Judith Wallerstein, author of the benchmark study of the long-term effects of divorce on children, often points out with exasperation that the debate on no-fault divorce in the 1960s and '70s simply ignored the effects on children. Today, when we have the largest generation of divorced-upon children ever and the sad effects of no-fault are to be seen every day, it seems incredible that people could talk about marriage and divorce as if only the married couple mattered.
No-fault effectively privatized divorce. Today a couple can divorce for pretty much any reason and no reason. In fact, one person can just leave another and easily legalize it through divorce, and there is not much the other person can do about it. The children can do even less.
Today we are in the midst of a debate about whether we should privatize marriage the way we privatized divorce. The proponents of this view say that if marriage were just another contract that individuals could choose to make, then the whole messy debate about gay marriage, and the potential debate about polygamy, and a hundred other combinations, would disappear as a governmental issue. People could make contracts with whom they want, for how long they want, with whatever boring or kinky provisions they want.
A good example is the argument by Slate economist David Boaz helpfully titled "Privatize Marriage." This is an old argument, but the main points haven't changed lately. He makes the straightforward case that it would be more rational for the state to get out of the marriage business. Any bond you want to make, of any duration, in any combination and number, and with whatever internal division of power turns your crank should be just another contract. Not a word, not a hint of children. No suggestion that the reason the church, and then, under much prodding, the state got involved in regulating marriage in the first place was to protect children and women from abuse by the more powerful.
The arguments of economists are usually quite rational. But they sometimes miss some essential human factors. When thinking about any aspect of marriage, we have to think about the kids.