Does theory support the paterfamilias?

8th November, 2008

I am a father of three teenagers and happily married for almost 20 years. In my opinion the secret to my success is a traditional one, which is that there is no doubt about who wears the trousers. I am wondering whether there is any support in economic theory for my view?
Harry R, Surrey

Dear Harry,

There is ample support in economic theory for your view – it is just a shame there is little support for it in practice. Economists have always tended to use a “household” model of decision-making, which treats domestic decisions as being made by one person – the kind of benign dictator with whom you, as paterfamilias, identify yourself. This had the chief virtue of simplicity.

Gary Becker, a Nobel laureate, then advocated treating the household as if it had more than one decision-maker. This helped to explain rococo details such as the existence of divorce lawyers.

Changes that increased the bargaining power of women, such as the introduction of “no fault” divorce, turned out to have the logical consequence that women became less likely to be physically abused by husbands. They also reduced the likelihood that couples would invest in each other – for example, by financially supporting one partner through a professional course.

The plot now thickens. The economist William T. Harbaugh, with colleagues, has discovered that children as young as 11 seem to make rational consumption choices as well as adults do. And a team including the economist Anyck Dauphin has demonstrated that British teenagers do influence household consumption, especially if they have access to their own income. The paterfamilias household is no more.

How, then, should we reconcile this with your own situation, which seems comfortably wedged in the 1950s? My guess is that your wife and children have decided that it suits them to maintain your delusions of control.

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