The idea of a “marriage market”

For those not familiar with the idea of a “marriage market”, consider the following quote from Gary Becker from his paper “A Theory of Marriage, Part 1” (emphasis own),

“Two simple principles form the heart of the analysis. The first is that, since marriage is practically always voluntary … the theory of preferences can be readily applied, and persons marrying can be assumed to expect to raise their utility level above what it would be were they to remain single. The second is that, since many men and many women compete as they seek mates, a market can be presumed to exist. Each person tries to find the best mate, subject to … market conditions” (p. 814)

The voluntary nature of marriage means marriage happens when there are mutual gains. So forming that relationship sounds a lot like trade. Moreover, because people compete for mates that suggests that individuals are competing with others on their side of the market to make those trades (like buyers raise bids against other buyers or sellers lower asks against other sellers). 

In short, we can think of the market for dating as a collection of men and women who compete to make trades (i.e. form relationships) that help them produce the benefits of a relationship. These trades happen in the context of a “market”. We can think of the price as the share of benefits of that relationship that accrue to women.

The notion of the a “marriage market” is conceptually useful because like the supply-and-demand model, the marriage market generates what economists call “comparative statics”. Comparative implies a before-and-after comparison. Statics implies a focus on static outcomes (as opposed to the process through which those outcomes happened). A standard comparative static using the supply-and-demand model would be, “How do improvements in technology impact the supply curve? How does that change the equilibrium price and number of transactions?”

So what are some comparative statics in marriage markets? How do female wages impact the number of marriages and the share of benefits that accrue to men? How do gender imbalances affect the number of marriages and share of benefits that accrue to men? How did the sexual revolution impact the number of marriages? And so on. This semester I will be writing about research and books related to each one of these topics on our blog.

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