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Contraception: A Prisoner's Dilemma?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 17, 2010

In an article entitled “Bitter Pill” in the November issue of First Things, economist Timothy Reichert deliberately uses the language and tools of modern social science to argue that contraception is socially damaging. He does this in the interest of providing a common ground for debate between those who tout contraception as a great social blessing and those—like the Catholic Church—who view it as a social curse. At one level, the article reveals (I suspect deliberately) how silly it is to rely on the tools of modern social science to analyze moral questions, because the slice of reality measured by such methods is in fact quite small. But on another level, the analysis—unlike contraception itself—is fruitful.

Reichert argues, with all the requisite graphs, charts and statistics, that in terms of economic theory there are two “markets” affected by contraception, the marriage market and the sex market (that is, the economic possibilities that exist when sex can be divorced from family life). In the absence of strong social morality, men are plentiful in both markets. Without contraception, women are scarce in the sex market, and men and women find themselves in roughly equal supply in the marriage market. The result is a strong feminine commitment to marriage (which engenders a stronger male commitment), through which families—including women as wives and mothers—prosper.

With contraception, however, women are able to place themselves in the sex market without participating in the marriage market, and so gain a competitive advantage. They may earn more money, engage more easily in professional life, enjoy greater attention, and so on. The result, however, is a weakening of the marriage market, and with it a decline in commitment to marriage by both men and women, an increase in divorce, and a decline in both security and family wealth. Because of the “poaching” made possible by contraception, the marriage market is in effectively over-fished, diminishing until it can scarcely support a sound social order. Paradoxically, as is now well-known, women are disproportionately impoverished by the results.

Reichert observes that this sort of behavior is a classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma. In theory, every woman knows that tremendous social benefits will accrue in the long run if the marriage market can be restored to health and prosperity, and that this can happen only if everyone plays by rules that are good for that market. In practice, however, the typical individual woman, knowing she cannot control the behavior of others, believes that she will be better off by poaching, by taking more than she is morally entitled to—an attitude which has always come far too easily to men. On the one hand, if most people play by the rules, cheating confers a great competitive advantage in the sex market. On the other, if most people don’t play by the rules, cheating is necessary just to remain competitive. So, in the absence of strong social morality and/or rigorous enforcement, huge numbers of people poach and cheat.

What makes this worth thinking about is the result: Largely due to the prevalence of contraception, social stability today mirrors the Greek economy. There is a whole lot of undeclared income on the side; this bankrupts the nation; in the long run, then, it can’t do anybody any good. Thus the practice of contraception undermines the very characteristics necessary for a successful social order. This isn’t the whole story of contraception, but it isn't negligible by any means. It’s the part that will get better only after the root problems are corrected at a more personal level. But perhaps an economic market analysis will help some people to see the personal light.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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