premium of at least $15,900 per year in their individual income compared to their single peers.
Whether you are a feminist and call it the gender pay gap, or are a conservative and call it the marriage premium, what we are talking about are the choices men make to prioritize earnings over leisure, safety, a pleasant working environment, the “fulfilling” nature of work, etc. This is why married men (especially married fathers) tend to hold high stress time intensive jobs which are more likely to involve a substantial commute, while women (whether married or not) tend to focus more on jobs which are lower stress, offer more flexible hours, and are more personally fulfilling.
The problem is the decline of marriage is proving feminist theory for the foolishness that it has always been. With marriage weakening we are starting to see that unmarried men tend to earn like women. This is a serious problem for our elites, because the nation’s earnings are the play money they use on their pet projects. If fewer men are working like husbands and more are working like women, there will be far less money available in the form of taxes, alimony, child support, etc. However, confronting this problem will require admitting that it is a problem. This would mean admitting that there is no such thing as a “marriage premium” for men, only men prioritizing the needs of their families over their own personal preferences. Moreover, admitting that there is no marriage premium would mean also admitting that there is no “gender pay gap”, because the two are one and the same. Even if our elites try to fudge the issue, this isn’t a secret they will be able to keep.
Aside from the feminist view of men’s earnings, our elites would also have to go against other deeply embedded areas of conventional wisdom to enact a bachelor tax. These pillars of conventional wisdom are less overtly feminist than the marriage premium view, but are still rooted in feminism because they are rationalizations about how our new feminist family system can be made to work. As I pointed out in my last post, conventional wisdom is that our current broken family model will work if only everyone thinks and acts like our UMC, by following the “success sequence” and leaving marriage until their late 20s or early 30s. This brings up the problem of timing, which I explore later in this post. Another pillar of conventional wisdom is that the secret to making our broken system work is for the bride and groom to exhibit maximum intentionality in their path to marriage. The National Marriage Project makes the case for this in their most recent report Before “I DO”:
2 – Sliding versus deciding. Couples who make intentional decisions regarding “major relationship transitions” are more likely to flourish than those who slide through transitions. For instance, among those who cohabited, couples who decided to live together before marriage in an intentional way are more likely to enjoy happy marriages, compared to couples who just slid into cohabitation before marriage.
Coercing men into marriage would go against this pillar of conventional wisdom, as a man pushed into marriage doesn’t fit the paradigm for a successful marriage.
Problem #2: The welfare state
Even if our elites were willing to abandon the feminist tenets I describe above, they would still have the formidable problem of the welfare state. How do you coerce someone into working harder and earning more using a system designed to punish working harder and reward earning less? It simply can’t be done.
One of the most commonly cited bachelor taxes today is obamacare. Yet while obamacare does work as a transfer of wealth from men to women, it doesn’t create a financial incentive for men to marry. More importantly, it doesn’t create a financial incentive for young men to work hard in order to make themselves more attractive potential grooms by signaling provider status. To the contrary, obamacare makes coasting easier, because career success is no longer required to be able to afford health care.
Problem #3: Timing
The final problem is the problem of timing. The long interval between coming of age and the median age of marriage is nearly universally overlooked. You can see this in nearly every study on the topic of men choosing marriage, most recently in the study regarding the tradeoff between pornography and marriage. Even if our elites were willing to abandon core feminist beliefs and overturn the welfare state, they would still have the problem of timing. Women are delaying searching for a husband until their late 20s or early thirties, and it is the thirty-something unmarried women staring down the barrel of spinsterhood who are driving the panic about men being on a “marriage strike”.
The problem for a policy maker is that even if we assume all unmarried 30 something and 40 something men are properly motivated to marry, a very large number of them earn nothing or next to nothing. Even if these men respond to coercion and propose en masse, the women will decline. What a bachelor tax would need to do to solve this problem is somehow coerce young men to devote their 20s to signaling provider status so they would be in a position to be coerced into marriage starting around age 30. I can’t imagine a public policy which would be effective in this regard, especially in our era which has embraced promiscuity for young women. Even if our elites could somehow craft such a set of incentives, they would still have to wait a decade or more to see the results in the form of higher marriage rates.