February 25, 2022
Brinig is a tremendous scholar of the family, and like the Becker quote I cited, her work on commitment comes in the context of the (pre) familial relationship. Read on, however, to see that Brinig is no Becker clone. She argues that the custom of giving engagement rings arose, in the United States, as a means of securing credible commitments after "breach of promise laws" were stricken from the books.
The diamond ring rapidly changed from a relatively obscure token of affection to what amounted to an American tradition. It is customary to explain such a shift in demand in terms of an increase in income, a change in relative prices, or a change in tastes. This assumes a stable legal setting that contracts are enforceable. But if the enforceability of a contract is problematic, what formerly was a relatively costly (hence unused) form of private ordering may become more viable (Kronman: 5). This paper looks at the change in America's demand for diamonds during the period 1930-1985, not as a Madison Avenue success story, but rather as a natural outgrowth of economic processes. The event beginning the movement toward diamond engagement rings was the abolition, with great fanfare, of a now relatively obscure cause of action called the "breach of promise to marry."
Doug Allen's laudatory paper discussing Brinig's contributions is instructive. Notably, he contrasts Brinig's approach to the family with Becker's:
A simple reading of this passage implies that Peg Brinig recommends abandoning the most fundamental idea in economics (maximization). However, her real meaning is that the family can only be understood within the context of wealth broadly understood. Merely considering the dollar values, theexplicit market goods, or other financial benefits produced by a family is inappropriate and misleading.
The Becker model, like most competitive models, does well explaining quantities, production, and prices, but Peg Brinig has never been too interested in these questions. Her interests lie in how the quantities (the children, the division of labor, etc.) or the prices (the shares of parenting time and household goods) of the family are organized and put together, and how they can be put together in a way that makes family members happy. The neoclassical model of Becker turns out to be literally useless in explaining any element of the organization of the household; that is, it is useless in understanding the institutions of “marriage” or the “family."
My kind of scholar.