Cheating In The Context Of Marriage And Coase

Bryan Caplan graciously describes my critique of the norm of monogamy as "eloquent", but I fear he misses the point I was trying to make. Bryan writes:

I'm not a principled advocate of monogamy; it's not for everyone, and I am after all a fan of Big Love. I am however a principled advocate of honoring your contracts and promises. If you don't want to practice monogamy, here's an idea: Don't agree to it. If you want a non-traditional marriage, write a contract for it. Don't accept the standard-issue version, then pretend that you didn't have a choice.

I agree with Bryan: Once you make a promise, you should keep it. Dan Savage also agrees with Bryan; I quoted Savage qualifying his argument against the norm of monogamy: "Which is not to say that people shouldn't honor their commitments."

So Dan, Bryan, and I are all in agreement: People should honor their commitments. But what Dan and I are questioning, and Bryan seems to miss, is whether the default rule of a life-long commitment to a single partner is a wise commitment to make, or a wise commitment to reinforce through social pressure. As Tom points out in the comment thread to Bryan's post:

[P]rivate contract theory doesn't help justify Bryan's simple judgments about cheating. They make more sense in the context of people who choose to make strong public commitments of fidelity, as in covenant marriages. And they might make sense if Bryan wants to start putting some great value on the boilerplate statements about 'sickness and health' made during the wedding, or if he was was approaching it from some religious or ethical system that was premised on fidelity or on a conservative idea that a stable society requires that all publicly-recognized unions include a commitment to monogamy. But he isn't.

Private contracts have lots of terms, express and implied, and they are subject to modification. So it's very hard for the public to know the terms of the contracts and say who is in breach.

One of the things the Coase theorem teaches us is that in a world of positive transaction costs (which is in fact the world we inhabit), initial property allocations can be very important. And so too, in a world of positive transaction costs, default rules in contracts can be very important. And so too, in a world of positive transaction costs, default assumptions implicit in social norms can be very important.

And surely, for many people, signing a prenuptial agreement different from the standard default option represents a significant transaction cost. As Bryan himself argues in one of the posts he links to:

If you think that Nudge doesn't matter, take a look at marriage. Only 5-10% of marriages have prenups; everyone else goes with the "default option" - the family law of the state in which they reside.

Why do people go with state law? You could say, "State laws are so wisely crafted that no one would want anything else," but that's laughable. The real reasons, as Heather Mahar explains, are (a) people underestimate their probability of divorce, so they barely plan for a likely event, and (b) asking for anything other than the default option is a bad signal...

Bryan goes on to argue for his preferred policy outcome: Eliminate default rules entirely by getting state governments out of the business of writing default rules for marriage.

There are a few problems with this. First, even if the government got out of the marriage business, people would still be just as bad at estimating their probability of divorce. Well, maybe not just as bad. Perhaps if people were forced to think more about the possibility of divorce in the process of writing a prenup, they might better estimate the correct probability of their own relationship's demise. But the optimistic bias would still exist.

Second, getting the government out of the marriage business wouldn't necessarily eliminate default rules. People may just prefer not having to think about unhappy things like possible divorce, and therefore favor whatever boilerplate marriage contract the market is most likely to offer. And the market is most likely to offer those contracts that reflect existing social norms. But these social norms are precisely what Dan Savage and I are questioning! A social norm in favor of monogamy in marriage would still exist, all else being equal other than removal of government from the marriage business - just as a social norm in favor of monogamy in dating relationships still exists, even though in dating relationships, the government does not play (as) noticeable a role in shaping expectations.

Leaving the norm of monogamy unchallenged assumes that it is the most efficient one for resolving social conflict. But Bryan doesn't make this assumption and neither do I. As Dan Savage pointed out, "Elevating monogamy over all else—insisting that it, and it alone, is the sole measure of love and devotion—destroys countless marriages, families, and careers." Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, seeking other sexual or emotional partners would not be considered an act of cheating, infidelity, unfaithfulness, or disloyalty. Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, there would be no conflict, and thus no reason to feel lied to, get a divorce, and disintegrate the family structure.

There might still be conflict involving issues of jealousy, and as I said in my post, it is an open question whether jealousy can be overcome, or if jealousy is so deeply ingrained (biologically and/or culturally) that it would be a futile task to try. But surely the social norm in favor of monogamy reinforces this feeling of jealousy; if people didn't expect their partners to be monogamous, partly because society expects partners to expect this of each other, people wouldn't feel as jealous when their partners failed to conform to a non-existent social expectation.

By analogy, our society does not have a social norm against having more than one child (fortuitously, given Bryan's pro-natalist position). Yet even without this social norm, children are often jealous of the attention their parents give to their siblings (attention being a scarce resource). Imagine how much more jealous these same children would be of their siblings (and how much angrier these children would be at their parents) if their parents violated the social norm in a society with a norm against having more than one child.

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Jealousy

But surely the social norm in favor of monogamy reinforces this feeling of jealousy; if people didn't expect their partners to be monogamous, partly because society expects partners to expect this of each other, people wouldn't feel as jealous when their partners failed to conform to a non-existent social expectation.

And when their partners do not fail to live up to the expectation, there is less jealousy. There is a reason the hippie movement is no more. I believe jealousy to be largely an inborn trait affecting individuals to various degrees with various effects.

The movie "Kinsey" had a wonderful scene where two scientists just could not escape the grasp of human nature. That is to say: jealousy. I think the majority of us could share their fate if put in the same position: two Men fighting over one Woman in what was supposed to be a scientific endeavor and/or an expression of sexual freedom, had now gone awry (the exact details are fuzzy to me).

That is the cold reality as I see it. Game or no game. Escaping that tight wretched fist lacking all remorse or sympathy is utterly futile. It doesn't care. It's worse than The Terminator. It doesn't need an outcome, but many of us do.

"Were it not for the

"Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, seeking other sexual or emotional partners would not be considered an act of cheating, infidelity, unfaithfulness, or disloyalty. Were it not for the expectation of monogamy, there would be no conflict, and thus no reason to feel lied to, get a divorce, and disintegrate the family structure."

Since you haven't noticed, this was tried. It was called "the 60s" (which, of course, extended well into the 70s and 80s). 98% of the people who tried it fled and wound up in monogamous (or mostly monogamous, or hypocritically polygamous) relationships, because it was chaos.

Do we really need to try it all again because "theoretically speaking" you see no good reason for a product of thousands of generations of experience?

Perhaps the alternative to

Perhaps the alternative to monogamy they chose was not chosen well. Their failure isn't evidence of the wisdom of the current social norm.

Is it really the case that monogamy is the product of thousands of generations of experience? I recall various forms of polygamy being practiced openly and with the approval of society throughout various cultures in history. Polygamy is perfectly kosher in Judaism; a temporary Rabbinical decree (which, incidentally, has since recently expired, though it continues to be enforced for some reason I'm not quite clear on) was instituted prohibiting it primarily so as not to offend non-Jewish societies - essentially the same reason Mormonism banned it. I believe it's still acceptable in modern Islam.

And doesn't French society have a very different view and practice of monogamy and marriage than we do?

The prodect of experience?

Fidelity was, and was crucially important for women. The first requirement for getting men to raise children was that the men be satisfied that the children they were raising were indeed their own. Women had to establish their fidelity to the satisfaction of their mates. Men had more leeway because infidelity on their part did not tend to affect their families as directly.

You wouldn't even be asking these questions before ubiquitous birth control and paternity tests, the function of fidelity would be obvious.

The first requirement for

The first requirement for getting men to raise children was that the men be satisfied that the children they were raising were indeed their own.

We now have DNA tests for that. See: any random episode of Jerry Springer.

You wouldn't even be asking these questions before ubiquitous birth control and paternity tests, the function of fidelity would be obvious.

I'm not asking about the function of expectations of fidelity nor how it arose in the past. I'm asking whether it is a wise expectation to continue to have now, given the changes in technology available to us.

The effect of then on now

I'm not asking about the function of expectations of fidelity nor how it arose in the past. I'm asking whether it is a wise expectation to continue to have now, given the changes in technology available to us.

Well see, this requirement of fidelity - so that men could know which children were theirs - has been baked into humanity for a very long time. The fact that technology changes overnight doesn't mean human nature can also turn on a dime.

You seek to guard against disintigration of families...

...by encouraging open marriage?

The expectation of marital fidelity is a mechanism for encouraging men to stick around and raise their children.

What do you expect to replace that system of incentives if you don't want to see families disintegrate? In the segments of society where expectations of fidelity are very low men tend not to be deeply involved in raising children. Why would they be?

The breeding strategies natural to men and women are very different. Women can only have a very limited number of children so their natural strategy is to strongly protect those offspring. Men on the other hand can sire any number children - they can advance their genes by simply playing the field. Men don't need to raise raise children to attain biological success, as women do.

When I see otherwise loving

When I see otherwise loving and compatible couples with children divorce merely because one partner chose to seek sexual or emotional companionship outside of the relationship, I see an expectation, often motivated entirely by social expectations, taking priority over greater values that this particular social norm supposedly is meant to protect. This doesn't make much sense to me, and I think it's unfortunate and is worth questioning.

What do I expect to keep men (and women) from leaving their partners? Love? A sense of duty and commitment? One can love and be committed to a partner (and that commitment can in turn be socially reinforced) without necessarily being monogamous.

Men on the other hand can sire any number children - they can advance their genes by simply playing the field. Men don't need to raise raise children to attain biological success, as women do.

How are men able to attain biological success without raising children? How are women unable to attain biological success without raising children? Men can be forced (by explicit law and/or social pressure) to raise their children directly, or to provide the financial resources for someone else to do so for them. Women don't need to raise their own children to attain biological success; they can do the same thing men do: Outsource the job to their partner, or purchase childcare.

I'm not arguing for monogamy per se...

since I accept that some forms of polygamy have been stable. I'm arguing against the kind of open marriage you're advocating.

When I see otherwise loving and compatible couples with children divorce merely because one partner chose to seek sexual or emotional companionship outside of the relationship, I see an expectation, often motivated entirely by social expectations, taking priority over greater values that this particular social norm supposedly is meant to protect. This doesn't make much sense to me, and I think it's unfortunate and is worth questioning.

And when couples remain faithful and stay together it does not occur to you that fidelity contributes to their success?

What do I expect to keep men (and women) from leaving their partners? Love? A sense of duty and commitment? One can love and be committed to a partner (and that commitment can in turn be socially reinforced) without necessarily being monogamous.

Sure one can. Though why you think sexually exclusive marriages are unrealistic, but anything that sounds good to you is likely hold families together is quite beyond me.

You sound exactly like a utopian communist explaining how the people will collectively run an automobile factory through shared ideals and mutual respect. Every individual action contemplated is of course possible but the scheme as a whole is completely unsupported by natural human incentives.

How are men able to attain biological success without raising children?

By siring as many children as they can, obviously.

How are women unable to attain biological success without raising children?

Because women have far fewer tickets in the genetic lottery and their tickets are more expensive than the men's by multiple orders of magnitude.

So obviously, a woman who fails to provide for any given child of her own risks far more biologically, than a man.

Men can be forced (by explicit law and/or social pressure) to raise their children directly, or to provide the financial resources for someone else to do so for them.

Yep, or you could force people whose names were drawn from a hat to raise the same children. Or you could force the French to do it. But what's your justification?

And in fact, attempting to force men to provide for their children is a losing game, as women suing for child support usually learn. A "Player" can easily sire more children than he can afford to provide for. Hell, he can do that in six months. Then what?

Women don't need to raise their own children to attain biological success; they can do the same thing men do: Outsource the job to their partner, or purchase childcare.

Sigh. Women must, by their biological nature, invest a great deal more in each child they produce and they must invest a great deal more in arranging for the survival of each child.

You really don't see the asymmetry between men and women in genetic stakes?

Suppose we're both buying tickets in a lottery with big prizes. Now suppose the tickets cost $1 for me but $30,000 for you and you have to hold on to the tickets for 18 years before the final drawing. Do you think we might develop different strategies based on our different opportunities? You think different strategies don't get hardwired into men and women when they play a similar game for a few million years?

I'm arguing against the kind

I'm arguing against the kind of open marriage you're advocating.

I don't recall outlining and advocating any specific kind of alternative arrangement. I'm merely questioning the value of the social norm of monogamy as it exists now.

How are men able to attain biological success without raising children?

By siring as many children as they can, obviously.

And women can do this too, though of course the cost per child may be higher for women than for men. But neither strategy works unless someone is willing to raise those children to sexual maturity. Unlike many other animal species, human children need many more years of investment before they can become independent. The question of "who should raise the child to maturity" is largely determined by social expectations.

Yep, or you could force people whose names were drawn from a hat to raise the same children. Or you could force the French to do it. But what's your justification?

Are you seriously asking what the justification is for an enforceable duty parents have to their young children?

And in fact, attempting to force men to provide for their children is a losing game, as women suing for child support usually learn. A "Player" can easily sire more children than he can afford to provide for. Hell, he can do that in six months. Then what?

Then he is broke, and (hopefully) a social outcast. The greater the penalty for irresponsible procreation, the less incentive there is for him to engage in it.

You really don't see the asymmetry between men and women in genetic stakes?

Sure, I understand that bringing a fetus to term is costlier for a woman than for a man, and that women are more limited than men in the number of reproductive attempts they are capable of making in the course of their life. But I don't see how any of this impacts the moral question of who should bear most of the burden for raising those children once they are born.

Enforceable duty

Are you seriously asking what the justification is for an enforceable duty parents have to their young children?

Let's consider enforceable duty for fathers.

Say a woman has a man over to her house as a guest. The man asks if he may plant a few acorns in her garden. She says fine. He plants his pocketful of acorns in her garden and goes home.

Who is responsible for any resulting oak trees? Is she entitled to compel him to pay for any costs associated with the resulting trees? Not without a contract.

Does the man have an equal right to the disposition of her garden once he's planted acorns there? Of course not. Is he entitled to retrieve the acorns or the resulting trees after planting them? Not without a contract.

Consensual sex is not a contract to raise children, any more than the consensual planting of acorns in a private garden is a contract to raise trees. In the absence of a contract any responsibility for the result of consensual activity lies with the owner of the garden.

So what exactly is your moral justification for compelling fathers to pay for children for which they have not contracted?

When you sit down at a

When you sit down at a restaurant and order a meal off the menu, is there a moral justification for compelling you to pay for that meal after you have finished eating and are ready to leave, even though you never explicitly signed a contract?

Yes, that would depend on

Yes, that would depend on customs. One can override that by explicitly stating that "the casual sex we're about to enjoy does not constitute an agreement to share financial responsibility of potential children".

Of course it can kill the mood, negotiation is costly and therefore customs matter.

Yes, "customs matter" was

Yes, "customs matter" was the point I was trying to make with my example of an implicit contract.

I'm not sure if one can (or should be able to) explicitly override duties to children created through casual sex. Why should the duty of child raising fall exclusively to the mother? It takes (at least) two to tango.

The woman has no duty to

The woman has no duty to raise the child or even to carry it. She has no claim on the father's resources either, if she explicitly or implicitly waived it.

Open marriage

I don't recall outlining and advocating any specific kind of alternative arrangement.

Wikipedia sez:

Open marriage typically refers to a marriage in which the partners agree that each may engage in extramarital sexual relationships, without this being regarded as infidelity.

That's not a fair description of what you were advocating?

As I said, I don't recall

As I said, I don't recall advocating any specific kind of alternative arrangement in this recent series of posts; my focus has been on criticizing the existing social norm of monogamy, and not as much on offering alternatives. But open marriage is one alternative to monogamy; it may be more beneficial for some people than monogamy, but not for everyone.

Though people do

Though people do underestimate the chances of divorce, I don't think it's simply an oversight. It's also a commitment strategy. People intuitively know that the more thoughtfully they prepare to exit their marriage the more likely they are to exit.

Caplan writes:

But aren't monogamous contracts "unrealistic"? This claim makes no sense. If 50% of people who vow life-long monogamy keep their promise, what's "unrealistic" about it? Monogamy is no more unrealistic than hundreds of promises that we expect people to keep - to show up for work on time, buy lunch next time, pay their workers, or give dissatisfied customers their money back.

Do you have an answer as to why faithful monogamy in an unrealistic expectation? Sure, people can fall short of what they aim for but how is that an argument to set your sights lower? Should the fact many people will lie during their lives mean it's unrealistic to expect people to be honest?

Commenter RL in the econlog

Commenter RL in the econlog thread pointed out what's wrong with Bryan's analogy: "Isn't it really more like expecting people to show up for work on time EVERY DAY for the next 50 years?"

If we know that 50% of a certain kind of contract will eventually be broken, it might be worth reexamining some of the terms of that contract to see if some detail is the cause or significant contributing factor to this failure, and if this detail can be changed for the better.

Longstanding marriages

Longstanding marriages typically do not end after a single incident of infidelity, so I don't see your point. 100% compliance is not absolutely required for a strategy to be beneficial.

A couple that has been married twenty years with three children typically does not end the marriage when one party has a drunken one night stand.

And you completely overlook the fact that fidelity helps them get through those twenty years by shielding them from the open-ended potential for complications in an open marriage. If you're fine with your spouse sleeping around you increase the risk, for one thing, that your spouse may conceive a child outside your marriage. Or contract an STD. Or attract the attentions of a troublesome person. Or leave you flat. These consequences will not help your marriage.

You simply don't notice that working to avoid these risks benefits the marriage. Even if someone slips. All you see are the tears when an infidelity is discovered.

Longstanding marriages

Longstanding marriages typically do not end after a single incident of infidelity, so I don't see your point.

[citation needed]

A couple that has been married twenty years with three children typically does not end the marriage when one party has a drunken one night stand.

Then I say "yay" to that couple. And I say "boo" to the couple in the same circumstances that chooses divorce.

And you completely overlook the fact that fidelity helps them get through those twenty years by shielding them from the open-ended potential for complications in an open marriage.

I don't "completely overlook" this. I admit the costs of jealousy. which I see as more significant and more difficult to avoid than the creation of unwanted/unintended children or STDs.

I notice the benefits of monogamy. I am just skeptical that the benefits outweigh the costs.

Mutual Exclusivity

I don't recall outlining and advocating any specific kind of alternative arrangement. I'm merely questioning the value of the social norm of monogamy as it exists now.

Yes, but emotions are not logical. I (we) had mentioned jealousy, and I think this is a very important aspect to consider for most people getting involved in open relationships and open marriage.

I have friends in open relationships, but I don't have any in open marriages. Jealousy didn't seem to be a problem, but I suspect it was lurking in the background. I also suspect most people would fail miserably if an open relationship was attempted. However, there would be some successes. Even if we eliminated culture entirely (along with expectation) and threw a bunch of us on some island and educated us (leaving out ALL mentions of behavior which is a pretty big GULP) and left those people to their own devices I believe 1 to 1 ratio relationships would be the result, in time.

A friend of mine had a problem with the (more) socially accepted Lesbian PDA because Male (Gay) PDA was viewed and judged more critically, from both sexes. Maybe even "judged" is the wrong word, "repulsed" is a better word. He blamed this on culture and machismo attitudes etc. I think culture keeps the wheels turning but human nature is what started them. My friend thought - and still thinks - culture is to blame for this inequality of reaction and judgment.

Like most things this goes back to evolutionary psychology to explain why people have such startling differences in their reaction to forms of PDA. And perhaps PDA isn't even the right description - just the acts themselves, say, Female on Female kissing is more tolerable to everyone than Man on Man kissing, except for gay Men.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I think that is a similar position being taken here. Culture vs Nature. Where do we draw the line? How? I think we have a lot of filling in the blanks to do, while also admitting everyone here has had something worthy mentioning.

I see no contradiction between the stated opinions thus far (if I understood them correctly). They're all in the mix but we have to pinpoint to what degree exactly? I think it's true people pressure other people to get married and I think that's wrong. I think it's also true that open relationships simply wouldn't work for most people, but more power to 'em if they want to give it a try. Expectation is present, sure. Does this influence behavior? Absolutely it does.

Culture has influence, but the influence does not surpass our inborn tendencies. You smash all the factors together and you get a maze of influence which generally results in our current situation with culture pulling the wagon - helping it along, but itself not becoming the direction, or the wagon.

Drawing Invisible Lines for Other People

You only get to *draw lines* for yourself.
You have no right to draw lines for others, and it doesn't matter if you don't understand it.
Each person gets to run their life and their relationships as they wish.
Personally, I believe I'd be of the jealous nature.
I've only been married once, for 26 years.
Fortunately my wife and I are of similar mindset in this regard.
I'm pretty certain that if she had an affair I'd leave her, but I don't know for sure, depends I suppose.
If I had it to do over again I wouldn't get married under the rules of the state for its none of their business, but I would set it up like a business contract with all of the details outlined.

Most people who get married have more liabilities than assets

It doesn't occur to them that they will have a net worth that is fighting over. Anyway, "love" aka raging hormones scrambles the brain.

Depends, a diploma can be

Depends, a diploma can be considered an asset.

Missing the point

Without getting into the morality of cheating or not (and whether it constitutes a business relationship) I think most of the people commenting on this blog, include the author missed a key point Bryan made:

"But what about human weakness? Here I take a hard line: Human weakness is a choice, and it should be criticized, not excused"

It's something I have noticed over that last forty years are ever increasing relativism and failure to hold people accountable for their failings, whether it's child rape (Michael Jackson, Roman Polanski, R. Kelly), cheating politicians, kids who suck at sports (everybody gets a trophy now, even the losers), or bankers defrauding their clients ..... I do not think the main point Bryan was trying to make was about contractual marriage law, it was that we should quit celebrating and excusing failure.

Cheating and jealously have been with us forever and it always will be .. whether it's over our neighbors spouse, house, land, car, etc etc ....... socialism / commune economics don't work (simply don't scale well) nor will it work in long term marital relationships. I think the vast majority of people enjoy the illusion of monogamy and don't like to imagine the mother of their children and the women you kiss in the morning was just sucking off some crack head in the ally last night minutes before you woke up nor (I can imagine) would my wife like to know my cock was in some random girls ass thirty minutes ago before she (my wife) blows me. I also have a difficult time with "Hey babe can you take the kids to the park, some guy is stopping by in ten minutes so I can blow him", my guess is most people would have just a big a problem as I would with this. If you don't want to live up to your marriage expectations then don't get married and if you are going to break them then do what people have been doing forever, don't make it obvious. We all know our spouses cheat on us and we accept that and pretend it doesn't happen; we simply don't like a cuckold. Spouses are all good at fooling themselves and always have been, don't be disrespectful of them by them give up the illusion.