Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Marriage: Cause and Effect?

David Cameron caused a stir recently by announcing tax breaks for some married couples. This might be just a PR gimmick for the party conference season of course, but is there any evidence that (quoting Jeremy Hunt) "marriage particularly helps to strengthen commitment in our society"?

They might be on stronger ground claiming that marriage is better for the next generation, as I believe there is evidence that children of married couples tend to do better at school. Even here though, I strongly suspect that the nature of the parents’ relationship is the key factor, rather than whether or not they are married (or even living together).

But Mr Cameron chose to promote marriage based on his own experience, and his relationship with his wife. Personally, I believe that every relationship is unique, and that generalising to suggest that marriage in itself creates "responsibility and stability that helps bind families" is speculative at best.

The underlying point is that correlation does not prove cause and effect. Even if married relationships are more stable than unmarried ones (which in itself needs proving in view of current divorce rates), this doesn't prove that it was the marriage that caused that stability. The chances of a relationship being stable and successful are surely far more dependent on the individuals involved than whether they choose to marry.

Misunderstanding cause and effect is a common error, and examples of it are plentiful. For example, a 1980s study in New York showed a strong correlation between ice cream sales and crime levels. So ice cream makes people more likely to commit crime? No, actually both are seasonal and higher in the summer months; they are otherwise completely unrelated.

So if marriage itself doesn't instil those ‘family values’ that Mr Cameron supports, what does? There are plenty of studies on different aspects of this, but overall it seems self-evident that factors such as financial security, opportunity, health and a supportive environment have a stronger impact than marital status.

If Mr Cameron really wants to strengthen commitment and stability in society, then he should look at the government's influence on these wider social factors, rather than trying to offer a cheap bribe.