The Economist's Apprentice

In which a little girl confronts the world and battles the anti-humans.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Case Against Domestic Equality

Few intellectuals lecture single people on how many hours a week they should clean their house. Nor do pundits prescribe a set number of children that couples should have. Strangely enough, many commentators do consider it very important that couples split domestic chores and child duties equally.

Many couples do not split household duties equally and in many cases both partners benefit from the option of unequal sharing. This is because a couple must agree on how much work to do and not just who does the work. Imagine that one of Lucy's two moms is a slob and the other is a neat freak. They have bought into the belief that partners need to share chores equally. The slob argues that time spent vacuuming is a waste. The neat freak wants to spend the entire weekend cleaning. If they are constrained to share the housework evenly, the outcome will more likely be that which the slovenly mom prefers. She has the greater bargaining power, since if cooperation breaks down, the result will be a low level of housework - which is what she would prefer anyway. Both people would likely benefit, if they could negotiate an unequal sharing, where the slob does a reasonable amount of housework, even if it isn't as much as much as the neat freak does.

This principle is especially important when thinking of childcare duties. Many if not most couples would disagree as to the number of children to have, if they had to split family duties equally. What if Lucy's more maternal mom really wanted another child and the other mother had only a slight preference to stop at one? If childcare duties needed to be shared equally, Lucy would never get a sibling. In the real world, couples do not have their activities prescribed for them by outsiders ignorant of their preferences. In all likelihood, the more maternal mom would get the additional child by implicitly agreeing to shoulder more than half of the childcare duties.


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